The first time I experienced virtual reality, I was living in Tokyo in the 1990s and the technology was seen by the consumer electronics industry as the Next Big Thing.
I recall the headset at the time being big and heavy, and I clearly remember nearly upchucking all over the floor of a corporate R&D facility as my tour of the virtual world quickly became an express train to motion sickness.
So it was with more than a little trepidation that I accepted an offer from the nice people at Sling TV to test their streaming video service on an Oculus Go headset. Oculus VR is the virtual reality trendsetter acquired by Facebook for $2 billion in 2014.
Sling and Oculus have a promotion until the end of the month in which you can get an $80 credit toward your Sling subscription if you buy an Oculus Go.
Cutting to the chase, virtual reality is still little more than a novelty, but the technology has improved sufficiently and the price has come down enough to make it a toy many cord cutters might want to play with.
First, this isn’t your grandfather’s VR. The Oculus Go is surprisingly lightweight and comfortable, with fluffy padding around the eyes and a rubber insert that makes the gear compatible with glasses.
The speakers are cleverly stashed in the plastic arms that connect to the head straps, so you don’t need extra earphones or buds. You control the virtual environment with a small remote that stays in your hand.
The Oculus Go lets you download many popular apps, so your video streaming isn’t limited to Sling — Netflix is doable, as is Hulu, YouTube and others. I stuck mainly to Sling because I’m a subscriber and because, well, they sent me the gadget.
Let’s get right to it: The VR picture is nowhere close to the sharp quality of your typical high-definition TV. But it’s not so fuzzy that you keep getting pulled out of the moment. It’s good enough.
The experience was better for me watching a black-and-white film on TCM, in this case Marlon Brando method-acting his way through “A Streetcar Named Desire” (Stella!).
The inferior-to-TV picture quality was more apparent when I next watched the full-color, special-effects-festooned “Deep Rising,” which it must be said is one of the better scary-sea-monster movies available.
While there are undoubtedly VR apps available that provide a “Matrix”-like sense of wandering a digital landscape, this isn’t that. It’s more like sitting in the front row of a movie theater.
It’s an immersive experience that creates the illusion of a panoramic screen for streaming video content. You can position the virtual screen to suit whatever position you may be in. I did all my watching while lying on the couch, the headset aimed up toward the ceiling.
After a while, though, you start noticing little things, like the distracting slivers of light around the base of your nose because of the way the headset is constructed. You also become aware of the weight of the device, which rests largely on your cheekbones.
My biggest quibble is the relative difficulty of navigating the virtual controls with the VR point-and-click remote. This is where you start to miss the ease of your standard TV remote.
Maybe this will be solved when the gear goes full “Ready Player One” and you interact with your surroundings via a glove controller. For the time being, color me frustrated.
My son was braver than I was. He tested an app that simulates riding roller coasters. For the first few minutes he grinned and leaned this way and that while sitting on the couch. Then he tore the headset from his face and announced, “I feel sick!”
I found that I missed the little things, such as being able to glance at my watch or check out my phone every time Brando’s acting became insufferable (Stella!). The headset locks you into the virtual space. It’s all or nothing.
That said, it’s not hard to see how the experience can be improved. Aside from easier navigation, it would be cool if you could combine apps in your viewing field — to be able to watch the Oscars, say, while keeping an eye on your Twitter feed.
The Oculus Go sells for $200, which is about half the price of its more sophisticated, PC-based sibling, the Oculus Rift. The purportedly even cooler Oculus Quest is expected to be launched this spring.
Is VR alone a good reason to cut the cable cord? No. At least not yet.
But is it something fun to play with from time to time? Yes, absolutely.
“Ben-Hur” is currently available on TCM, which you can access via Sling. Who’s up for a chariot race?