With keen early adopters starting to receive the Oculus Rift today, you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking that we’ve finally made it into the world of virtual reality gaming.
But despite how attainable this technology might seem, and indeed it is – the first Oculus Rift was hand-delivered by its creator, Palmer Luckey this weekend – the question still remains: is this technology ready to be adopted by the masses? And how long will it be before we see the headsets as a commonplace feature, alongside our consoles or computers, centre-stage in our living rooms?
The truth is, virtual reality is a very incomplete technology. It’s a baby. Much like the early Gameboys, no matter how fun (and now retro enough to be desirable again) these consoles were, they were in no way the finished product. They were simply the first marketable step towards something bigger. Likewise, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR – the three big names in virtual reality gaming – are not the finished product. But they are a product, nonetheless.
But unlike the rest of our technology: computers, televisions, game consoles and mobile phones, virtual reality is in its infancy. It is completely new. Yet this novelty is also what brings the technology’s flaws and limitations.
We’ve been gaming for so long now that we’re used to expansive, HD environments, a range of movements, and wireless controllers. With the high expectations we now harbour for video games, there are some aspects of VR that can seem a little disappointing. Developers have been working on bringing game consoles and games to this point for decades. But virtual reality doesn’t have that luxury.
There are so many other features being incorporated into the technology, so much processing power and input required, something has to give. They’ve had to make compromises. So in terms of size, aesthetics, and wireless capability, VR is playing catch-up. But it’s not only the clunky headset, imperfect controllers, and wires that plant doubt in gamers’ minds. Virtual reality has a few other major issues which it needs to overcome if it hopes to stick around in the long-haul.
The biggest and most cited of these issues is motion sickness. Early VR attempts in the 90s flopped for this very reason (and perhaps it was simply too soon for VR). Motion sickness happens as a result of the disconnect between the movement in the virtual realm, and the gamers’ own movements. Virtual reality can be so immersive that when you move onscreen, you expect to move in real-life, and vice versa. When this doesn’t happen, the balance sensors in your inner ear disagree with the input from your eyes.
Virtual reality has made headway in this respect. The big companies have invested a lot of time in trying to solve the motion sickness problem, and while some users still experience the issue, particularly after long stints in-game, it’s not as big an issue as it used to be. Whilst sickness might seem like a good deterrent to prevent gamers spending too long inside the virtual world, it is far from a selling point.
The disconnect between a gamer’s own movements and those of their virtual-self doesn’t only cause sickness: it can also take away from the otherwise immersive experience of virtual reality.
In virtual reality, when a monster appears suddenly, you jump as if it were real; when you see a creature moving towards you, you feel yourself leaning backwards to get away; when you see a shiny object appear in front of you, you reach out to touch it. But when you move your real arm, yet nothing happens on-screen, the magic breaks. That’s when you feel the disconnect.
The HTC Vive seems to have at least partially found a way around this, using base stations to track a user’s movement as they move around the room, and controllers which track hand and arm movements. Full-body tracking would also counter this problem, but would most likely require a hazard-free virtual reality room, so users don’t find themselves tripping over their sofa or smashing their television screen whilst in virtual reality.
However, if the input comes from a standard controller, like with normal video games, it’s bound to be disappointing. Because at that point, you remember you’re in a game. So at the current stage of virtual reality, the less movement a game requires, the more convincing it can be. And this is why most of the best virtual reality experiences are not necessarily the best games.
The experiences showcased at gaming conventions are exploratory and movement-limited. In the virtual world, you’re strapped to a chair, unable to move, mimicking your real-life positioning. They showcase vivid environments which make you feel like you could really be there. But there’s very little freedom to them, very little actual gaming.
So compared to the ability to trawl vast open worlds like in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt or Fallout 4, virtual reality can seem limiting.
These aren’t the only issues. Questions are arising such as whether certain experiences might be too immersive, horror games too realistic or even traumatising?
The current limitations of virtual reality very much back up what the creators have been saying: virtual reality is designed to work alongside current gaming. It is not a replacement. Much like handheld consoles, it is an additive experience, albeit an incomplete one. Gamers can get their daily dose of vast open worlds and hand-to-hand combat from their ordinary console or computer games, then switch to virtual reality for a more immersive, but limited experience, which is more akin to being inside a movie than a game.
Having any form of virtual reality is still undoubtedly a big step for gaming, and those lucky few who have tried it for themselves after attaining a highly sought-after demo at one of the big gaming conventions will testify to its immersive nature. But the fact remains that they are in their infancy.
They’re the first stage, the black-and-white television, the wired controller, the cassette tape. But as far as new technology goes, they’re pretty impressive, and this time, virtual reality might be set to stick around. After all, it’s never been closer to success.
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