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The E3 game most likely to result in open head wounds

I've been riding a bike since I was 6. I've been mountain biking since I was 20. But it still takes me nearly three minutes to convince the team showing off VirZoom in the Project Morpheus Arcade that I'm not going to fall off their stationary bike.

And then — then I almost do.

Of the many virtual reality experiences at E3 this year, perhaps the oddest feeling one was the VirZoom tech demo. The idea is pretty straight forward: The company is developing technology that can turn any bicycle into a virtual reality controller.

Here's how it works: A sensor goes on the back wheel to measure speed, the front wheel sits on a "turntable" which measures the front wheel's movements as you turn the handlebars, and a little cluster of buttons rest on one handlebar for in-game button pressing. You just need to provide the bike and a trainer that locks the bicycle in place with the back wheel raised.

To use the tech, you put on a virtual reality headset — in my case the PlayStation 4's Project Morpheus — and then straddle the bike and ride it like you would any other bike.

Only, in my case and apparently many others, that's not exactly what your body wants to do.

"Today you're going to be a horse, tomorrow you could be a surfer, the day after that you could be a tank in battle," one of the demo folks tell me. "As you immerse yourself, because the feeling is so natural, you lose yourself in your avatar."

Then he repeats, somewhat obviously:

"Today, you're going to be a horse, but it's important to remember that in reality you're on a bike."

"Well, yes, of course I am," I think.

But before we can get started they want to make sure I know what I'm doing.

"Close your eyes and put your hands on the handlebars and practice steering, slowly moving the handlebars back and forth," he said. "You're not going to want to lean.

"Peddle a little bit and see how you steer."

Finally, I interjected; not irritated, but ever so slightly worried about my time: "I'm fine."

"I only say it because people tend to lean," he replied.

I get it. I'm on a bike with my eyes completely obscured. If for some reason I lose my balance and topple, it would be like someone swinging a hammer, with my head being the metal bit that makes contact first.

"When we do a real experience," the demonstrator continues, "we make sure you are staying safely on the bike and slowly acclimate you. If anything feels bad let me know."


"Feels bad," I think. But I don't say it.

Comfortably positioned on the bike, the headset is slipped over my brow and turned on. Suddenly I'm a horse. Well, that's not right. It's more like I'm sitting on a horse, but I'm invisible.

As I pedal the horse starts walking. There are other horses here and I'm racing them. As I pedal faster the walk turns to a trot, the trot to a canter, the canter to a gallop.

Then it happens: I turn the bike's handlebars to cut off another horse and my entire world seems to shift. I'm leaning in the wrong direction and I can feel myself nearing the tipping point on the stationary bike.

What the hell?

It's as if, for a moment, I've lost control of my body. Despite years of biking, my body is ignoring the feedback of reality, my brain's knowledge that I'm sitting on a stationary bike on the second floor of a convention center, and now thinks I'm either pedaling hellbent across a field or riding a horse. My body wants to lean into those turns because of the speed, to offset gravity and momentum. My brain is telling it not to and that I'm about to fall on my head.

The sudden battle of mind over body feels weird; really weird.

The sudden battle of mind over body feels weird; really weird.

I slow my pedal and the demo guy knows why.

"You're doing fine, just keep pedaling."

I slowly adjust, but only by concentrating on my turns and deliberately not leaning.

Then comes the canyon.

To one side of me/my horse a steep canyon wall rises, to the other it drops and drops and drops. Despite the rudimentary graphics of the tech demo, I can feel my fear of heights kicking in. I slow my roll, focus on turning without leaning because now my brain, once a partner in telling my body that I'm in a room on a bike, not in the wild on a horse, has completely given up and is jibbering about how long it might take me to hit the canyon floor if I happen to screw up a turn.

"Everything OK?" the guy asks.

No. I think. But my body says, 'Yes.' Beads of sweat forming on the back of my neck. My steering, once smooth, is now a bit jagged. Then the demo guy tells me he's going to give my horse wings, so I can fly, over that canyon, and look down.

"Great" I say, while thinking "greeeeeat."

I have to ride my horse into a wing icon and then pedal fast and deliberately turn the bike off the edge of the cliff.

"Wooooo, hooo, hooo, hoo ..."

I recorded the audio for this whole session because I couldn't take notes. This is approximately the sound I make at the moment this happens: "Wooooo, hooo, hooo, hoo ..." It is not a joyous sound. It sounds desperate and distracted.

"This is way more dramatic and thrilling," the demo guy says. "It could be scary, don't fear."

As the horse leaps, wings sprout from its back and instead of plummeting to my virtual death, the horse soars. Pedaling faster makes it rise, slower lowers it. Landing on the ground is a little scary, but nothing like those leaps into thin, virtual air.

At some point, I describe the experience as deliberately giving myself a heart attack.

But it is fun, it's different. Most importantly, the demo is the first time a virtual reality experience genuinely made me feel like I was no longer completely myself. VirZoom altered both my perception and for a bit, shook the idea that my body was my own and under my complete control. And that's the promise of virtual reality, not just games that play better or feel more immersive, but experiences that can completely alter the way you see or experience something.

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