Tech Savvy: Take gaming to a whole new level with virtual reality

Theresa Bourke, playing on an Oculus Quest gaming system, virtually shoots at targets while riding a roller coaster and avoiding dinosaurs, all from the safety of the Brainerd Dispatch video room. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

You’re standing in an empty room that’s all of a sudden transformed into a new world, complete with ground, sky, chirping birds and even other people.

But try moving around or waving your hands, and you’re met with empty space, nothing more than a void. The sights and sounds transport you to another dimension. Your body might start to shake when faced with extreme heights, and you might feel like screaming as the sensation of a fast roller coaster takes over. But the lack of physical touch confuses the mind.

That, in a nutshell, is virtual reality.

“You’re in the moment. You know it’s not real, intellectually. You know it’s not real, but your body reacts like it is.”

That’s Brainerd Dispatch photographer Kelly Humphrey’s brief synopsis of virtual reality, specifically of the experience she has had with her Oculus Quest system.


Kelly brought her gadget into the newsroom recently to give those of us who were interested a chance to try out the technology.

Essentially, virtual reality is a gaming system, like an Xbox or PlayStation, but it pumps up the intensity of games and also offers “experiences.” The Oculus Quest system Kelly has comes with a headset and hand controllers. Putting on the headset produces the sounds and images for each game and experience, while the hand controls allow the user to choose different options and essentially play the games.

The first experience we tried out when Kelly brought her Oculus into the office was Richie’s Plank Experience. Kelly hyped this up a decent amount, but I still had no idea was I was (literally) stepping into when I put the headset on.

First of all, I was floored by how real the virtual world looked and felt. Even though I was just in the menu portion of the system when I first started, I could turn around 360 degrees and see something new at each turn. The menu — that is, the place where a user will choose the game or experience — felt like a cozy cabin of sorts, complete with a fireplace and large windows looking out on a complete world.

Then we got to the plank. Again, I had no idea what to expect. I saw an elevator appear, and I heard Kelly tell me to get in and press the button that said “plank.” So I did.

Theresa Bourke checks the tremor in her hand after walking the plank in virtual reality using Oculus Quest. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch


By the way, Kelly and Managing Editor Renee Richardson were watching my whole experience via Kelly’s smartphone, where the images I saw in the headset were cast for them to see, too.

So once the elevator finished climbing to its destination, the doors opened, only for me to find myself 80 stories up with nothing but a wooden plank — essentially a two-by-four — in front of me. Then I realized I was supposed to walk out on the plank, while I felt like I was 80 stories up with nothing around to hang onto or catch me if I fell, which I definitely felt was about to happen.

Now, I’m not afraid of heights, per se. I like high roller coasters, I’ve been zip lining and I always loved the high dive at summer camp. But in those instances, I was either strapped into something or aware that I’d have a soft landing. This plank experience was something completely different. My whole body tensed up at once as I tried to cling to the elevator walls. But obviously my hands didn’t hit anything when I reached out. I honestly felt terrified as I took a few shaky steps out onto the plank, which felt all too real with more creaking noises the farther I went.

After what was probably several minutes of timidly making my way out onto the plank, I heard Kelly say something I was not expecting: “Now jump off.”

What? You’re telling me I’m supposed to jump off this plank and fall 80 stories down to a hard sidewalk?

That’s part of the experience, Kelly said. So after some coaxing, I took a deep breath and just stepped — rather than jumped — off the plank and felt an instant falling sensation. But once it was over, that was that. No hard “thud.” No pain. No actual falling at all. It was a surreal experience that Kelly likened to the sensation of falling in a dream.

“It’s not quite the same as falling, but it is close. Your body thinks it is,” she said.


Kelly Humphrey takes her first views of the Richie's Plank Experience on Oculus Quest, which challenges the game player with a plank walk amid skyscrapers. Stepping off the plank begins a free fall experience to the street below.

