A Realistic Look at the Near Future of Virtual Reality
Its day may finally be nearing.
05.16.16 - 11:10 AM
Judging by the number of panels and talks at recent tech and gaming conferences, from CES to GDC to SXSW, virtual reality is poised to transform the way we consume media and finally deliver on the promise of an immersive storytelling environment. Some naysayers point to the hype that attended 3D TV or VR's first abortive launch in the 1990s as a cautionary tale, but already whole industries are cropping up to take advantage of this new medium. You should expect to see a lot of awkward presentation with PR reps wearing VR headsets at this year's E3. I am neither an industry expert nor a futurist, but I can say having tried every major VR platform slated for release this year that I am excited for the potential of this technology. 2016 will be the year that options explode for VR hardware, and it will then be up to developers to create the killer app that will drive mass adoption in this market. Many obstacles remain, but to experience the energy within the community of VR developers and enthusiasts at this early moment feels like I am witnessing a transformational moment in media technology. If you have not done so already, now is the time to get excited about virtual reality.
It is difficult, indeed likely impossible, to convey the experience of VR through the written word. Or the spoken word. Or really anything other than trying a headset, but suffice it to say that a VR experience can be unlike anything traditional media has to offer. The best VR applications are truly immersive in every sense of the word. You understand the scale of your surroundings and are wholly transported to another frame of existence. Peering over a cliff induces vertigo, and witnessing a monument inspires awe. Of course, not every VR experience is a marquee one, but the potential of this technology is impressive and exciting.
The landscape of VR hardware is rapidly evolving, but 2016 will see the release of several major players on the market with options for consumes at multiple price points. The lower end of the market is already well served and powered by smartphones. Google Cardboard headsets are simple construct-it-yourself units and cost around 20 dollars. They are compatible with many major smartphones and come free with many promotional offers, including the New York Times newspaper. I was given two free at South by Southwest without even asking. A slightly more upscale smartphone headset is the Samsung Gear VR for around $100. Gear VR naturally runs on Samsung phones and all software runs through the Oculus app. The headset itself is plastic and has a few more features than a Cardboard headset, like a strap and external touchpad, but at the end of the day, it still runs on a smartphone.
Mobile VR has done a great deal to democratize this technology, but the hardware that generates the most excitement and press is the higher-end segment of the market. The top players (and also the most expensive), are the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. Oculus kicked off the VR craze as a scrappy Kickstarter but is now an industry giant with the backing of Facebook. The Vive, on the other hand, is a partnership between HTC, best known for their smartphones, and Valve, best known its PC game distribution platform Steam. The Oculus Rift shipped March 28th for preorders and will be available generally in July for $599. The Vive came out on April 5th and retails for $799. Both headsets require a very powerful PC rig to run most games. The other notable headset coming out this year is Sony's PlayStation VR, which will run on the PS4. It is scheduled for an October release for $399.
Thanks to the first mover advantage, the Oculus Rift is probably the foremost VR headset in the collective minds of the public. My experiences on the Oculus have been the most polished, with impressive graphics and immersive experiences. As the Oculus' motion tracking range is rather limited, it is designed to be used mostly while sitting. This makes it ideal as a gaming platform for traditional style games with the added immersion and sense of scale of VR. Oculus reinforces this use-case by packing an Xbox One controller with the headset. Motion controllers dubbed Oculus Touch are in development but do not have a release date. The consumer version of the headset is extremely well-designed, with built-in headphones and a snug strap. The headset is large but does not feel oppressively heavy. All in all, the Oculus Rift is an impressive piece of technology, if you are willing to shell out for the high cost of early adoption.
If the Oculus Rift is a sedentary experience, the HTC Vive encourages users to move and utilize both virtual and physical space. Its tracking capabilities are designed to work in the area the size of a small room, and it comes with two motion sensing controllers. Combining these two features allows users to move about a space and interact with virtual objects with ease. This creates a "sense of place" like nothing else in gaming, though running into the tether can interrupt this experience to a certain degree. Most of the applications I have tried with the Vive have therefore been more experimental, somewhat akin to early uses of motion control with the Wiimote. While some may not consider that a favorable comparison, there is clearly a great deal of potential for pushing game design beyond its current boundaries.
My first and only time on PlayStation VR was at E3 2015, back when it was called Morpheus. My impression then was that it had a long way to go before it could deliver an experience on par with the Oculus or Vive. However, that was nearly a year ago, and the headset does not come out for several more months. Initial reports seem promising, and the lower price point makes it attractive for console gamers who already own a PS4. Consoles' appeal has always been ease-of-use. If Sony can deliver a similar usability with VR, it will have a significant edge.
This is, of course, not an exhaustive treatment of VR hardware. The major players will likely change in the coming years, and the technology will evolve rapidly. That dynamism is half the excitement of watching this industry at its infancy.
Though this hardware is capable of impressive feats, VR still needs a killer app before it becomes a compelling consumer device. Gaming is the most obvious VR use case and has driven much of the early development. VR is perfectly suited for adventure games like P.O.L.L.E.N. and Xing: The Land Beyond, and it an immersive sense of scale even without a first person view such as in the action RPGs Chronos. Unfortunately, the library of VR games is still small, and the selection of truly stellar choices even smaller. But there are many other use cases outside gaming. Film is an obvious application that is seeing good development. Jokes about VR porn aside, a growing crop of VR filmmakers and the falling price of 360 degree cameras are producing interesting content. Other uses include journalism (see the NYTimes), tourism, virtual meetings, and various industrial and training uses. The potential is astonishing, but the current content ecosystem is still rather sparse.
VR as an industry faces numerous other obstacles of varying complexity. An obvious one is the cost, at least for the non-mobile hardware segment. Costs in new technologies are always high and will undoubtedly fall with time. But if the Oculus can't gain a foothold because people do not want to pay 600 dollars to strap a flat-screen TV to their face, it will fail before prices ever have a chance to drop. The fact that the high-end hardware must be tethered to a computer is another annoyance, particularly for the HTC Vive, a device designed for movement in a 3D space. On the other hand, mobile VR must contend with battery drainage and the tendency to overheat with extended use.
The question with any new consumer technology is whether to adopt early or wait for improvements in further iterations. I obviously cannot make that decision for you; only you know your budget and only you can decide how to value a VR experience. I believe that VR still lacks a truly compelling application, and for that reason I personally am waiting. However, I strongly encourage you to at least try a higher-end headset for yourself before writing the technology off. VR is more than a medium or a technology; it is an experience that is possibly revolutionary and certainly unlike anything else you have tried before.