Like everyone else in the game industry, I’ve been following developments for VR since Oculus Rift came along and jump-started those conversations. The tech itself is nothing new but given the improvements in display technology since the 90s, we get to figure out why it didn’t take off back then. Granted, Oculus rift is not the first solution to be offered for VR in modern times – Sony has had their $800+ headsets available for a couple of years already and no one really gave it much attention. Samsung has now released their VR solution to consumers, which they are calling GearVR and it uses a mobile phone (the Samsung Galaxy Note 4, naturally) to drive the display. With this coming in at $200, we finally have what could be called the ‘affordable’ solution to VR and we can start moving from ‘Vapor(ware) Reality’ into some practical use of the tech in the consumer market
With my work in the arcade industry, I have had the privilege to meet and discuss VR with some of the people that were involved in development and promotion of the tech 20 years ago. They are hopeful that things will turn out differently this time but recognize that so far not many developers have addressed the various issues that VR inherently comes with.
From a home gaming perspective, I have my doubts that this going to take off in terms of a mainstream, multi-million selling accessory for these three major reasons:
1) This is a new display type – not a new controller or a new console. Aside from HDTVs, new display types have not enjoyed the success the hype promised when they were introduced, such as stereoscopic 3D, ultra-wide or curved displays.
2) There are very few enjoyable gaming experiences that VR can offer which happen to be unique to the hardware which do not require additional hardware to complete the experience
3) The standard health issues that come with stereoscopic 3D and putting a device on your face to enjoy something with the added trouble of movement being required, which can cause vertigo in some individuals.
4) Some developers are simply assuming that any first-person game is perfect for a VR headset. That is not the case and tacking it on as an option is going to turn people off to the tech as they end up disappointed. To quote from this lengthy Eurogamer article (my own emphasis added):
“Driving games might see some benefit, but in terms of first- or third-person games, a VR headset would be of no use whatsoever. I can imagine that some people will be utterly convinced that Call of Duty would be better if you had a headset on and were looking around you, but it wouldn’t. It would be very frustrating and far more difficult to play. For one thing, you’d lose the ‘aim down sights’ feature; instead, you’d have to actually aim the gun yourself – not an easy thing to do with a headset on – which takes far longer than pressing a shoulder button and having the game snap the sights onto an enemy. Players would suddenly discover that they’re not as good of a shot as they thought they were.
5) There is still a lot of confusion about what VR is and what it can do for entertainment, which comes down to marketing. The Eurogamer article above shows how easily hype can get out of control and in turn ruin the market you are hoping to create.
(In case you need some additional reference to the challenges VR faces from a technical perspective, here is an article by Kevin Williams who worked with a UK firm back in the 90s with VR tech.)
To break down these points further, VR is just a gyroscopic-based 3D display – it is not a new console nor a new controller although it may offer the impression that it has control since you are controlling the camera visuals to a degree. With the motion tracking, it feels different from other display types since it moves when your head moves. This also means that the content needs to cover more than just a frame-of-view like a TV set. While this is a step in the direction of handling displays based upon how we naturally process visuals, it is incomplete since our eyes are not fully fixed into position with our head. When you are using a VR display, the brain notices this and it can cause disorientation in some people.
Whether it is disorienting or not is subject to the player but given that all of the focus goes into the display and making that work, there is no standard control mechanism to base anything else off of. Using the Gear VR as an example above, there is no controller connected to it, which hardware input is normally from the phones touchscreen. There are some VR films in development so it could work ok for that, at least.
Yes the way VR feels can be more immersive than sitting in front of a TV but if you want to feel totally immersed and do more than watch VR movies, more hardware is needed than just a display.
This is where Point #2 is perhaps the most serious challenge for VR to resolve. Take for instance the Paperboy VR project. As you watch the video above, take note of how many additional hardware devices are needed to make this game work. You need your game console/PC (in the case of Gear VR, the right cellphone), the VR headset itself, an exercise bike, an iPhone with the KickR app for the bike tracking and a Microsoft Kinect. Put those costs together and you’ve spent a heck of a lot more than $60 for the game to get that one experience.
There are other projects I have come across which use a variety of additional hardware as well – all to play one game. I had a chance to try this out for myself recently, with a project by a company called MediaMation. They did create something that does engage your senses – the game was a space game where you are “grabbing” crystals with a tractor beam. Your on-rails spaceship drives you along while you need to be constantly looking around to find crystals. The controller was an Xbox 360 control where you only had to use the triggers to activate your beams; the attendants had to place some Bose noise-cancelling headphones on us to give us the audio portion as surprisingly, OR does not have speakers of its own. Then we were sitting upon a motion seat with some solenoids in the bottom to create the swaying motion of the ship along with some force feedback. It was interesting however I did not find myself returning to it for more as it made me feel very dizzy and the game while interesting, wasn’t what I would call compelling. The amount of hardware needed for this all to work was more than enough to prevent mass-market appeal or sales; yes it was designed with the amusement industry in mind but many VR projects are approaching the technology with the same mentality since just being able to look around doesn’t exactly change gaming for the rest of time.
At the trade show where I saw this, I did witness some concepts where needed additional hardware was less of an issue – for instance VR roller coaster rides. The user simply needs to sit around and look anyways so there are companies developing such concepts where you just need the motion seat and a wind blower, which can be easily controlled. Since the user is limited in what they can do, the ideas can work. But not everyone is clamoring for an endless supply of VR roller coaster rides.
The problem is that these sorts of ideas can work for the arcade industry better than they will at home, where game design is driven by this exact thinking along with some extras (such as tailoring the gameplay to the payment model). But VR in the arcade space has a major challenge which hits upon point #3 – people don’t really want to put something on their face that some stranger has just worn. You get around this with attendants cleaning the sets between each use but this is not how the arcade industry usually works, we like our games that require as little oversight as is possible. And none of this addresses that not every one will get a vertigo-less experience from it.
At the end of the day I believe that VR is going to need a number of killer apps that require as little extra hardware as is possible if it has a chance of overcoming tight wallets and mass confusion over what it is. Chances are much higher that it will go the way of 3DTVs as opposed to becoming the de facto standard in display technology. Even with creative hardware trying to push new design ideas, that does not mean all ideas work or are any fun to play. Then you have the issue of everyone wanting to jump onto the bandwagon, which will have different specs and different standards. I don’t mind competition at all but in the 90s it was confusion over what the tech actually offered (overhype) vs. reality that did the most damage to the brand. It is certain that whoever creates the standard that everyone else adheres to will be in for a sweet profit ride; Oculus has experienced some of that thanks to the Facebook purchase but in some ways it seems that Oculus is already dropping that ball as more time is taken to get it ready for the market. Even the Augmented Reality Hololens set by Microsoft already has competition to deal with. I do have a hope though that these challenges will be overcome and we can get some great games from it. But I’m not clamoring to jump on every VR bandwagon that passes along as they have to prove to us consumers that they have sorted it out.