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VR is useless when you have a baby

Commentary: Virtual reality is no longer compatible with my version of the real world.

XRSpace Manova virtual reality headset

Kids might have time for VR -- but new parents are another story.

James Martin/CNET

Facebook announced the Oculus Quest 2 last fall at the exact right time to get my attention. After months of sheltering in place during the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was extremely tempted by an affordable VR headset that would let me explore the world outside of my home. I wanted it for virtual reality workouts. I loved the idea of using it as a portable, virtual office. It came out just weeks after Star Wars: Squadrons and promised to put me in the cockpit of an X-Wing.

What finally pushed me over the edge was friendship. A buddy of mine had recently moved to another state and convinced me that we could "hang out" in VR and get a drink together every now and then. Just like the old days, but nerdier. A perfect idea.

We never had that drink in VR. I had a baby instead. 

As any parent is well aware, having a child changes everything. It restricts your freedom, steals your free time and makes simple things, like picking up a controller and playing video games, next to impossible. That goes double, maybe even triple for VR headsets, which don't just demand your time, but your complete, undivided attention for long periods of time.

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Beat Saber is next to impossible as a new dad.

Beat Games/PlayStation

I knew this. I should have seen this coming. Not the baby -- that was planned -- but how useless all my favorite consumer tech toys would become in the wake of that new responsibility. Like many new parents, I underestimated how much work a newborn could be, and overestimated how much free time I'd be able to carve out for hobbies. When the child is awake, it demands your full attention. When it isn't, there's an endless litany of baby-related chores to do. When those are done, you'd better be sleeping or at work, because you won't have enough time for either. 

Finding time to fit video games and tech toys into a parenting schedule isn't impossible, but it's different. In the early mornings, I might sneak away to queue up a job on the 3D-printer in my garage. When my daughter falls asleep on my chest, I argue to myself that, as her makeshift bed, I am immobilized and sneak in some time with my PlayStation 4 or Nintendo Switch

Those distractions can be dropped the moment the baby needs me. Crafting projects can always be put on hold. Modern video game console sleep modes will pause any game at any time. Virtual Reality is different. 

Virtual reality demands you abandon regular reality. 

I've tried to use VR since becoming a parent of a newborn, and it hasn't been easy. The area in my home once reserved for virtual reality now has a rocking chair, a bassinet and several boxes of baby toys. There's still room for the Oculus Quest 2's minimum room-scale play space, but only just barely. Before I can even think about stepping out of reality to play Beat Saber, I need to make sure my child is safe. My virtual reality session starts with her bedtime routine: playing, reading, changing, feeding and cuddling until she's ready to be put to bed. 

When she's finally in bed and swaddled, I feel safe putting on the VR headset. She's sleeping within earshot, and I should be able to pull off the headgear if she needs me. The first time I tried this, I discovered the Quest 2's battery is dead, neglected since the week she was born.  

That's on me. 

The second time, the baby changed her mind about taking a nap moments after I put the headset on. A third time, later that day, I made less than a minute into a song before hearing babbling noises from the baby's sleeper. My life operates on her schedule, and her schedule has no room for virtual reality. 

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The Oculus Quest 2.

Scott Stein/CNET

So far, I've only tried to use VR during my "shifts" as a parent. During my wife's watch, I'm typically at work or busy doing household chores. After repeated failures to juggle both an infant and an extremely distracting high tech blindfold, however, my wife took pity on me and rearranged her evening to give me 25 minutes of virtual reality. That's just enough time for a 10-minute warmup in Beat Saber and about 15 minutes of high-intensity cardio in Thrill of the Fight. It felt good to move, squat, dance, dodge and punch. I'd missed idiotically dancing around and indulging in the little lie that my active VR games counted as a real workout.

But it wasn't worth it. I woke up sore the next morning. My upper back, elbow joints and rotator cuffs all ached. My body erupted in pain when I lifted my squirming daughter out of her bassinet. I managed to find time for virtual reality, but it made being a new parent physically harder.

I bought my Oculus Quest 2 at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, hoping it could transport me out of our stressful world and to somewhere better, if only for a moment. I still need a means of escape -- a way to take a break from the stresses of the world and the pressure of being responsible for a whole new person -- but it can't be virtual reality anymore. 

The Oculus Quest 2 is a blindfold that lets me visit virtual worlds, but it also takes me out of my daughter's world. I can't do that. 

Having children made regular reality too real for a virtual existence to be worthwhile. Maybe there will be time for VR when she's older. For now, I'll have to settle for the digital escapes I can pick up and drop in a moment. Simple smartphone experiences. Pick-up-and-play games on the Nintendo Switch. Maybe, if I'm ambitious, PC gaming on the Valve Steam Deck.

If all else fails, there's a perfectly good stack of children's books piled up next to the rocking chair.