VR – The Future… Maybe, Someday.


My actual thoughts on VR technology. Warning; I’ll be referencing some OLD gameshows here.

Some of you may be a bit young to remember the ill-fated CyberZone.

It was a gameshow back in 1993, when the new promise of immersive 3D gaming (with the PlayStation and Nintendo 64 just around the corner) brought with it a renewed and fervent interest in the concept of Virtual Reality. It was, by all accounts, not that bad for its day – it was certainly no Knightmare, that’s for sure, but Knightmare wasn’t true VR anyway – it was a greenscreen studio made possible by the sensory deprivation of the main protagonist, which allowed for the supporting cast to have a greater role in the proceeding games. It was a unique insight into the ideology of a VR Future, which only ran for one series for a very prominent and important reason – it was freaking EXPENSIVE for its day. Knightmare was expensive – a kids show with a multi-million pound budget may be the norm today but in the early 90’s, it was utterly unheard of. CyberZone – needing not only the goggles, but the treadmill, controllers, screens and customised software required to build a show around it at a time when immersive 3D worlds were only just beginning to change the video gaming market – was considerably more expensive and as a project sold to the BBC at the time, it couldn’t justify its expensive nature with the kind of viewershare required. Even for the era, and with such an important shift in how technology was working and would work, CyberZone ultimately came to fruition a little bit too early, and suffered immensely for it.

The funny thing is, VR Headsets I’ve felt are not the future that we were promised. Partly because the concept of what VR promises – full immersion in our video games – is already perfectly attainable on other hardware.

Dark Souls 2; get a good 32-inch screen, and a decent set of headphones. Immersion – sorted. The games whole design is one of immersion in a world; a journey through the remains of a long-dead land, with the flickering of torches and the glint of a sun which may or may not be the real sun. Get yourself the correct hardware now, and full immersion in a video game is not only possible, but wonderful. I can turn up the sound and enjoy the ambience of the Shrine of Amana, or listen for the tell-tale sounds of an impending ambush. VR, whilst an interesting concept, is proposing something that some games can already deliver without the effort of extra processing power, or the complications of extra hardware functions.

That latter one is an important distinction to make as well; as awesome as some of the proposed features of the Rift are, the reality is that primarily most of the people involved will end up only using the two screens; ask Nintendo how that worked out for the power inside the 3DS, to which the answer is, “Please, don’t.” The 3DS hardware could and should be capable of so much more, but the harsh cold light of day stuff reveals that running two images side by side in order to create a depth of field 3D effect actually requires processing power beyond the limitations of what is otherwise possible. It’s why the initial R&D for the next Nintendo handheld has all but already jettisoned the notion of continuing the stereo 3D effect – the novelty has to come at the expense of the performance, and most developers have been somewhat vocal in the last year or two about the expense that comes with forcing the stereo-3D effect into their software.

The same goes with the Wii-U Gamepad; just because it’s in the box, it doesn’t mean people will make good use of it. The same was somewhat true of the Wii Remote, although in fairness that thing peaked so early with the Resident Evil 4: Wii Edition controls that it was almost impossible for anyone to come in with a better use for the hardware. And of course, the same is true of Kinect; just because you WANT it to be something, doesn’t mean even those working on it can deliver anything like what you have promised.

The hardware world often circles around these gimmicks for a while because they are interesting distractions. The hardware itself may be repurposed down the road, but for that to happen you have to actually have a carcass in the way to repurpose in the first place. The Oculus Rift – and to some extent, the Sony Morpheus – are novelties. Yes, my usual line of novelties paraded as progress would come into play here, but the reality is I don’t think anyone genuinely believes that this technology is the future. That the Rift people managed to convince a social media platform like Facebook to part with $2 billion for a platform that isn’t actually going to find full market penetration is actually, to my mind, hilarious. Fools and their money, easily parted. Facebook don’t want to be left behind on this new conceptual platform (Facebook missed the smartphone revolution and man, have they been kicking themselves ever since!) and have bought in early, but then – Sony did the exact same thing with BluRay, just as the Internet began to experiment with digital streaming. Sony’s investment was for naught really; a huge sum of money, poured down the drain because pride demanded they not face up to past failures. They have been hoodwinked; and actually, good for the Rift people. I can’t believe they pulled it off, let alone with a straight face.

