So just a few days ago, the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive both released. This is a huge deal. I’m pretty sure that Virtual Reality technology is going to change not only the way we play our games, but the way we live our lives. For those of you not at all aware about virtual reality, let me paint you a picture. These powerful devices use a (rather large) headset strapped to your face, along with headphones and tons of tracking devices (think gyroscopes like what’s in your phone, but way more of them) to track your movement within a space. Using your PC, these devices allow for a new level of immersion within games. It’s incredibly cool technology, and I can’t wait to see where it goes.
Of course, as with any infant technology there are some problems. First and foremost is the price point of these devices. Since it’s still young, and cutting edge, technology, the devices alone cost around $600-800. That is if you can even run the games that they are used to play, and there aren’t very many. In order to run the games at all you’ll need a really beefy gaming PC, which is even more money to fork out. Basically, the problem right now is that it appeals to a very niche group of people. There won’t be many early adopters, since the price is so oppressive and the games are so few. It’s more of a novelty thing right now. So what are the potential benefits? What will make VR successful?
Well, as the technology grows, companies will start to get a feel for what does and doesn’t work in VR. It’s an almost entirely new way of experiencing something, and the applications reach much farther than just videogames. You could visit a friend from across the country, both of you seemingly occupying the same virtual space. You could go to a movie theater without even leaving your room. Think about putting on a pair of goggles and an enormous screen appears in front of you. You could go see Imax movies from the comfort of your home.
As the technology improves hopefully we will also see a price drop, or an increase in quality for the same price point. I’m not sure how long it will take for the prices to begin to drop even a little, but I would imagine it will be two or three generations into VR. In the meantime, there are some cool YouTube videos of people playing VR games. They don’t quite capture the experience like actually putting the headset on, but you can still get an idea. That’s another problem with VR right now: it’s really hard to market without a person actually being able to put on a headset themselves. I’m surprised we don’t see lots of VR demos popping up in tech stores, but maybe those will come soon.
There are lots of issues to be solved still, a big one being motion sickness. The problem with complete immersion in a traditional game is that your character moves but by virtue of you being in an enclosed space you do not move. This creates a disconnect between what you see and what your inner ear perceives, causing motion sickness. A workaround that some VR headsets are using, particularly the HTC Vive, is called “room scale.” Basically, you set up the parameters of your room within the software, and any games that you play take place within that space. Many use teleportation to get around, rather than having you walk. If you get too near to the edge of your virtual “room,” digital walls appear in front of you to let you know that you’re getting close to hitting something in real life. Here’s an example of a room scale game on the HTC Vive.
It’s some really cool stuff, and I can’t wait to get my hands on it, but unfortunately for now there aren’t very many killer apps that make me feel a strong need to shell out so much money. One last thing worth mentioning is the key difference between the Oculus Rift (owned by Facebook, bizarrely. More on that in a bit) and the HTC Vive (owned by Valve). The Oculus comes with an Xbox One controller, a pretty standard method of input for games but one which I’m not sure translates super well into VR controls. The Vive comes with two unique motion controllers, as you could see in the video I shared earlier. This version is, in my mind, superior, but I haven’t tested either first hand so it’s impossible to tell until I can actually get my mittens on one of these systems. Also worth noting, the Oculus is owned by Facebook, and I read recently that all of the data about what you’re doing is constantly sent back to them, a feature that you cannot deactivate. Take that for what you will, but it seems a bit icky to me.
The future holds many interesting things, I’m sure, and it will be interesting to see which VR is successful, what becomes the standard for gaming, and how games change to mold around the idea of occupying a virtual space in our own living rooms. Keep an eye out for future iterations of virtual reality. In the meantime, most of us will just have to keep playing normal, “2-dimensional” games.