We jumped in a VR spacecraft with real copilots and found the social side of VR

You would think I would have seen the best of what virtual reality currently has to offer after a 30-minute demo with the highly-appraised HTC Vive — I was wrong.

I’m not knocking HTC’s headset — the Vive was probably the best 30 minutes I spent at this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. I stood underwater on a shipwrecked boat and watched, in awe, as a massive blue whale approached me; I made 3-D artwork and walked around it, adding more from all angles; and I fired back and destroyed dozens of flying robots, wave after wave, in a thrilling shooter.

I was alone in my own little world, battling, painting, and exploring — it was incredibly fun, and then I tried a collaborative VR mini-game.

It was truly an awe-inspiring experience. But it was a very singular one. I was alone in my own little world, battling, painting, and exploring — until I tried a collaborative VR mini-game. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers built a multiplayer virtual-reality game to showcase the social possibilities of VR at MWC 2016, and I got to play it.

After taking one of three seats that resembled something you’d find in a futuristic spaceship, a representative placed the Oculus Rift on my head, and a pair of headphones with a mic. I waited for two others to join me as I gazed around the cockpit of the ship, and the beautiful Red Planet rotating in front of me. A piping-hot coffee mug sat to my right, with a bobble-head figure next to it. I could interact with three screens on my left, right and center, which all had options to repair the ship, engage thruster speeds, and more. The visuals were decent in the game — not the same the outstanding quality of the HTC Vive demos I’ve tried, but it didn’t put me off or lessen my experience. Unlike Job Simulator, this is just a demo to showcase one aspect of VR tech, not a game coming to market.

VR-Mars-Rover-2
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

I felt quite alone, until someone joined me on the comms — it was the captain. He asked if I was experiencing everything fine, and told me my journey would be on the way soon.

Not too long later, two other players hopped in their stations and signaled “ready.” I could see them seated to my side in a rover –and peering back at me from their seats. The game began.

But it was engaging and fun, and it was gratifying seeing the words “success” at the end, knowing that we completed the objective together.

Our objective was to manage our ship as we traversed Mars’ landscape. Each pilot received an instruction in the center of their screen that they would have to call out on their comms, signaling their team member with the tool to complete the task. For example, a copilot called out something along the lines of “engage thrusters to 3,” and since I was the one with the capability to do it on my right-hand screen, I looked at the setting and hit the trigger to activate it. Each order had a countdown timer.

The whole “ride” was a short, thrilling experience that consisted of my teammates and I calling out orders and completing them. Unfortunately, we were so focused on our controls that I couldn’t make much of an effort to take a look at the Red Planet I was gliding through. Failing to complete one of the tasks didn’t feel like much of a threat, either; I certainly did at least once or twice to no effect.

But it was engaging and fun, and it was gratifying seeing the words “success” at the end, knowing that we completed the objective together. It’s why people enjoy multiplayer games. We’re social creatures, and these titles let us interact with similar minds without necessarily having to be in the same room.

As soon as I popped off my headphones and Oculus Rift, I started imagining all the possibilities of having virtual-reality cafes, similar to LAN cafes, offering multiplayer games you could play with your friends. This technology could even allow workers to collaborate remotely in virtual worlds, then bring their solutions back to reality.

I felt properly enclosed in a spaceship, floating above Mars, but unlike so many other of my VR adventures, I wasn’t alone. I sensed that I had copilots to share my adventure with — and that felt phenomenal.

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