The primary reasoning for my mistrust of VR technology though is that much of the problem with immersive gaming these days is that actually, a lot of the mistakes are NOTHING to do with the hardware. Truth is, if you utilise the hardware sensibly, reasonably and code according to its strengths, there’s very little you couldn’t do on today’s games consoles and PC hardware. Much of what breaks the immersion are often simply down to design or coding failings; human error, in other words. Broken games won’t be any more fun or immersive in a sensory-deprivation chamber, after all. They’ll just be broken games running on some funky hardware. This is often called the “Suck It Down” effect, where people who have invested in a piece of expensive hardware will buy the WORST possible game and then spend the rest of their week/month/year trying to justify why they bought it. After all, I’ve had people try and convince me Knack is a better platformer than Super Mario 3D World; they don’t have a Wii U and haven’t played the joyous 3D World, but because Knack is on the PS4, IT MUST BE BETTER! It’s a PS4 game! It’s guaranteed to be better, right?

There’s nothing saying you can’t have a perfectly good sensory-deprived game experience with a quality screen (I’ve come to the conclusion for gaming screens that bigger isn’t necessarily better; a 32inch HD screen fits the eyes more than a 44inch HD Plasma screen; and for some games, you don’t want the eye to get too lost in things!) and a great, noise-cancelling pair of headphones. The Rift has convinced a selective audience that what it was offering was new, and exciting. Perhaps it is; perhaps the hardware is at least better than what we had in 1993, after all, and we’ve come on leaps and bounds since those early 3D models to the point of photo-realism. But that said, the concept is still a weighty gadget that sits on your head and means you can’t talk to your mates at the same time. The fundamental design flaw of VR is that far from a social platform, the very nature of it is antisocial; it’s designed to shut people off from the outside world. You can’t share the experience. And, at a proposed $350 for the headset alone, it’s still a heavy consumer investment for a device that ultimately isn’t a platform in its own regard yet.

Scratch the surface of the VR thing, and it’s all just a bit fanciful. I have no ill-will towards the Rift itself – it’s a bit of fun on the way from the cradle to the grave, after all, and it’s no more a waste of money than any other technological purchase in the modern era. But I never saw the Rift as a future in its own right; perhaps a stepping stone towards newer technologies, sure. And no doubt it now has enough money to not care if it succeeds or not; hell, it’s Facebook’s problem now *evil maniacal laughter*. But it was something to enjoy in the moment. A fun thing on the way to bigger things. I suspect by 2020, most of the VR stuff will have burned out and we’ll be looking at more serious hardware upgrades to our consoles and computers to offset any current limitations that we have. We are not ready to be sucked into a wide 3D world just yet; ideals of The Lawnmower Man or Better Than Life are still some considerable distance away (and that said, if you’re going to stick probes into your brain for that sort of thing, I’d perhaps suggest we find a better arbiter for our subconscious minds than a company that does still base much of its over-valuation right now on the collection, aggregation and selling of personal user data. Just a thought!).

VR promises so much; but it neglects to tell us that it is selling a concept that is already within reach of many of us, for considerably less investment. Sure, you’d have to have a pair of headphones connected to a TV, but it’s no less messy than a VR Headset. You cannot change the games industry either by offering hardware or new visual mediums as a solution to poor design work; it just doesn’t work that way. And for the most part, we’ve got more solutions these days than we know what to do with; the problem is, many of them are wilfully discarded every time something new turns up. Once the hardware hits the market, my guess is people will find holes they could march an army through. There’s nothing WRONG with VR; but it will happen – because that’s what the modern tech-head is good at. Finding fault.

I don’t believe the horrified reactions to the sale are justified; but I understand the horror (I backed Broken Age and let’s be honest, that was pretty meh. And I also Kickstarted the Ouya; which was the sound I made when it eventually Kickstarted me in the genitals). But I’ve come to learn the future is often led by the quiet revolutions more than those who hold a ticker-tape parade for every little idea they have. I’ve found myself distanced from the Rift in the same direction the Ouya eventually pushed me away; it focused far more on what it didn’t have than what it did. In both instances, this was showing Nintendo games running on the hardware – to which I suddenly realised, hang on, I can play that already! Let me go dig the old machine out of the cupboard. All I see is a platform reaching for the credibility and kudos of games it can never have; at least, not legally, and that is never a comfortable realisation for me.

But if you have a Rift, or want one, go ahead. I’m sure you’ll genuinely have a ton of fun. It’s not for everyone but not everything NEEDS to be for everyone; we’re far too demanding of general acceptance these days. “LIKE THIS OR I THINK YOU HATE ME!” I don’t. And I don’t. The two are such different arenas. I don’t have to like what you like; but I can still LIKE you. I can still enjoy your company. I can still accept you for who you are. I don’t have to approve of everything you do to enjoy being with or around you, after all.

And perhaps that’s the funny thing. This is the Facebook generation. Like me or you don’t like me. If that’s the future of VR, then I count myself somewhat blessed I may not live long enough to see the smoking crater it leaves behind…

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