VR – A Window On The Future
I’ve lived long enough to see commercial VR come and go, and then come again. Any comment thread on the subject of the current state of VR will be chock full of people who claim that VR is once again on the outs because the technology is too expensive, has too high a hardware bar for the masses, and that it suffers from a lack of software support.
All true, all true. The cheapest VR experience you can have will run you about $25 for Google Cardboard (assuming you have a capable smartphone which isn’t factored into the cost). This is VR in the way rollerskates are “a way” of commuting to work in the morning: yeah, you can do it, but not only is it horribly misrepresentative of the process, but you look stupid. The good news is that products like Samsung’s Gear VR can bring low-cost VR to the people, but the bad news is that the smartphone will never be able to give you the experience necessary to “sell” the skeptics — there’s only so many roller coaster simulations that people will try before realizing that such things are all that the low-cost option has to offer.
For the real deal, you need to shell out some coin. I recently put together a VR-ready PC which cost me about $1300. If I were to add a VR setup, that would add another $600-$800 to that. These configurations are the Real Deal, though — 1080×1200 per eye which is roughly on par with the current desktop monitor standard of 1920×1080, the sum of which is 2160×1200. While anecdotes relate that a VR headset isn’t as clear as a really good monitor, those numbers are nothing to shake a stick at. Still, no amount of technobabble about resolutions and refresh rates and polling intervals and tracking metrics is going to mean anything to the bulk of potential users if there’s no compelling reason to shell out for the PC and headset.
Right now, software is lacking — in the consumer space. Looking through Steam (Vive and Oculus have their own walled-garden storefronts that I don’t think are accessible outside of the visor) shows that yes, there are a good number of games out there made for or which support VR, but there’s nothing that’s getting traction on the scale of Mass Effect: Andromeda or Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds. What people do know about VR software is usually due to early reports on the technology-focused “gee whiz” proof of concept demos that were made to showcase the tech: Job Simulator, Google Tilt Brush, and a lot of other products which might work well with the concept of VR, but which have that air of “get something out the door so as to be considered to have been a pioneer in VR”. Basically, there’s no killer VR game out there that’s going to silence the nay-sayers, or of the games that are out there, there isn’t one that feels like VR was a logical and the only best way to realize the concept. There is no end to the number of titles that people will throw out as “if only they had a game like [GAME X] in VR, I’d be sold!”, but we’re not at that point quite yet. Eventually, sure, assuming there’s a level of interest that makes VR in the consumer space a continuously viable option.
Consumers like to preach about things from the bottom of their narrow wells (helloooooooo?) but aren’t usually apprised of the whole situation. For example, VR is apparently massive in training, medicine, and therapy. It’s being used to train surgeons on techniques, and psychiatrists are using VR to help people cope with PTSD. Obviously from our perspective here at LC (and presumably your own as you are reading this) gaming is an important aspect of VR, but even if gamers don’t end up adopting the technology, it’s not going to die because its potential for other industries who don’t care about adoption rates and publisher demands are too great.
So why this post now? Over the weekend I picked up a Playstation VR headset. It’s the lowest-cost gaming headset out there, although it only works with the PS4*. I opted to go with the PSVR rather than the Oculus or the Vive partly because of price, but also because the majority of software for the PSVR are actual games of some quality, something I attribute to the fact that the PS storefront isn’t as “Wild West” as Steam is currently. Of course, that means that there are far fewer options for the PSVR, which folks in the industry explain is a result of the lag between the introduction of working dev kits and the amount of time it takes to make a decent quality game (about 2 years minimum, or so the sages claim).
If you’ve never experienced VR, it’s actually difficult to explain its draw. Do we need it? No; I have a smartwatch which I also “don’t need”, but once I acquired it I found that it became far more useful than I could have imagined. The same goes for VR: it’s a “virtual reality”, and if we unpack that we see that we’re talking not just about another way to shove electrons into our eyeballs, like the difference between a 3DS screen, a 40″ 4K TV, or a massive movie screen. We’re talking about a new way of experiencing something. That’s the part that’s hard to get across in words, even with hand gestures. The first time you put on a headset and find yourself standing…wherever…and you move your head around, look down at your “hands”, or up at the sky, it doesn’t feel like you’re where you physically are. At least, until you start to move. The first game I tried, I almost toppled over when I started to move with the gamepad; it wasn’t motion sickness so much as vertigo, the feeling that I was moving while also not moving. There’s a real physiological effect there, meaning that for all the talk about resolution and refresh and cost and software, our senses treat VR as an actual reality. It’s right there in the name: virtual reality, but a reality nonetheless. We’ve only got one reality otherwise, which is really the draw of VR for me. Immersion is supposed to be a key element of great games, but we can’t imagine the level of immersion possible until we’ve put ourselves into a whole different reality.
Throwing VR under the bus because there’s nothing right now that speaks to us as individuals, or because we want to be able to earn street cred with the community says more about the naysayers than it does anything about the technology itself, and that’s really the way it should be: the tech should just keep on keeping on without paying any mind to those who have some kind of axe to grind for some kind of reason. I do agree that the requirements are too high; people should be able to use VR without having to upgrade their PCs. I also agree that the price is too high, but this is gen one, and that’s how technology always works. The software options will keep coming and will get better, but only if there’s a reason for them to do so. If people are adamant about not having VR this time around, then they won’t demand software. If there’s no demand, there will be no software. But it won’t mean that VR is going to end up in a shoebox at the back of the tech closet; it’ll continue in the industries where it’s valued for what it can do.
*As the lowest cost solution, the PSVR is a logical target for hackers, and there are already solutions in the works to get the headset working with the PC. The thing is, Sony is poised to be the cheerleader for VR due to the low price, but leaving it only on the PS4 is like leaving money on the table. If Sony were to make the PSVR officially PC compatible, I can easily imagine a much wider adoption of their product, and for VR in general.