The world’s gone neon. You look up: a mint green sky. You look left: piles of orange boxes. Dead ahead: a giant red robot. This is Wayward Sky, one of the virtual reality (VR) games on display at last weekend’s PAX West. Expect your kids to fall in love, if they haven’t already.
For those who (rightly) avoided downtown Seattle over Labor Day weekend, you may not have heard of PAX. Founded in 2004 by online behemoth Penny Arcade, PAX started as a smallish 4,500-person event hosted in Bellevue to showcase the latest in gaming. Twelve years later, it’s global, with PAX events in Boston (April 2016), Australia (November 2016), Texas (January 2017) and, as of last weekend, Seattle.
I saw a lot of cool things at PAX — a full-scale model of a T. rex, a 10-foot long Lego replica of the USS Missouri, a woman breastfeeding while walking around with fairy wings on — but the coolest thing by far was VR. In its simplest explanation, VR is computer technology that uses software to create different effects — images, sounds, vibrations — to make a fake world seem real. Think of it like video games on steroids.
I didn’t know what to expect as I made my reservation at the PlayStation VR booth. The murmurs I’d heard from another marquee VR event — Resident Evil 7’s notorious “kitchen demo” — didn’t inspire much confidence in this self-described scaredy-cat. “It’s like you’re really there with the zombie!” I overheard. “Did you see that dude’s head roll around the corner?!”
Thankfully, Wayward Sky wasn’t like that. The game was one of several you could try at PAX that is tied to PlayStation’s much-anticipated VR system, which comes out next month and is one of the many such VR gaming options on the horizon.
After waiting in line for 20 minutes (quick, by PAX standards), I was ushered into a small open-walled cubicle with a folding chair and a TV screen. The screen was more for the PlayStation rep standing to the left of the chair; I wouldn’t see it once I put on the headset.
I explained my newbie status to the rep, who would serve as my guide on this wild and crazy adventure. Upon seeing my media pass and learning I worked for a parenting magazine, he promptly told me how much his kids like VR. His 10-year-old son had, in fact, recently played an underwater game that had him gazing at reefs and swimming with fish. “He loved it,” the guide said as he handed me my VR headset.
Soon, I got why. You think you’d know you’re just playing a game (the headset, after all, looks like an overblown ski mask) but you lose yourself — fast. Between the studio-quality headphones and the full-cover eye gear, which isn’t as heavy as it looks, you’re quickly immersed in whatever world you find yourself in.
For the folks out there who can barely keep up with the latest iPhone release, take note: Your kid will be wanting VR and wanting it soon.
My world starred Bess, the Amelia Earhart-like heroine of Wayward Sky who crashes into a mysterious fortress in the clouds while out flying with her father. During the brief demo, I toggled between hovering above Bess and “becoming” her, using free-floating gloved hands to do everything from screw in lightbulbs to rewire circuits. I solved puzzles, navigated mazes and chatted up giant robots. I was sad to see my seven minutes end.
Expect it on gifts lists soon
For the techies in the audience, I wouldn’t blame you if you’re rolling your eyes at my “um guys, have you heard of this?!” tone; VR isn’t exactly breaking news. But for the folks out there who can barely keep up with the latest iPhone release, take note: Your kid will be wanting VR and wanting it soon. In fact, if you were one of the many who scrambled for Google Cardboard earlier this year, you may already have it (if a slightly less high-tech option than what I tried at PAX).
Should you be concerned at just how immersive VR is? Yes, perhaps, but let’s, for a moment, put our (very valid) concerns about screen time on hold and consider the possibilities. Thanks to VR, a 10-year-old boy explored the ocean. He saw with his own eyes and “felt” with his own hands a world beyond his own, an immersive experience that is one part terrifying, one part breathtaking.
If Pokémon Go and its augmented reality taught us anything, it’s that there’s a hunger for this kind of thing and the hungriest people are kids. Of course, VR isn’t anywhere close to being as accessible and affordable as Pokémon Go. The PlayStation VR headset costs a cool $399 plus PS4 (an additional $300), if you don’t already have one. Price tag, however, won’t stop kids (and this reporter) from lusting after one.
If you go…
Tickets for PAX are infamously hard to come by. PAX West 2017 isn’t open yet but keep an eye on this site for details.
This is a family-friendly event though not all exhibits are open to all ages (the PlayStation VR booth, for example, only allowed demos for ages 12 and up). Also, note that some of the costumes people wear to PAX can be sexy or scary. Plan accordingly.