Consumer-grade VR, to an appreciable degree, is a technology that is still firmly in the technological equivalent of the wild, wild, west days of yore. While de facto standards are beginning to coalesce in areas such as mobility button mappings, there is still a great deal of experimentation going on in terms of content and usage. Much like previous emerging technologies from time immemorial, when the most common progression of content was a linear path from pornography to Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, and ultimately getting around to gaming, VR is still a broad, open area in which developers are free to experiment. The key is, of course, is making the best use of the unique qualities of immersion available in today’s technology. First person shooters? Yep. Motor sports? Yep, and quite successfully too. Flight sims? Oh, my. Yes!! They’re phenomenal. Education? Well, the jury is still out on that one.
Given that many types of gaming are natural fits in the VR world, one may sometimes wonder if games may be the only use for the 3D, full motion world offered by VR. Let’s jump back to the opening paragraph, although with a modicum of delicacy around the subject of video experiences. I’ll be honest: I mentioned porn in VR primarily to be humorous, but for all I know it might actually exist. If we genericize that example into entertainment/informative videos of all types, it is not difficult to imagine the benefit of immersive 3D technology when it comes to both educational films and movies designed to entertain. With the stipulation that current VR video fidelity will need to make great strides before the technology will be able to represent small, detailed objects well enough to teach, say, brain surgery, larger objects can be delivered in enough detail to be compelling with today’s consumer-grade technology.
As a case in point, consider The First Class VR, a VR-based kinda/sorta documentary concerned with the history of aviation. This is an interesting selection in that the early days of aviation were also a period of figuring out what a brand new technology could be used for. It took WWI to answer that question. Hopefully VR will gain mass appeal without such an extreme cost.
The First Class VR is described as “a mind-blowing photorealistic journey Into the history of human aviation.”
They’ve given themselves a very big pair of shoes to fill with that level of hyperbole, and I’m afraid I have to say that they did not quite manage to do it, even with the full understanding that this title is an “experience,” not a game. I am in no way saying that there is no room in the VR world for non-interactive entertainment, mind you; the precise opposite is far more likely to be true. It is really just a matter of time until we experience Jar Jar Binks in a fully immersive and even more nauseating 3D “reality.” And if we’re lucky, maybe we will also get to experience a missile run down through a convenient trench in a Death Star.
In the case of First Class, we are closer to Jar Jar than we are to Luke Skywalker.
The experience starts with a screen that allows us to choose our language of choice and whether we will be sitting or standing. With regards to language choice, I would suggest clicking on English despite the fact that it is presented as being the default. In my two passes through the experience, I had to restart both times because it came up in Chinese despite the menu saying English. It’s only a safety click - just do it.
The sitting versus standing selection is far more critical and rife with danger. I made the mistake of honestly answering that I would be seated. This is the closest I have ever come to being violently ill in a VR setting. The problem was caused by this experience being a ‘full room’ title that has been shoved into a seated world. In a full room situation, you would typically be standing and free to turn around to look at things. When seated, that is far more difficult. In an attempt to make it easier for the viewer to follow the action, the camera pans to follow the action so you don’t have to. I don’t know if this is the cardinal sin of VR design, but if it isn’t yet, it really needs to be. You couldn’t do better than panning the camera if you were trying to cause nausea in the viewer. I immediately went back to change my setting to standing. Once I restarted yet again to force the language choice to English, I was able to proceed with the experience.
Because this is not a game and rates very low when it comes to replayability, one of the main purposes of owning something like First Class is to have something to show to people that haven’t experienced VR at all. It has been my experience with demonstrating the tech to others that they become so overwhelmed by the immersion that they have trouble concentrating on learning the controls/game. This is what makes something like Robo Recall a great way to start - there is a lengthy tutorial that teaches them what to do. I don’t always have the time or inclination to sit around while they work through that, so I reserve Robo for people that will overreact in extremely entertaining ways when a robot gets up in their face. For the rest of them, I have them wear the headset while I fly them around in something fancy like Aerofly FS2. First Class is a little bit easier than that, although it does require some interaction from the user, and the actions are not intuitive. It even took me awhile to get the hang of it.
