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I saw something horrible and wrong in VR

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And I don't want to go back

BigScreen Beta

Warning: this post includes graphic content.

I went over to a friend's house the other day to have some quality time in his Oculus Rift. He has a nice apartment, and instead of hiding the Oculus away in a bedroom, he's devised a setup where you can sit at the kitchen table in his brightly lit living room. It's nice; it makes VR feel a little more "social" and a little less "man cave."

We started with Dreamscape, the official collection of short, passive VR experiences Oculus provides, which was great. I hadn't seen all these tech demos before. They were fun, although not quite mind-melting. It was gentle way to start an afternoon of VR.

"Oh, you have to try this."

A lot of my VR experiences so far have been "piloted." I don't own a system, and for a long while I couldn't own a system, so typically a press representative, a game developer, or an engineer would hand me a headset and I'd experience whatever they wanted me to experience. Now my VR times are mediated by friends and co-workers, which is way better. They have a better understanding of what I'm trying to feel when I put on a headset.

But I wasn't ready to feel this.

My friend wanted to show me BigScreen, which is a blend of AltspaceVR and old-fashioned screen sharing. It's pitched as a "Virtual Reality LAN party." You co-occupy a virtual scene with up to three other people, and a version of your computer desktop floats in front of you, available to play games on or do whatever. What's crazy is you can see other people's desktops, as well. Like a peer-to-peer VR Twitch, kind of. You see their floating avatar, you see their screen, and you feel "present" with them. Screen looking is back.

I popped into a nice luxurious apartment, sharing a couch with someone I'd never met. I immediately started tweaking my screen — a little further away, a little bigger, a little bit of curve, no wait I hate the curve. I heard someone pop in and then leave, muttering something like, "That's messed up." Finally I got my screen in a comfortable spot, and I opened a browser and loaded up my favorite Tumblr.

And then I looked over.

My couch mate was watching something gruesome. I knew that instantly. It looked like butchery, sort of — a knife cutting into dead flesh. But it wasn't food prep, this was happening in a forest.

Oh my.

No.

I couldn't look away. I needed to know what I was seeing. I thought it was a dog's neck, maybe. Hopefully. The video was a little blocky, and the leaves and the shadows and the blood made it hard to understand what I was seeing. Finally I understood.

I took off the headset.

I wanted to throw up, and I wanted to curl up and die. I told my friend what I'd seen. He quickly exited the BigScreen "room," the scene of the crime.

That was terrible. And, I have to admit, a little exciting. It's very "cyberpunk" to jack into a virtual room with a total stranger and be shown a grainy video that will scar you for life. But I don't want to go into a room with strangers again, I know that.

For some reason when I put on the headset I didn't imagine my range of possible experiences included "worse than Chatroulette." I should've known better. I'm sure BigScreen's developer (BigScreen, Inc) will soon learn how to create "safer" places. It will be less wild, less cyberpunk, and less likely to involve the transmission of highly illegal content. In fact, VR harassment is something the whole industry will have to engage with starting, well, yesterday.

After a breather I put the headset back on and played The Climb for about an hour. It was an incredible, thrilling, palm-sweat-inducing experience. It's a big-budget masterpiece of VR entertainment. It's "intense" in the way a rollercoaster is intense: something designed to make you feel danger, but never introduce you to danger.

BigScreen wasn't like The Climb in any way. It wasn't a game. It was, for lack of a better word, "real." BigScreen managed to truly horrify me through the simple act of screen sharing with a stranger.

Update: BigScreen has promised to add user protection features to its software this week.