Attend a gaming convention these days, and the Oculus Rift and similar devices are sure to be peppered all around the show floor. Virtual Reality (VR) is making a comeback, much as 3D TVs started doing around 2008. But will VR succeed this time? No and maybe. Here’s why.
It’s useful to go back in time a bit and see where VR has been. A quick Wikipedia search reveals that forms of VR have been around since the 1860s. To be clear on the difference between VR and 3D, VR requires being able to look all around to see a virtual world, while for 3D, sitting and facing a screen is sufficient to qualify. However, 3D viewing is definitely a part of the experience. As long as people have been trying to create both, there is clearly an interest in both 3D and VR entertainment.
It wasn’t until 1995 that the first affordable VR system for the home was released by Nintendo. And this… wasn’t great. It was monochrome, and that by itself caused it to be a failure. There were other, more promising entertainment applications for VR, mostly in arcades, because the cost for a good system at the time was over $70,000 for a whole environment, and over $10,000 for individual systems.
There are a number of reasons why even those applications failed. Besides price, performance, both in resolution and sync, doomed those products. In order for VR to really work, screen graphics have to sync up with the viewer’s movements and give the appearance of reality. There may be entertaining applications that use crude graphics, but the delays experienced by users at the time insured that people’s interest in VR waned rapidly.
Another issue is the appearance of the user while using the equipment. The entertainment experience must be especially compelling to wear what was essentially a computer on a user’s head connected to ski goggles and big, bulky straps. The experience sounded cool, and was novel, but not compelling enough to go through all that.
Finally, while sitting in one spot and moving one’s head around is kind of cool, the real power of VR is the ability to move around. That requires a dedicated space, and no companies had figured out at the time how to take advantage of that need for movement.
That’s not to say there weren’t applications for VR that weren’t compelling. Vehicle simulations are where the biggest success happened. Aircraft, spacecraft, and automobile development and training have all benefitted from VR technology. Both headset and more commonly windshield visual simulation have been effectively used for decades to make better pilots and drivers; to improve various vehicles; and to research how people interact with vehicles and their surrounding environments. There are even some very expensive home simulators that are on sale these days. Those are few and far between in American homes.
Fast forward to today. Oculus has been working on the Rift, now with its third generation on the horizon. The response times of the head mounted screen are far better than in the 1990s, and rumor has it that the release version will have 4K resolution for each eye. At that resolution, it is certainly possible that visuals will approach or even possibly exceed what is required to create a truly immersive experience. Will it be compelling?
Right off the bat, 360 video isn’t likely to cause anyone to change their video habits. Again, it’s a novel technology, and there will certainly be applications where that will be useful, most likely in law enforcement and telepresence. Video is video, however, and it seems likely that the bloom will fall off that rose pretty quickly.
What about video games? Most people who are VR cheerleaders tout video games as where VR will really shine, and it’s easy to see why. First person shooters especially seem to cry out for VR. In concept, it is very compelling to imagine increasingly immersive experiences for a first person environment. Here’s the problem, though: if the VR system is basically only head turning, it would seem that would get old after a while, too. Certainly there will be some hard core gamers who would love that, but in general, being able to use one’s head to look around isn’t that much of a jump from hitting a button to look around. It’s not going to justify strapping on googles for most people.
Which brings up another point: while Oculus has done a good job with pricing – keeping the units under $300 so far – the size still leaves a lot to be desired. Play for twenty minutes and it’s no big deal. Most FPS players play for hours, and after a few hours, even the relatively svelte Rift will cause neck pain.
Back to doing more than looking around, developers have anticipated this, and several solutions have been proposed. In the past, the most effective was a giant steel sphere that would allow a user to walk in any direction. That, clearly, was impractical for home use, and likely very expensive. In the last year, though, a few companies have developed other ways to simulate movement while staying stationary. Their methods boil down to this: a semi-slippery chord of a sphere that uses either special shoes or the user’s own socks to allow them to “walk” forward without actually moving in space. Most of the good ones also have some kind of harness to insure that the user doesn’t actually move forward when they try to run, and the harness can be used to tell if the user is standing or crouching. One even has a crotch/butt strap that allows a user to sit while playing, to simulate being in a vehicle.
