I got shot in the back at the Game Developers Conference

Virtual reality is becoming a bit more real — and its effects can bring either pleasure or pain.

Strapped into a tight-fitting simulation vest and donning a VR headset at the recent Game Developers Conference, I was first lulled with delicate hugs and touches. Then, suddenly, I was struck with imitation dagger wounds and gunshots as I tried to shoot down drones in a wild west-like atmosphere.

I expected each hit would be like a foam dart shot from a Nerf gun. Instead it felt like I was getting pelted with paintballs.

“Until now (with VR), you had an avatar and that’s about it. Now you can actually be part of the game because you add the sense of touch,” said Sheyna Garicano, communications director for Spanish startup Owo Games. “The sense of touch only exists in reality, and now we’re adding it to the virtual world.”

The effect all depends on the company’s $450 “haptic” vest, which places 10 gel patches on top of a person’s torso, back and arms. These patches contain high conductivity electrodes that send electrical impulses to the user’s muscles, causing them to contract. The experience is akin to electro muscle stimulation, a technology CEO Jose Fuertes Peña wanted to apply to video games.

Haptic technology applies forces, vibrations and motions to the user. It can already be found in devices such as smartphones, where buzzes help users differentiate between phone calls and text messages.

The technology is fairly new to gaming and is actively being marketed as the latest way to enhance the next generation of games. The vest is also being catered to residents of the metaverse so they can fully embody their virtual avatars.

“There’s no point of actually having an avatar and interacting physically if you can’t feel anything,” Garicano said.

An accompanying mobile app lets users customize the intensity of these sensations and decide on which parts of their body they want to be affected by their gameplay.

In order for your body to properly experience these haptics, the vest must be worn directly on your skin. A booth worker led me to a fitting room where I was instructed to take off my shirt. I got zipped up and had a battery pack placed in my vest’s pocket. The ordeal felt like an imitation of the dressing room scene in “White Chicks” where the character Karen tries getting Marcus to fit in a pair of leather pants. My vest was then calibrated through the app to determine how much my upper body would experience the haptic impulses.

As a worker’s thumb furiously tapped his screen, I signed off on whether the highly-touted sensations were realistic enough for my liking. My body’s sudden jolts and twitches indicated that the immersive experience was working as intended.

With my setup complete, I got acquainted with a VR headset. Coupled with the vest, I felt like I was existing in two realities at once. While I wanted to experience VR gaming, I also did not want to bump into unsuspecting bystanders.

One thing I quickly learned was that if I ever get into a predicament that relies on expert gunslinging, I am a goner. For every virtual drone that I shot out of the sky, five more drilled me in the back and my vest was quick to simulate the effects of these attacks.

Under normal circumstances, I would mutter profanities at my screen, but this was virtual reality and I had more confusion and adrenaline in my body than frustration.

Should anyone look through the Moscone Center’s security camera footage, you are sure to find me spinning in circles, trying to find which area my assailants were coming from.

Though I am from Texas, the sharpshooter in me was nowhere to be found. The headset’s screen faded to black and white, indicating that I lost the game. When asked if I wanted to go another round, I eagerly said yes but still lost my next battle against the machine.

As the GDC concluded, I learned that over 200 people tested Owo Games’ haptic vest. While I might not be part of the demographic who will shell out a third of my rent for this product, it was exciting to experience gaming in a new way.

Haptics are the new frontier in gaming and their integration allows developers to expand on our understanding of what it means to be part of virtual worlds. The next generation of games will be about more than simply picking up a controller as companies aim to seamlessly digitize our real-world interactions and blur the lines between where the physical world ends and where the digital world begins.

jsalazar@sfexaminer.com

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