The future of virtual reality has never seemed brighter. The pioneering Oculus VR company was bought for $2 billion by Facebook last month, and Sony is even getting into the game with their Project Morpheus. But is the tech just a fad, or does it really have a chance of going mainstream this time?
Oculus CEO Palmer Luckey voiced some strong opinions about VR's future at PAX East this month stating, "If you can perfectly simulate reality, why do you need to actually go see people in real life?" and, "I think there's almost no way that traditional displays will be around in a couple decades because it just won't be feasible." Admittedly, he has a vested interest in the Oculus doing well, but how realistic are his claims? GameSpot's editors share their thoughts below.
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Eddie Makuch - Is this the real life, or is this just fantasy?
"If you can perfectly simulate reality, why do you need to actually go see people in real life?" When I first read this quote from 21-year-old Oculus Rift creator Palmer Luckey I was deeply disturbed. It's a comment that challenges everything you think you know. What he's really asking is: What if everything you think you know is a lie or at least a half truth? If the reality in which we think we live right now can be perfectly simulated, then is it a "real" reality at all? Or is it just a Matrix-like projection? What does it mean to be real anyway? These are big questions that I'm not sure Luckey ever intended to drum up, but here we are all the same.
I place significant value in seeing and interacting with people face-to-face. I also enjoy spending time outdoors, feeling the wind on my skin or the touch of water on my feet. These are experiences that I deem to be "real." But if Luckey is right, if virtual reality technology can progress to a point where what I deem to be "real" and what headsets like Oculus Rift can project becomes indistinguishable, then he's truly onto an idea that could shake the world. There is a deeper and more profound philosophical discussion to be had here, but I am not in any way equipped to engage in that.
Assuming VR headsets cost $200 each, that's a pretty significant premium if I want to have some friends over to watch a game or a movie in VR.
The grand promise of virtual reality headsets is that when you put them on, your brain is fully tricked into believing it's somewhere else. I have tried out virtual reality technology and the current iteration does not come anywhere close to meeting this lofty goal. It could some day, and the resources from Facebook will no doubt help, but let's not get ahead of ourselves here. Luckey's job is to sell you on the idea of virtual reality, and while I see the potential, the immediate results have left much to be desired.
Regarding Luckey's claim about virtual reality technology like Oculus Rift replacing traditional displays over the next 10-20 years, I don't think that's going to happen unless VR headsets become very inexpensive. Right now, I can pay $300 for a 32" 1080p HD TV that I can enjoy with a group of friends in the living room. Assuming VR headsets cost $200 each, that's a pretty significant premium if I want to have some friends over to watch a game or a movie in VR. Not to mention I need a place to store all of those headsets! Of course, if VR gathers steam, and with Facebook behind it, it seems likely that it will, then price will come down over time. Still, I generally do not like the idea of putting something on my head to watch what I can already see without assistance.
Kevin VanOrd - A future no one wants
Whenever I express my misgivings about Oculus Rift to its greatest advocates, I'm always told how I have to use it to really understand its potential. It's true that my time with the Oculus Rift has been limited, but my doubts have never been based on the quality of the Oculus experience. Instead, my doubts has been practical ones based on the way I consume games and other visual media like television and films. Specifically, I don't always want to be fully immersed.
There are those times, of course, in which I want to exist in a fully simulated reality. I think we all share in those moments; otherwise, why would concepts like Star Trek's holodeck capture our collective imagination? But much of my game playing and TV watching is done casually. I grab a few rounds of Titanfall while dinner is cooking, I watch reruns while cleaning the living room, I reach over and pet the cat while exploring Tamriel in The Elder Scrolls Online. Yes, I would greatly appreciate being able to play a survival horror game while fully immersed in its setting; yes, I would love to watch Game of Thrones without any distraction. But most of the time, I don't want to attach something to my head that demands my attention for every moment it's strapped there.
I don't want intensity to be the defining factor of every game I play and show I watch.
There's an innate intensity to using the Oculus Rift that makes it well-suited to a very specific circumstance. But I don't want intensity to be the defining factor of every game I play and show I watch. And I surely don't want that kind of intensity to characterize the time I spend watching television with friends, when I would rather engage directly with them.
Make no mistake: the technology is neat, but Luckey's personal vision of the future is a surreal tragicomedy that reminds me of the vast spaceship the heroic robot visits in the second half of Wall-E, where the residents speed along in their hoverchairs, using displays to speak to people seated within arm's length. Even if I did believe that Luckey's bizarre goal to physically separate us in favor of virtual interaction was feasible--which I absolutely do not--I still wouldn't want that kind of future. I'm hardly a technophobe, but I'm disturbed by a man that would outright state that he wants his product not just to enhance reality, but to replace it.
Peter Brown - Relax, it's not a dystopian daydream
Palmer Luckey is never short of thoughts on the potential for virtual reality, which isn't surprising given that he's made it his life's work, so to speak. Just last week, he claimed that once VR matures to its full potential, it may someday be capable of supplanting human interaction. A statement like that raises red flags for a lot of people, and they begin to draw comparisons to mad men from dystopian films and comic books as evidence of Luckey's folly.
To them I say: "Relax, please." By Luckey's own admission, the fully realized VR that he's talking about may never come to pass, and he's not suggesting that VR is better than real life. Luckey is plainly stating that if VR were to mature to the point that it can provide an experience that was indistinguishable from reality, we would have to ask ourselves why we value one experience over the other. The answer to that question is different for every person, and my personal belief is that VR, as it is today and as it could be in the future, isn't inherently evil, so there's no reason that we shouldn't pursue it.
Nobody is forcing VR on us, and delving into full immersion will be a choice.
We don't live in a fictional world like The Matrix where a falsified reality is imposed upon the human race against its will. Nobody is forcing VR on us. Delving into full immersion will be a choice, and I am absolutely interested in experimenting with the technology if it ever comes to pass.
During the same interview, Luckey asserts his belief that head-mounted displays like the Rift will replace traditional displays, potentially in 10 years. In this case, I think he's blindly ignoring the benefits of the way we currently consume media. I completely agree with some of his points, specifically that TVs are more expensive to produce and ship, and that there are applications and scenarios where a HMD will make more practical sense, but when it comes to consuming media in a group setting, traditional displays make the most sense. Do I expect there to be local, VR multiplayer games down the road? Yes, because I've already played some, but I seriously doubt that their existence, along with the associated cost of manufacturing and shipping displays, will lead to a complete HMD takeover.
Justin Haywald - Time keeps on slipping into the future
When Luckey says that in 10-20 years VR could supplant traditional screens, everyone imagines people sitting at home with these massive, expensive Oculus sets attached to their heads. That's a ridiculous future, and of course it's not going to happen.
But that's not the future Luckey is positing. In 20 years, or even in 10 years, the technology that we use to create those experiences will be smaller, better, and cheaper, and it'll probably also be almost unrecognizable. When you compare the massive cell phones from the '80s to the svelte mobile computers we use now, you can get a sense for this technology has the potential to change and adapt to everyday use.
And maybe it's not ideal, but what if you could get an Oculus for free? As a trade-off, maybe you have to link it to your Facebook account and you'll see targeted ads when you use that service. That raises completely separate arguments about privacy and how we share content with the public, but the point is there are solutions for getting this kind of tech into everyone's hands.
Maybe a VR future isn't the wonderful utopia we might imagine, but it's not as impossible as we might think.
You've read our thoughts, but what do you think about the future of VR? Let us know in the comments below!