The good news with these solutions is that they allow for a more immersive experience in a smaller amount of space for a reasonable price. However, like the Rift itself, the effort required to get set up, coupled with the physical effort to actually use the product, means that the entertainment will have to be compelling indeed to jump beyond what a user gets simply plopping on the couch in front of a TV. Not to mention that physical exertion will discourage the most die-hard fans. Think about it: how many Wii Fits sit unused despite what are arguably some pretty cool games? And people who are in shape? They tend to go outside when they want to exert themselves.
The bottom line, then? VR just isn’t compelling enough to justify the expense and effort needed to use it on a regular basis. Oculus has already sold 100,000+ units of its dev kits, which is a testament to the desire for VR to work. And Oculus will certainly sell quite a few units when it eventually launches whatever their first consumer product ends up being. However, if that product is substantially similar to the dev kits, then even with better resolution and sync and a reasonable sales price, it’s not hard to predict that the hardware will be used for a few weeks, maybe even a couple months, and then end up right next to all those Wii Fits off to the side of the TV. That is, barring some Tetris of the VR world that creates a new genre of entertainment experience. Having seen many proposals for VR games, that hasn’t happened yet.
And yet, Oculus may not be doomed. Why? Read on.
Reviewing why VR has failed in the past, it becomes clear that its biggest failing is that the experience just isn’t compelling enough over time to justify not only buying the unit, but strapping it on just to use it. The user looks stupid, has weight on their head that can cause muscle fatigue, and can get substantially similar experiences with current technology.
However, if Oculus were to make the following changes, they might just succeed where VR has failed in the past:
1) Reduce the size to that of chunky sunglasses
This is the most obvious innovation required. If the headset was as easy to put on as a pair of sunglasses, then the experience becomes less of a hassle, less likely to induce neck strain, and more likely to be casually entered.
2) Give the glasses a transparent mode and sunglasses mode
Imagine if these VR glasses could be worn while doing other things between games. For example, going to the bathroom. Granted, since they are just glasses, removing them is easy. Where this would be really useful, though, is during a pause mode to interact with others in the real world for a quick second. What’s more, the technology exists; there already are transparent electronics and TOLED displays that would allow this. The biggest trick would be creating a dark black backdrop for glasses like that. It wouldn’t be wrong to visualize flip up light blockers in this situation.
3) Add in the ability for the glasses to create Augmented Reality
Although Augmented Reality (AR) hasn’t taken off either, there is still a lot of promise in this technology. Google Glass is the first practical foray into it, and it certainly won’t be the last. It’s not hard to imagine a world where the same glasses uses for AR could be used for VR, and with that, the number of applications suddenly doubles for the product. If it’s at the same price point (or slightly higher), then the actual cost is effectively halved with twice as many uses.
4) Create a method for casually interfacing with any kind of data
If this new version of the Rift, let’s call this non-existent product the Oculus Meld (because why not?), had a way to sense hand movements either through a front facing camera or some kind of jewelry that sensed the user’s movements, suddenly the product becomes a new platform capable of all of the applications that say an iPhone or iPad can do, but with the added benefit of being virtually invisible and seamless with reality.
In this eco-system, VR is only one of the many applications for what could be called a Combined Reality device. AR, VR, and mobile apps all in one unit. That’s something that would sell, because everyone could find something to use it for. Of course, the closest product to this, Google Glass, has met some resistance, and understandably so. After all, when people know they are on camera, they tend to act differently than when they aren’t. Wide use of a Google Glass or Oculus “Meld” system would change the way people socialize, and could lead to ostracizing those who are wearing them. The good news, though? It only takes a second to remove glasses, and another to put them back on.
UPDATE [Oct 18]: In the comments, the folks at ImmerSight were kind enough to explain their addition to the Oculus VR system. While they have certainly accomplished their goal of creating a passive positioning system for various VR headgear, this author stands by his assertion that it’s a step in the wrong direction. If users will, as predicted, shy away from bulky headsets, they certainly won’t be interested in something larger that requires a camera positioned overhead. Which may explain why an Internet search wasn’t done. After all, it seemed like piling on to point out who thought it was a good idea to make an Oculus Rift larger.
Eliot has been orbiting show business for over 20 years as an improv comedian, video director, and general guy you might barely recognize. Currently best known for his work on the comedy podcast Never Not Funny: The Jimmy Pardo Podcast. He wrote previously for MacEdition.com, and is working on a collection of short sci-fi and weird tales that will probably be published someday. He is also one of three principals in Modest Games.