All of that would pale in comparison to an informative and intriguing presentation of the history of aviation, but sadly that is not what you get. Once you get through the inane introductory makework, you will experience a 15 minute muddle of random animations. If you ignore a brief appearance of Icarus spontaneously combusting, the tour starts with the Wright Flyer. That’s certainly an acceptable beginning, but this is where the massive disjoin between aircraft model and its environment comes in. Rather than placing the Wright’s biplane on a seaside sand bank or a pasture outside of Dayton, Ohio, it is shown flying through what I believe to be the cargo bay of a massive space ship. This stark difference between the object of interest and its contemporaneous environment continues throughout the remainder of the presentation.
The aircraft renderings themselves are of high enough quality that I was able to identify each of them as they flew by. The history of aviation is presented pretty much as it happened: it starts with military usage with a DR-1 Triplane (think Red Baron) and a Sopwith Camel flying around fighting each other. The Hindenburg makes an appearance, as do various fighters such as the American P-40, F-15, and F-22. The B-17 makes a dual appearance, first as a bomber of destruction, and then as a humanitarian source of food supplies during the Berlin Airlift. Note that the airplanes are not identified at the time they are experienced.
After a handful of airplanes, we are shown a litany of rockets. Those were identified as we flew past them in our Blackhawk helicopter. As an aside, choosing Standing mode had the deleterious side effect of making it very nearly impossible to put a helmet on as demanded by the crew chief of the chopper. I did manage to get it done, though, so it is probably a good tradeoff to have a little difficulty with some of the interactivity if it means avoiding motion sickness.
The tour ends at a museum of sorts where you can teleport (once you figure out how) to each aircraft or rocket to get a closer look. Each has an information board that provides a smidgen of background as to what you’re looking at. This is a Chinese developed story, so the English translations are far from perfect, but if you’re satisfied with getting just the most salient facts in a slightly confusing way, it will suffice.
I fully believe that there is a place for VR “experiences” in what is going to blossom into a completely different means of storytelling and education. I cannot, however, recommend The First Class VR as a good entry into this kind of entertainment. The knowledge imparted is facile, the interactivity is difficult, and the very last thing you want to do when introducing family and friends to this new environment is to make them sick. As currently designed, The First Class is highly likely to do just that.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
I've been fascinated with video games and computers for as long as I can remember. It was always a treat to get dragged to the mall with my parents because I'd get to play for a few minutes on the Atari 2600. I partially blame Asteroids, the crack cocaine of arcade games, for my low GPA in college which eventually led me to temporarily ditch academics and join the USAF to "see the world." The rest of the blame goes to my passion for all things aviation, and the opportunity to work on work on the truly awesome SR-71 Blackbird sealed the deal.
My first computer was a TRS-80 Model 1 that I bought in 1977 when they first came out. At that time you had to order them through a Radio Shack store - Tandy didn't think they'd sell enough to justify stocking them in the retail stores. My favorite game then was the SubLogic Flight Simulator, which was the great Grandaddy of the Microsoft flight sims.
While I was in the military, I bought a Commodore 64. From there I moved on up through the PC line, always buying just enough machine to support the latest version of the flight sims. I never really paid much attention to consoles until the Dreamcast came out. I now have an Xbox for my console games, and a 1ghz Celeron with a GeForce4 for graphics. Being married and having a very expensive toy (my airplane) means I don't get to spend a lot of money on the lastest/greatest PC and console hardware.
My interests these days are primarily auto racing and flying sims on the PC. I'm too old and slow to do well at the FPS twitchers or fighting games, but I do enjoy online Rainbow 6 or the like now and then, although I had to give up Americas Army due to my complete inability to discern friend from foe. I have the Xbox mostly to play games with my daughter and for the sports games.