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Why the Vive is the best gift for parents and grandparents

I never thought I’d hear my 77 year old mom yell, “Why aren’t you dead yet? I shot you!” followed up by bouts of laughing and exclaiming, “This is so amazing!”

She spends her time watering houseplants, reading novels, and watching The Queen. She hasn’t played a video game in, well, ever.

But over the course of an hour, she touched sea turtles in The Blu, traveled world landmarks in Google Earth VR, and officially became a space pirate in Space Pirate Trainer.

Here’s her best quote so far: “This is one of the greatest experiences of my life.” I’m sure me being born has to be up there, right? Maybe not. I think I’ve been replaced by VR.

Anyway, I was worried VR wouldn’t work for her – after all, her mobility is very low and her sight isn’t the best, which is a problem for the stereoscopic needs of VR headsets. Also, maybe VR with the goggles and controllers and cables is just a bit too technomancer for someone who was born before the 2nd world war.

But it’s now two days later and she’s back in Google Earth VR before 8AM, cruising up the Avon River, intent on finding Shakespeare’s birthplace.

If you haven’t seen our coverage of Google Earth VR, check it out HERE.

SEASON OF GIVING

Now, what began as an article about VR and old folk has turned into a gift call to action. Simply put, VR is the number one gift on my Christmas list. And it should be on yours, too, if you have someone in your life who will appreciate the freedom VR can offer.

Of course, the HTC Vive with companion PC is about $1300, so getting the parents loaded up with VR means digging extra deep. But this one gift, at least for someone like my mother, is better than any number of slippers or whatever else we could possibly give. And to hear laughter for days is its own reward.

For people like my mom who have dreamed of traveling but illness has kept the frequent flier miles from stacking up, VR experiences like Earth VR are a great alternative. And possibly even better.

HARDWARE SETUP

For those new to VR, the HTC Vive is a complete VR package minus a PC. That means the HTC Vive comes with the headset, two controllers, and two base stations that can be placed on shelves, mounted on walls, or attached to tripods. The Vive alone runs $799.

To power the Vive, one needs a decent PC with a VR-approved graphics card. We recommend going with at least a RX 480 or GTX 1060 or above.

The laptop used for this demo is the wildly powerful ASUS ROG G752 with an NVIDIA GTX 1070 overclocked graphics card.

The ASUS is 9.5lbs, and features a 17” screen with all kinds of gamer features. The ASUS is great for gaming with its G-Sync screen, overclocked i7-6700HK CPU, 32GB RAM, and more.

As a VR system for the parents, the ASUS OC Edition at $2499 is a wee bit overkill.

But we do recommend going with a GTX 1070 or above, mainly because of the awesome games coming down the pipe. While official HTC Vive and Oculus Rift specs say graphics cards like the GTX 960 will work, games like NVIDIA’s own VR Funhouse require a single GTX 1080 for medium graphics settings and double GTX 1080s for high settings. Sure, NVIDIA is in the GPU biz, but it’s no question that VR requires some serious horsepower.

The $1699 ASUS Strix with a GTX 1070 would be a great choice for a powerful gaming laptop.

HOW OLD IS TOO OLD?

For people like my mom who have dreamed of traveling but illness has kept the frequent flier miles from stacking up, VR experiences like Earth VR are a great alternative. And possibly even better.

Now, we also had a 99-year-old grandfather over. He was born before women had the vote and, if you ask him, he’ll tell you those were the good ol’ days.

In any case, 99 is too old. At least, for him. With severe mobility, hearing, and sight issues, even explaining VR to him was near impossible.

Of course, we did get the Vive on him and he sat looking at fish for a good half an hour. He would have stayed in VR land longer, but I ran out of demos that didn’t require using the controllers, which was one step too much.

So he did appreciate VR. Though, when asked about it, he said, “Meh, it’s okay.” Which I guess is a ringing endorsement for someone his age. He then promptly fell asleep in his chair. He’s 99, so he can do as he damn well pleases. 

HOW YOUNG IS TOO YOUNG?

Is there a “too young” for VR? I don’t mean like toddlers, but are there certain demographics that will appreciate VR more than others?

In its current form, VR’s best experiences are shooting games like Serious Sam, Arizona Sunshine, and Space Pirate Trainer. The quasi-educational programs like Google Earth VR and The Blu are tremendous but few and far between.

During the last few days, I demoed the Vive for a number of generations and ages, from mid-teens to mid 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. No one in the group would be considered a serious gamer.

Everyone was blown away. Google Earth VR, even for the serious travelers among us, was always a huge hit.

The shooting games sucked people in and left them sweating. Many said VR was an intense workout, just jumping around and avoiding incoming artillery. And these are people who haven’t played a video game since Galaga.

Overall, there really doesn’t seem to be an age limit for VR – only a content limit.

One request was narrated Google Earth VR tours, complete with zooming around historical landmarks narrated by the world’s best experts. These kinds of curated experiences would undoubtedly replace the History Channel or BBC (or be produced by them), and would combine VR tech with highly polished 3D, video, and audio content. 

ISSUES

There are a few issues, tied mostly to mobility. First, the Vive headset is the heaviest on the market. And the three velcro straps are the most difficult to work with for elderly hands. Meaning, fatigue was a real issue with the Vive. Oculus is lighter, as are phone-based units, but both of those don’t have Google Earth VR, which is the killer app.

Also, the Vive software, while excellent, is still a multi-step process, and there are numerous ways those steps can cause problems. Controllers not in the play space? Error alert! For non-techies, this can be confusing.

And if the game crashes, which isn’t a rare event, then closing out of VR and Steam is required. Sometimes a whole system reboot is needed. Sometimes new OS or GPU software installs itself without warning and VR starts to act weird until you do a complete update.

But these issues can be overcome and, by the end of two days, my mother was pretty versed in navigating Steam VR software, even using the Vive’s AR “predator vision” to grab a glass of water in-game.

THE FUTURE

So, while I do recommend buying a VR system as the best Christmas gift ever, we know numerous VR advances are in the pipe that will make VR an even better experience for everyone. We’re talking wireless headsets, Microsoft Win 10 VR, Xbox VR, Vive 2, etc. Those improvements will surely make VR more palatable for the masses.

After all, considering my septuagenarian parents are going to have around $2k worth of gaming equipment, it’s easy to see how VR could grow PC gaming in ways previously impossible. I mean, you thought consoles were big, just wait until baby boomers with their stock portfolios get on the VR bandwagon.