Don't mind if I do: How do you feel when you get carried off by a large pterodactyl? Nick Pemberton found it all too real for his liking. Well, virtually
Thursday 26 May 1994
We're all familiar with the engagingly loopy claims for VR. But what is it like? I found my way to the Virtual Reality Room of Birmingham's Arcadian Centre to find out.
The VR room is not a room at all but a machine. The 'room' exists in another dimension. Wherever my senses might find themselves, the rest of me would be stuck between the pool table and the aero hockey.
The TV monitor showed a long-range view of the world within: three interconnected platforms covered in pillars and floating in space. A hoop was lowered to encircle me, a pack strapped round my waist and a gun put in my hand. I looked at the monitor again as the attendant explained how the game worked. On the space platform, my opponent waited.
The attendant picked up a helmet that appeared to be the size and shape of a four-man bobsleigh and asked if I had any questions. I asked why the machine was called Dactyl Nightmare. 'Because when you're out of ammunition a giant pterodactyl comes down and grabs you,' she replied.
She lowered the helmet and tightened the straps. I felt a sudden panic, then realised I was being carried down through space towards the platform I'd seen on the monitor.
Moments later, I'd been left there. I pressed the button that substitutes for walking and looked around. Wherever it existed - in my head, in the helmet, in a software programme or somewhere else - this was an eerie and isolated place.
Then I heard footsteps and a skinny bloke - half cartoon, half computer animation - let off a shot and loped off. I pressed down the walking button and ran into a pillar. Outside the helmet I faintly heard myself grunting and swearing whilst the action inside was accompanied by a cheap sci-fi soundtrack of screeches, gunshots and ghostly laughter.
I peered over the edge of the platform. Deep blue infinity stretched below me. My mind knew it wasn't real, but my stomach didn't. I heard footsteps behind me, turned and fired. The shot took a chunk out of a column. I wondered whether the rest of the arcade was watching my display on the monitor and laughing at me or, worse still, picking my pockets.
Then suddenly my opponent was so close that his face was hardly a face at all. He fired and the inside of my helmet turned white. Disembodied bits of the virtual me floated past. I was dead and I hated it.
My second life was a little more successful. I managed to corner my opponent. I squeezed the trigger but nothing happened. He ran at me, firing. The seconds flickered away on my visor clock. Then a big green pterodactyl swooped down and grabbed me in its claws. As it did so, another one sheared off the skinny guy's head.
The attendant, who during my five-minute absence had changed into a bespectacled bloke, offered his commiserations for my pitiful score, but I wasn't listening. I was thinking of my feelings when the helmet had first gone onto my head. I hadn't felt liberated. I had felt blind and helpless.
I hurried out into the street. A bloke with a graze on his forehead and a can of lager in his hand thrust himself into my space and asked me if I'd shake hands with a drunk. My skin briefly interfaced with his, then I fled back to the arcade.
Gameworks, the Arcadian, Hirst St, Birmingham (021-622 1314)
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