I have several old, initial drafts of articles from a year ago I want to redraft and post but I’ve been out of the whole writing thing for a while and right now, I’m in the mood for something fresh, something I haven’t written about much before. Today’s topic? VR!
Virtual reality has been getting a lot of attention over the past few years. A very successful Kickstarter project with the Oculus Rift completely reignited what was essentially a dead industry in VR, at least as far as consumer products went. What died in the 90s has been revived in the 2010s as something new and exciting!
Of course if you’ve paid any attention to this at all since news of that Kickstarter went live, you’ll know the resurrection of virtual reality has been met with much scepticism, opposition and disinterest from those who really want you to know just how not at all interested in virtual reality they are and are thoughtful enough to click into and comment under every article about it. How kind. Many believe the industry is setting itself up for another flop, citing 3D films and televisions as examples.
3D, much like VR died over a decade ago and gained a sudden resurrection accompanied by hype, marketing and lots of companies jumping on board. It was no longer this cheap little pair of red and blue glasses you stuck on your face to get a primitive attempt at 3D. Companies started spending millions on filming in 3D. It was pushed to cinemas, it was pushed into TVs and to view it, those cheap red and blue glasses would no longer suffice! You were now required to use expensive 3D glasses specifically made to work with it.
The TVs are expensive, the cinema tickets are expensive, the glasses are also expensive and to top it all off, 3D hasn’t been cut down to just one or two standards. It varies quite a bit and if you want to buy a 3D TV then the glasses you need are seemingly proprietary, further driving up the price. That pushes up the price rather a lot if you’re wanting to to watch 3D films with other people and the problem is exasperated if the people you want to watch them with happen to have 3D TVs of their own as unless you have a TV using the same 3D format, your 3D glasses are probably not going to be compatible with each other’s TVs. So do you all spend more money so you can watch films wherever and whenever you meet? Or do you instead designate a person’s house as the 3D place in which that is the only place you watch them together? It’s an additional frustration in a situation where common sense would be that having your own 3D TV would mean you or your friend not being required to pay for an additional pair of glasses if you wanted to watch something at their place.
In an early adopters market, where having near universal and consistent standards is key to helping things take off, these were pretty huge issues. Adopting technology early is more expensive, it’s risky and it requires a leap of faith. If you’re selling this to people, you want to work to make this as cheap, safe and appealing as possible, even if that means working with your rivals to do so. These are the people who are going to be talking about your technology when nobody else is, they’re the ones giving reviews and showing it off to people. You fail that and people are likely going to hold off until things settle down when things are cheaper and more standardised.
The obvious result is it’s not making companies the desired amount of money when people aren’t making a point of buying 3D copies of things which then means there’s even less reason to buy into 3D. It’s pretty much doomed to be a passing phase. That said, 3D isn’t dead yet. It’s still hanging on as TVs get cheaper and companies producing films find ways of doing good 3D cheaper.
The point of all this is that whilst yes, 3D also gained a similar treatment to VR at the time and mostly flopped, there were reasons behind it. Scepticism isn’t a bad thing to have and in this case, it shows people are at least looking at a recent example and learning from it. However, I feel like the wrong lesson has been learned and that instead of looking into the reasons something has failed and how this new thing differentiates itself from that, they’re just taking the simple view that new, different technology that gets attention will fail because this other big thing failed.
This seem to be a mainstream mindset amongst those who feel it will fail and it pops up all the time in online discussions. Strangely though, there’s also another group of people who simply want it to fail and push against supporting it with insightful reasons like “if this is the future of gaming, I’m out” and “I don’t want to sit down looking like an idiot with this thing on my face, a normal screen works well and because that’s what I want, that’s the right way of doing things”.
Clearly this is a little reductive in that some people do think this without wanting VR to fail and others have their own reasons for disliking it. A strangely large and vocal proportion of people however, seem to have it in for VR and have this misguided idea that unless nearly everyone is on board, virtual reality is set for certain death just like what happened in the 90s.
In (actual) reality though, things are going very differently. Virtual reality has a real push behind it from the games industry with several companies both large and small backing it. Facebook, Valve, HTC, Sony, Samsung, Google, etc. are all working on the hardware and SDKs with a great deal more making games for it. Unlike 3D, many of these companies have come together to figure things out and make it work alongside creating an actual standard for VR as a whole to use as a base to build from.
The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are the 2 big hitters right now and while they are directly competing with each other in a huge way, much of the underlying technology is the same. On the hardware side, they’re extremely similar as are the experiences you get from them whilst on the software side, at least as far the SDKs go, they’re identical with Steam pretty much only adding Steamworks to theirs.
The big difference between them at the moment is that the HTC Vive has the trackers on the headset with it using 2 base stations firing infrared within it’s boundaries for tracking and that it comes with 2 accurate motion controllers out of the box whilst the Oculus Rift currently lacks motion controls available to the consumer, relying instead on a standard Xbox One control pad and that it uses cameras to track the headset.
