Virtual Reality: Fad or Future?

Is virtual reality here to stay, or is it just another passing fad?

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Virtual reality is currently experiencing a revival thanks to the Oculus Rift, Sony's Project Morpheus, and Valve's VR tests, and there are hints that Microsoft isn't far behind, either. The prospect of actual, fully realized VR is certainly enticing, but the question on everyone's mind is whether VR is here to stay or if it will fade into obscurity yet again.

At this point, it's too early to tell where VR is headed, but in the interest of exploring both sides of the debate, here's why Peter Brown thinks VR is the future, and why Mark Walton thinks it may just be another techno-fad in the making.

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Peter Brown: Virtual Reality is the Future

As an admirer of new and interesting hardware, I was immediately drawn to the Oculus Rift when it was announced in 2012. However, after a few tests with the first developer kit, I was surprisingly dejected. Early VR experiences, such as Dactyl Nightmare, failed to deliver on the promise of tricking our brains into believing a false reality, and I hoped that Oculus would be different. I was entertained by a port of Doom 3, and walked around a frozen castle in Epic Games' Elemental demo, but there was no suspension of disbelief to be had. It wasn't Dactyl Nightmare all over again, but there wasn't any evidence that it was worth getting excited about the future VR. Apart from motion-blur-related queasiness, nothing inside of me felt connected to the experience before my eyes.

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Fast-forward to August 2013. I'm at Gamescom in Cologne, Germany, for an appointment with CCP Games to try out its new space-combat game EVE Valkyrie. It had been exactly a year since my first Rift experience, and with memories of motion sickness still fresh in my mind, I was more than a little nervous. If walking down a hallway in Doom 3 made me dizzy, how could I possibly handle spaceflight? Little did I know that I was walking into a demo that would forever alter my opinion of VR and its potential to change not only gaming, but our relationship with technology at large. A minute into the demo, my reluctance transformed into excitement, and I was instantly converted into a VR believer.

Little did I know that I was walking into a demo that would forever alter my opinion of VR...

Unlike the other experiences I mentioned, EVE Valkyrie was built around the limitations and aims of VR. First, the notion of sitting in the cockpit of a spacecraft translates perfectly to sitting in a chair. Flying a jet doesn't require you to turn your shoulders or walk; your torso and arms remain stationary whether you're diving, climbing, or turning. Most impressively, apart from controlling your perspective within the cockpit, you can lock on to enemy spacecraft by following them with your gaze. I can't fully explain how great it was to crane my neck backward to lock on to a passing enemy ship, but it was an empowering feeling, and I was immersed in my role as a pilot. Not only are your physical movements accounted for in the virtual world, but the gameplay is enhanced as well. After a few minutes of dogfighting in space, I began to anticipate the effects of centripetal force; my brain had been tricked, and my fate as a VR evangelist took off.

Having witnessed firsthand the sorts of experiences that only VR can offer, I've seen that there's more to the medium than I once thought. Now, not everyone who has played EVE Valkyrie shares my excitement, but I haven't met a single person who didn't thoroughly enjoy it. The experience allowed me to extrapolate the potential that lies down the road if VR hardware and software are continually developed hand in hand. In some ways, the industry is starting over from scratch with VR, and there are a lot of lessons to be learned.

As Oculus' VP of product, Nate Mitchell, likes to put it, VR is like a house of cards. If you take one card out--such as the relationship between physical and virtual movements--the illusion crumbles. The fact is, the house of cards at present is just a foundation, but it's already attracting lots of money and attention. The industry is in a much better position to facilitate the dreams of artists and designers than it was 20 or 30 years ago, and with institutions like USC successfully adopting VR for mental health treatment, the implications of the tech outside of gaming will bolster its legitimacy in the short term and spur further funding and research in the long term. It's still the early days, but with the right experience under your belt, I think you'll agree that VR is the future.

This time, it's here to stay.

Mark Walton: Is There an Audience for Virtual Reality?

How many people really want virtual reality? That's the question I was left asking myself after Sony revealed Project Morpheus, its sleek, futuristic-looking foray into the fledgling medium. It arrives after a flurry of hype and media fervor over the Kickstarter-backed Oculus Rift, as well as the likes of Valve's in-house VR headset. Having been fortunate enough to try the Oculus Rift, there's no denying it's an impressive, potentially game-changing piece of technology. Project Morpheus is no less impressive, at least on paper: a 1080p display, 90-degree field of view, 3D audio, motion tracking... you know, all the things us tech-heads like to geek out over.

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The trouble is, despite its "3+ years" development time, it's hard to see Project Morpheus as anything but a case of Sony hopping on the VR bandwagon, trying to chase down a new and potentially lucrative audience. And if that all sounds a little familiar, you only need look back at the last console generation to see how such a strategy played out. Sony's PlayStation Move and Microsoft's Kinect were both responses to Nintendo's hugely popular Wii. Neither was anywhere near as successful.

And with Microsoft rumoured to be developing its own VR tech, VR is very much becoming the hot new tech item that everyone is scrambling to get a piece of, but--unlike with motion gaming--without any evidence that the public at large is willing to buy one.

For all its success with the developer community and games media, there's still no hard evidence that the Oculus Rift has wide appeal.

Today's VR is very impressive. Developers love it too. But how do we know the public at large will? The majority of interest in VR has come from the industry, not from consumers. It's impossible to really know the demand for such a device before it goes on sale; even the hugely successful Oculus Rift Kickstarter was backed only by a few thousand people. But until it does, I'm erring on the side of caution. After all, there are plenty of great ideas--in gaming and consumer technology alike--that haven't caught on in the way their creators had hoped.

There are so many variables at play: will people feel comfortable sitting at home with a screen slapped to their face? Will they be willing to pay for it? They certainly weren't too happy with 3D glasses, and those were nowhere near as cumbersome, even if the actual experience wasn't as impressive. Plus, with 1080p displays, motion tracking and the like inside VR headsets, it's doubtful they'll be cheap. The consumer version of the Oculus Rift is targeting a $300 price point, which is hardly an impulse buy. Plus, much like 3D, or indeed motion-controls, it's hard to demonstrate the pros of VR to consumers without them actually getting their hands on a unit. Getting demo units into stores is going to be just as important as getting developers on board to make games.

This raises the classic games peripheral problem too: developers want a large install base to sell to, but consumers are reluctant to buy into a new piece of tech in large numbers without the games to back it up. Big graphics engine companies like Epic Games, Crytek, and Unity have all pledged support for Project Morpheus, but as Nintendo found out with the Wii U, third-parties are just as quick to abandon a new platform as they are to support it if it doesn’t live up to sales expectations. Even making sure a peripheral is bundled with the hardware isn't any guarantee of success: just look at how many games are specifically designed for Kinect on Xbox One (spoiler: not many).

Sony's move into VR may represent the most high-profile support of the technology yet. And, with rumours that Microsoft is also working on its own VR device (codenamed Fortaleza), both of the big home console makers are hoping to capitalise on VR's recent rebirth. But it is a hope, and right now there's little evidence that VR is going to reach the kind of critical mass that'll entice developers to create games for it in the long term. I'm just hoping history isn't repeating itself, and we end up with a bunch of impressive but forgotten peripherals that chased an audience that simply wasn't there.

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