As I donned the rather hefty Head Mounted Display (HMD) for the first time, I was half expecting to be whisked away to a minimalistic dojo where Laurence Fishbourne would slowly convince me that the world I had always known was an illusion.
That did not happen, and in fact there are a few little annoyances about using a Meta Quest 2 HMD to remind you that you are not in fact a lightsaber wielding Jedi. Getting the right level of tension on head straps is one challenge. Tight enough to block out the light that creeps through the nose hole, but slack enough to avoid completely crushing your cheekbones. Also, you’ll need a physical space at least a few meters squared (with no furniture) if you want to wield your virtual lightsabers without without destroying real world objects with your flailing arms. Indeed, the first order of business having put on the HMD is to set up your “Guardian” – a virtual boundary that reflects the limits of the physical space you are in, and is visible during gameplay as a futuristic neon mesh. However, I also recommend having a trusted friend or family member to act as a human guardian to ensure you don’t inadvertently walk into a table and bruise your shins. One of the handy features of the Meta Quest 2 HMD is the “passthrough” feature which allows you to see the real physical world at the same time as experiencing the virtual one. But for most games and apps, you’ll want full immersion to really appreciate the experience.
The first app you should try is appropriately called “First Steps”, and it is included with the Meta Quest 2 (MQ2). This app walks you through all of the buttons on the two hand-held controllers. The controllers also double as your VR hands, and provide you with the ability to pick things up and throw them around, and also give thumbs up and thumbs down (kudos to the Meta company for finally allowing a thumbs down reaction!). The first experience of the First Steps app is one of the most memorable, impactful, and engaging. It will make you laugh out loud at the pure peculiarity of being able to pick up and stack virtual blocks, knock them over with a virtual paper airplane, and then pilot a virtual airship with a virtual controller. Yes, in some games you are given a virtual controller that you control with your actual controller. It’s a little confusing but also a stroke of genius.
There are also a few other freebies included with the MQ2. Some VR TV programs that offer experiences like being an astronaut on the International Space Station, and some virtual animations that make you feel part of the action. In some of the VR TV programs, when the narrator looks directly at you, it is a very disconcerting experience indeed. It puts you well and truly in the uncanny valley. While one part of your brain is doing its best to remind you that it’s all VR, the social anxiety inducing part often remains unconvinced and it is bizarre having someone sit so close to you and look directly at you when they talk to you.
My MQ2 purchase also included Beat Saber, which I suppose is to the MQ2 as Sonic was to the Mega Drive or Street Fighter was to the Super Nintendo, i.e. the game that comes with the console and the one everyone plays first. Beat Saber is a VR version of one of those mobile games where you tap colored blocks to the time of a dance track. It makes you feel less like a Jedi and more like a baton-wielding cheerleader. In fact, I have a strong suspicion that those with a background in dance would actually be very good at the game, requiring as it does coordinated and formulaic movements to the time of music. One thing I can say for sure about the MQ2 — it’s an excellent riposte to those who (rightly) harp on about video games being one of the causes of obesity in the modern age. Most of the games I have played so far on the MQ2 require a lot of physical movement (especially with the arms) to slice, climb, or shoot your way to the end of the level.
One of the things you’ll definitely want to set up early on is “Casting”, which enables you to see what the MQ2 user is seeing in Virtual Reality on your phone or computer screen. You can pair your MQ2 device with your smartphone via the Meta app. Doing this also allows you to open MQ2 apps from your smartphone, which is really useful if you are guiding someone else through the device for the first time. It’s also incredibly entertaining to watch someone else jerking their arms around in VR at the same time as seeing what’s happening within VR. At least, those jerking movements make a little bit more sense with context.
After you have exhausted all the freebies (or the freebies have exhausted you), you can fire up the MQ2 App Store, and get ready to input in your credit card details (in case you could ever forget that the MQ2 was developed by a profit seeking enterprise). Since it’s hard to read your credit card number whilst fully immersed in VR, this step can also be done via the Meta smartphone app. Most of the paid-for apps for the MQ2 retail for between ¥500 to ¥5000, and while there are currently far fewer apps than there are in the iOS store for example, I can only see this number increasing in the future. Apps and games cover a range of different categories, from simulations such as fishing and cooking, to brand name shooters such as Medal of Honor. Among the games I purchased were a climbing game aptly named The Climb, and a flying game named Ultrawings. The Climb has breathtaking graphics, and is not for those who suffer from vertigo. Ultrawings, on the other hand, gave me nausea almost instantly. I have since discovered that any game that requires the character to move around is nausea inducing for me, whether flying or walking, my brain just does not like the feeling of being told it is moving when it knows it is physically stationary. Other physical side effects also include eyestrain, which sets in for me after 30 mins or so.
All in all, I would say that my initial experience with the MQ2 was breathtaking and astounding, while also at times being disorienting and nauseating. I have no doubt that the MQ2 has educational applications that go beyond pure entertainment. As of now, I have not tried any applications that allow interaction with other MQ2 users, but I imagine it will be these interactions that will provide the basis for language learning opportunities. In addition, you could definitely have students write or speak about their experiences with the VR world: “I was a Jedi knight.. I went climbing in the Grand Canyon… I battled German soldiers”. It will certainly lead to more interesting speaking and writing assignments than the oft repeated “nothing special”.