rAge Expo 2018 is one of my favourite events of the year – here, the lines between work and play are blurry, writes Frew Murdoch. As a journalist first and a gaming enthusiast second – (or is that the other way around?), the rAge Expo feeds my passions.
rAge Expo is South Africa’s largest annual computer, technology and gaming exhibition, and encourages anyone with a bit of a geek streak to fly their geek flag proudly!
This year, I represented Gadget-Gal.com, and could experience the expo for a few days. With the Friday being a bit quieter, it provided the best opportunity to get hands on with the latest games, gadgets and technology. After a lengthy loop of the expo and all the demonstrations available, I decided to explore the Virtual Reality (VR) demos on offer. I couldn’t wait to get stuck in and experience the PlayStation console-based VR and HTC Vive PC-based VR demonstrations for myself.
The PlayStation game demos available for players included the Spiderman game and FIFA 2019 but placed at four separate points were the PlayStation VR stations. Each VR offered a different gaming experience, such as a first-person shooter game, a light puzzle game and an adventure platform game. After checking out the different options, I had to try the platform game. This choice was not determined by my lack of skill at puzzles or of being petrified of having spider-like creatures rushing at me in the first-person shooter game. Not at all…
The friendly PlayStation representative explained the game to me. I was going to play Astro Bot Rescue Mission, where I would take control of a little astronaut, Astro, and run him around several moving platforms and great scenery while beating up little purple, bubble-like villains, collecting coins, and rescuing his little astronaut buddies. After a quick brief on how to attack, jump and fly, she lowered the headset over my head and I was in.
I tried out the basic moves with my little guy. Luckily, I’m familiar with a PS4 remote control so testing out and getting used to the moves was quite simple. What took me a little while to master was moving my head around in order to see more of the virtual environment. I kept running Astro off screen and spending a few seconds going, “Huh?”, before realising I could turn my head to see him and run him through more obstacles. Asides from my “operator malfunction”, the VR headset was incredibly immersive, comfortable to wear and the headphones played the game music, which sucked me even deeper into the game world. I couldn’t hear any of the real world distractions. I felt I was in the game and enjoyed maneuvering little Astro around the demo course. I would have loved to have played more levels.
The demo wasn’t a first-person view. I sat during the game demo with the headset over my eyes and the PS4 controller in hands watching Astro as I ran and flew him around the constructed world. I would imagine for a person who isn’t used to a PlayStation remote, it may take a bit more time to familiarise yourself with the control and the moves as you can’t see what your hands are doing while the headset is on. You rely on feel to maneuver Astro around the virtual world so a bit of trial and error would help any PlayStation newbies get the feel for this game. Although the game demo did not provide for full-body movement, it was still a fun, thrilling and immersive experience.
Vive Virtual Reality
In contrast, the Vive Virtual Reality demo set up was far more movement-oriented. Vive set up a white “game cube”, a stand which was outlined with a 3D white frame. Inside the white frame was a carpeted area on which gamers could move while using the VR headset and hand control. On the inside-top of the white frame were two motion sensors.
I watched a few players try out the VR before me. The aim of this game was to walk the plank in first person view and experience a reality thousands of metres up in the air above a cityscape. This, quite frankly, filled me with trepidation as I’m petrified of heights, but, in the name of journalism, I strode forward into the cube.
The rep put the headset on me and asked me to walk into a lift behind me. I could hear him and the real world sounds of the rAge Expo quite clearly, which took away from the immersion potential of the demo. However, I turned, in the real world and in the virtual world, and walked into the lift. I then used my comfortable hand-held 360-degree controller to tap the lift button that said “plank”. The lift took me up what seemed to be many floors and I could see the blurs of the world outside through a small crack in the lift.
The lift stopped and as it opened, I saw a vast number of skyscrapers and a glorious city view. Just in front of the lift door was a thin plank, which I was told to walk onto and edge my way across, with nothing but a huge drop below me. I walked onto the plank and looked around the beautiful city view. The Vive rep then told me to jump off the plank. I stepped off the plank and fell, seeing the virtual world slip by my eyes as the ground got closer and closer. I hit the ground and then the Vive rep removed my headset. The graphics were incredible.
Although the scenery, full-body movement and effects were amazing, it didn’t feel as real as I hoped. I noticed a distinct lack of fear or physiological responses to the “falling” experience. I expected to feel the sort-of feeling you would get when you bungee jump or sky dive. This wasn’t the case. This may have been because of the sounds I could hear coming from the real world that kept me from immersing myself properly into what I was seeing and experiencing. That said, the design of the city and look of the demo was quite realistic.
So, which virtual reality demo was the real deal?
Honestly, this all comes down to preference. PlayStation’s virtual reality demo ticked all the boxes for me because I’m a huge fan of adventure platform games, I’m comfortable with PlayStation hardware, and like to be sitting comfortable as I direct a mini-astronaut around an epic land of cute pink-bubble villains. I loved the music, the controls, the feel and look of the headset, and the fact that I knew I was in a constructed animated world. For me, gaming is about being in a fantasy world, a new world, another reality, not being in another version of our reality.
Vive’s HTC VR headset proved to be more “realistic” in terms of the cityscape it presented and had better graphics, but I felt the demo was quite simplistic. Compared to the PlayStation demo, very little actually happened asides from walking onto a plank and then falling off of it. Yes, the virtual world at a height was presented beautifully, but it left much to be desired in terms of action, fantasy and fun. The Vive headset also proved to be heavier and not as aesthetically pleasing as the PlayStation headset.
It’s important to note that these were two isolated demos that were chosen to be presented at rAge Expo 2018. Both VR headsets provide a number of different games, aims and scenarios, which play to different strengths, weaknesses and preferences. My impression, based from the demos I experienced, is that if you’re looking for a virtual reality experience that incorporates full-body movement, great motion-tracking and realistic graphics, Vive is the brand to look at, but if you’re looking for fun and escapism, Playstation is the way to go!
By Frew Murdoch