When I was a kid, I was pretty much promised that by the time I was thirty, I’d be driving a hover car, have a robot butler, and be spending most of my spare time in a virtual reality headset that made the holodeck thing on Star Trek look decidedly primitive in comparison. Obviously, we don’t have hover cars, and I, for one, don’t have a robot butler, but it seems that VR headsets are a distinct near-future possibility, with rumours circulating that Project Morpheus is, hopefully, maybe, set to play a part in Sony’s exploits at e3 2014. Clearly, it’s not going to be the PlayStation 4 to the holodeck’s ZX Spectrum, so everyone was still way off on that, but, hey, VR headsets are coming people, and hopefully very, very soon.
Obviously the Oculus Rift’s been around for a while, but that’s mainly been a toy for developers, and will eventually most likely be a PC MMO device when it hits the shelves, but if Sony are as far along with the project as recent demos at 2014’s Game Developers Conference suggest, a lot of us could be spinning around in a VR world in next to no time at all. How cool is that??
Anyway, giddy-child-on-Christmas-morning-type-excitement aside, what will VR mean for gamers and, perhaps more importantly, how can it ensure it has enough appeal and staying power to not be a passing fad that ends up in the back of the closet with the Barcode Battler, Tamagotchi and PS2 Dancemat? Well, right off the bat, I would argue it would be great if you could use the headset without vomiting everywhere. It might sound flippant, but it’s a genuine concern, and I think it’s fair to say that however cool a game or environment is, it’s going to be hard to really enjoy it if doing so will always come at the cost of losing your lunch. There’s a lot of scientific stuff involved, but essentially, the disconnect between what we’re seeing and what our balance mechanism is feeling – can have people turning green quicker than Bruce Banner receiving his 5th parking ticket in the space of an afternoon. And nobody wants that, right!? However, early indications suggest that it’s not uncommon for people to feel the odd moments of weirdness at first, but that this seems to disappear fairly quickly after only a short adaptation period.
As with seasickness, this may trouble some people more than others, but it seems that our brains aren’t necessarily going to be too freaked out by a VR headset. Those lucky enough to try it out at GDC 2014 reported that most of the disorientation/discomfort they felt was in situations that would have generated it in real life anyway, like when performing a barrel role in the spaceship flying Eve Valkyrie game. Indeed, one of the things that can contribute significantly to queasiness is lag, and/or lower frame-rates, but, utilising the recent developments in smart phones, VR headsets can now incorporate the necessary high definition and FPS capacity in the two tiny screens with relative ease. Also, thanks to the neat little processing box that will take on a lot of the extra work involved with the headset, leaving the PS4 free to do its own thing, there’s every reason to be optimistic that the two things working separately, but in conjunction with each other, will make it a seamless and immersive experience. So, that’s a pretty good start, all things considered.
Next, though, it’s going to be important that game developers don’t also consider it something that’s going to be forgotten quickly, either. In many ways, if they do, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because not having decent games to play is only going to hasten VR’s demise, as it would with any new gaming technology. Again though, there seems to be every reason to view VR with cautious optimism. Not only are game developers interested, and taking it seriously, but given the technological advances of recent years, there’s potential for the VR to have so many uses outside of gaming that it remains relevant way beyond the world of games.
On the first point, the fact that the Oculus Rift has already been around for a while means that some developers have already spent time getting to grips with the technology, and invested significant resources in the genre. The aforementioned Eve Valkyrie, for example, was originally developed with the OR in mind, but CCP, the company behind the game, have been able to transition their work to the Morpheus with relative ease. That bodes well. In the specific case of Morpheus, Sony has already spent significant time developing software “in-house”, and will obviously want to back up their hardware with much more software of significant scope and quality.
As with all things, gaining momentum, and reaching a tipping point is key, and crucially, the ball’s already rolling on VR related stuff. As for the other uses, for example, we’ve all seen the virtual tours of art galleries, or museums, and messed about with Google 3D/street view, but VR headsets will allow these things to become genuine, 3D VR experiences. Even something as simple as planning a journey from a train station to a hotel could be done in advance with the VR headset, and taking that tour of the Louvre becomes something of genuine virtual enjoyment, rather than the more gimmicky thing it is on a computer now.
The final issue that could be a potential problem is the perceived anti-social nature of VR gaming. It’s likely not going to be a problem for the gamers necessarily, but we all know how gaming in general has been beaten with every ‘it’s ruining our kids’ stick imaginable. Once again, thanks to recent developments in gaming and technology, developers are already getting out ahead of this issue. Even though ‘player one’ will be strapped into their funky headgear, games will also appear on the TV screen (in 2D), and other players can be directly involved in the action via controllers, and quite excitingly, using tablets and laptops as genuine second screen devices, contributing to, and augmenting the gaming experience from there.
All-in-all, I think there’s legitimate reason to be excited about the coming of Virtual Reality. Sure, there’s initially likely to be a period where games are thin on the ground, even glitchy, and when VR is seen as a gimmick rather than an integral part of the gaming experience, but there already seems to be enough interest and investment in the technology to suggest this will pass quickly. A lot of the success will be determined by price (both of the hardware and software) so I’m awaiting news on that with interest (and crossed fingers), but I, for one, am really looking forward to it, and can’t wait to wander around richly rendered 3D environments with a sword or magic wand. In fact, I’d even say it’s exciting enough to placate my deep-seated anger at never having had me a robot butler!!