Just like my body also felt like I was truly on a roller coaster as the Oculus had me racing along a track while I shot at targets and made sure to avoid the giant dinosaurs coming my way.

And my body also felt tired and worn out after conquering my first song in Beat Saber, a popular virtual reality game that’s reminiscent of Dance Dance Revolution. Found in arcades and homes across the country since 1999, Dance Dance Revolution, or DDR for short, includes a platform or pad with colored arrows on it. The dancer tries to hit the right arrows and move to the beat of the musical and visual cues on the screen.

Similarly, Beat Saber flashes colored boxes with arrows in them across the screen while a song plays, prompting the player to slash each box with lightsabers in the direction of the arrows. In the harder levels, the player also has to duck and step out of the way so as not to hit virtual walls. And the harder you slash with your arms, the more points you get, resulting in a tired body at the end of the game.

But that virtual workout is the primary reason Kelly said she got her Oculus.

“I have a real hard exercising without some incentive, or for enjoyment,” she said. “If I’m not having fun, I don’t want to do it. I just don’t.”

I’m sure a lot of us can relate to that sentiment as well.

So before Kelly decided on the Oculus Quest as her virtual reality system of choice, she actually started rearranging her living room to give herself as much room as possible to move around and get a good workout. That meant getting rid of her couch and replacing it with a giant bean bag that can more easily be moved back and forth.


“My justification for buying (the Oculus) was because I wanted to work out,” Kelly said. “So if you’re going to be working out every night, it’s just not that much fun to try to move, say a couch or a sofa or love seat or whatever out of the way.”

So ample space is a must-have for those considering a virtual reality system. But there are a few other factors to take into account as well.

Theresa Bourke (right) and Kelly Humphrey assist Conrad Engstrom as he puts on the gear for his virtual reality experience.

Prices and options

The Oculus Quest is just one of the many virtual reality options on the market right now.

Coming in at $400, the Quest model is completely wireless and can be used pretty much anywhere, whether sitting or standing.

The Oculus Rift is another option for about the same price, but it must be hooked up to a gaming PC via a cord. The upside to the Rift, though, is higher powered graphics and more gaming opportunities. The user also doesn’t have to worry about the Rift running out of battery, as it’s tethered to a computer. The Quest typically has about 2-3 hours of battery life per charge.

Though the two sets offer different experiences, the company, which is owned by Facebook, also offers the Oculus Link. This software allows the Quest to be plugged into a gaming computer, essentially turning it into a Rift by being able to access the Rift’s full library of games and experiences.


Then there’s the Oculus Go, a $150 option with fewer features. While the Quest and Rift offer six degrees of freedom, the Go only offers three. This means the Quest and Rift allow users to walk around as they would in the real world. The Go, though, just allows for head movement while the user’s body stays in a fixed location. Games like Beat Saber are not available for the Go, but the system has its own library of simpler games.

Those considering the Oculus Quest right now, though, will either have to wait a while or be willing to dish out some extra cash, as the coronavirus epidemic has drastically slowed production and shipping in China. Suppliers can’t keep up with demand, so as of early February, the Oculus Quest was not available to purchase from Oculus. A few third-party sellers offer the device on Amazon, but the lowest price is $550.

The HTC VIVE Focus Plus is a similar system to the Oculus Quest, offering the same immersive, wireless experience, but is sadly out of stock as well. VIVE offers certified pre-owned systems for $400 though.

VIVE offers a few other virtual reality sets at a higher cost, and Nintendo, PlayStation and Lenovo all have their own versions as well.

For those who are curious about virtual reality but don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars right off the bat, VR Odyssey in Baxter is a virtual reality studio where customers can test out the systems for a much smaller fee than buying one. Customers have access to various games and experiences, paying $10 for 15 minutes, $20 for 30 minutes, or $35 for an hour.

To hear more of the discussion Kelly and I had about her Oculus Quest, check out for this week’s Brainerd Dispatch podcast. And be sure to click on the video to see how our initial adventure unfolded.

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at .

Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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