You can buy motion controllers and set things up so you can use them like Vive controllers however and Oculus Touch, the Rift’s take on motion controllers works with motion games made for the Vive. For better tracking, adding a second camera will improve the potential for 360 positional tracking much like the Vive’s base stations and again, this works with games made for Vive room-scale games (games that utilise your available real world space to let you walk around in VR) perfectly fine. Likewise, if you use a workaround to bypass the Oculus store and it’s exclusive games really wanting you to use a Rift, Oculus Rift games work perfectly on the HTC Vive.
This all works because of this common, shared standard that companies are using. They want this to take off and they know it needs a level of cooperation and common standards to make it easy for people to get into VR whether they’re developers or consumers. The former don’t need to worry about ports or having to pick a particular headset and consumers don’t need to worry about buying the wrong headset and not getting to play games they find appealing. Well, so long as we forget the Oculus Rift store having exclusive games which we can do for now since the work around functions again.
Samsung VR also uses Oculus technology and many other more more recent VR headset developers giving it a go are using the shared, common standards. I’m not sure what PlayStation VR uses yet but it’s not unrealistic to assume it is also using the same standard to encourage developers to jump on board.
We’re seeing a level of self awareness and understanding from companies that 3D didn’t get when it was revived. Everyone is coming together to make virtual reality work in a way that’s consumer, developer and platform friendly. As a new technology, it’s crazy to see how much potential can already be realised by developers just because of this. VR is all around still considered a young technology yet because of this joint effort, it’s making progress at a good pace.
Whilst it’s still expensive for a few reasons (the hardware requirements to run VR and the cost of the headsets themselves), VR is still in the early adopter stages. What it needs now is the games, to demo the technology to potential future customers and for a more affordable yet cheaper version to be made available to get more people to jump on board.
The amazing thing is, we’re sort of getting there. Whilst demoing virtual reality could do with being easier and more widespread, the overwhelming reaction from people who play and never touch games alike is of amazement. People really seem to be taking to it when they try it and even simple games are made enjoyable just from being placed within that world. What this tells me is at the very least, VR demos well. They’ve mostly got that down and I feel like that’s going to be one of the most important things when selling it.
The Wii is often cited as this huge hit that took off because of easy marketing and a wide appeal and I agree but I feel like one of the big things that helped it take off was that Nintendo made a good effort to tour around demoing the console before release. It demo’d well from within public spaces to inside people’s homes. People played it, they understood it and liked it so much that they bought it. I don’t think VR is going to take off in quite the same way sales wise but I feel like the ability to demo well is a very good thing to have and something that’ll help it when it’s more affordable.
As far as affordability goes, we’re much closer with PS VR. The PS4 is already an insanely popular console with no signs of slowing down. With PS VR’s price being £349/$399USD, it’s already a realistic proposition for many. The hardware required to support the headset is there, it’s standardised and developers will be creating games specifically for it with some strict requirements. While the headset hardware may not be as good as the Rift or Vive, it still seems to do the job well and is still a great entry point into VR. Add in the fact that buying a PS4 alongside the PS VR is only a little more expensive than the Oculus Rift and cheaper than the HTC Vive and you have a pretty compelling piece of hardware.
For the games, we have developers big and small working on them. It’s a new technology, a new market and developers are excited about it. They can finally get into creating stuff without worrying about an overcrowded market and just make the things they want to make. What I love about this is it feels like developers are back to being experimental again, they’re not just playing it safe. Virtual reality brings in so many potential ways of doing things that we’re going to see some pretty weird, crazy and downright creative stuff coming out of it. There’s already some really cool things released out there and some games still in development that I really want to get my hands on.
Unlike 3D, we have the big companies working on the hardware and SDKs collaborating to create a standard. We have a push for games by developers that demo well with no signs of slowing down and come this October, we’ll have our first real attempt at quality VR at a more affordable price.
Alongside all of this, these companies seem to realise that it’s an early adopter’s market and that they shouldn’t be expecting to sell millions of headsets right away. I feel that’s been communicated well and that developers and consumers have a pretty good relationship right now in that whilst more games are wanted, everyone knows it’s a work in progress. With that in mind, it’s pretty damn popular as is.
I don’t think VR needs to take off like the Wii or the iPhone to be a success. I feel like it just needs to sell enough and keep the interest going as it matures. Gaming media in general seems to love it from journalists to bloggers, to Youtubers, developers and early adopters. The general atmosphere is one of positivity. For myself, the main issue seems to be that there’s so many options I don’t know who to go with so my plan is to see how PS VR reviews are and then make my selection. It might fail, it may eventually go the way of 3D TVs but to me, the way things are right now says it’s in a pretty good place and I’m both excited and optimistic for it.
Are you optimistic for VR, a bit cautious about it or do you feel like it’s going to fail? Let me know in the comments below! Just keep it civil.