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Afraid of heights? Here comes VR vertigo

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There's something intriguing and unsettling about Vive game The Gallery

Some years ago, I took a hot air balloon flight over the pretty English city of Bath. There were seven other people in the basket, as well as the pilot.

A woman I didn't know €” let's call her Audrey  stood next to me. The moment the balloon took flight, she shrieked and curled up in a corner of the basket. Clearly frightened by the movement of the balloon, she did not move until the flight was over. No amount of coaxing could persuade her to rise and look out at the marvels below.

I thought of Audrey during a particularly nerve-wracking moment, while playing The Gallery, a forthcoming episodic story-game for Vive.

"I thought to myself, I might actually fall over here."

I was plunging down a rocky shaft in an open-faced, glass-bottomed elevator. At that moment, I felt the same urge as Audrey, to drop down into a fetal position and somehow diminish the fear I was experiencing. This would have been extremely embarrassing. I was standing in a very public convention meeting room and people were watching me and they were watching the game on a separate screen.

I wonder if Audrey suffered from a fear of heights before she got into that balloon, but assumed that this fear would be irrelevant to the experience. Or perhaps she had a fear of riding in hot air balloons, which only manifested itself the first time she actually got into one.

I have a terrible fear of heights, but it's not the sort of fear that bothers me in situations like riding in hot air balloons, or looking out of the window of a jet airliner. Usually, it bothers me when I travel four or more steps up a ladder. Sometimes, when visiting castles or very old buildings, I'll become frigid with terror while walking down steep, stone steps.

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I cannot walk on reinforced glass observation points in skyscrapers. Sometimes, in fast-moving elevators, I'll find myself touching the walls for reassurance. I will never, under any circumstance, voluntarily take a rollercoaster ride. (I once got into a line for an indoor Scooby Doo ride which, disastrously, I had misidentified as an amusing ghost train.)

In the The Gallery's VR elevator shaft, I looked up to see a smear of star-lit sky framed by walls whizzing away. I felt dizzy. I looked down to see a lava-like floor rushing toward me. This was much, much worse.

I thought, I am standing still in the Moscone Center, at an elevation of zero feet. I am not actually moving. And yet, I badly wanted to rip the Vive headset from my face and plead phony VR-related nausea to attending developers, standing around watching me play their game.

"I was scared, physically, palpably frightened."

As the elevator increased the speed of its descent I reached out to hold onto some non-existent upright. I was starting to sway. I thought to myself, fucking hell, I might actually fall over here.

I was dizzy with anxiety. I knew, just knew, that the developers were watching me carefully, that this was a part of the game they had discussed with one another at length.

I told myself, slowly, that I was experiencing a piece of fiction, that my person was in absolutely no peril. And yet I was scared, physically, palpably frightened. I was struggling to conceal my fear, but it was winning against both my faculty for understanding the actual reality of the situation, and my considerably honed powers of hiding mortifying emotional responses, most especially fear.

The Gallery is a Myst-like adventure in which the player moves through an underground world, interacting with objects, solving puzzles and watching the narrative unfold. This elevator ride was just part of a non-interactive section of the story. I couldn't actually do anything except for experience the thing that was happening to me.

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The elevator crunched to a stop. With my legs shaking slightly, I continued the demo, enjoying some of the grand spectacles laid on by development studio Cloudhead Games. This game makes smart use of space, allowing players to "jump" from one space to another using the Vive's touch pad. I like this game a lot, and I believe a lot of other people will like it too. It's clever and colorful. It's playful and funny. It's a world that's worth exploring.

When the demo was over, the developers explained that rapid elevator rides are served up at various points in the game, but that the intensity of them starts off at a mild level, increasing as the player becomes accustomed to the sensation.

But even though I was shaken by this late game ride, I was glad to have been a part of it. I felt that I had survived an experience that was designed to intimidate me. I felt that if I were to do it again, I would not be so scared.

Somehow, my fear of heights might be diminished or controlled by VR experiences and by VR games. And if that was true, what other phobias could be mitigated in the safety and privacy of one's own home?

There will be a lot of VR games that are designed to frighten people, and they will be greatly enjoyed by people who like to be frightened within the parameters of intense fiction. But what of games and experiences that, by design or otherwise, help us to conquer our fears? Isn't that a neat trick?

The Gallery's first episode is out in April on Vive with an Oculus Rift version coming later.