If Valve is to be believed then the future of virtual reality is very nearly upon us. We’ve had the enormous snowballing success of the Oculus Rift, Sony is expected to unveil its console VR solution imminently, and Valve themselves are also looking at stepping into the VR arena.
It's an area of technology that has drawn interest since the earliest days of sci-fi, with the general consensus on visions of the future being that it would one day become a (virtual) reality. Now we're closer than ever, but what are the problems standing in the way of VR becoming a runaway success with gamers?
In terms of pushing gaming as a medium forward there hasn’t been a successful gaming product that I can remember off the top of my head, with this many hurdles to release. When the analog controller was created by Nintendo it was all too easy to see how it would be implemented, and how quick the uptake would be. It didn’t take long for Sony to follow suit with a quick DualShock evolution.
The previous leap was undoubtedly mobile gaming. Mobile gaming was a revolution that was almost always going to be unstoppable. Despite it needing everyone to pick up a $600 smartphone, the fact that a mobile could be used for so many other uses meant the shift to gaming was a quick and painless one. The original iPhone was a veritable Swiss Army Knife, capable of sticking its fingers in all the pies. Don’t get me wrong, it was a major undertaking from Apple, and the way the App Store was pushed was sublime, but the killer blow was how easy it was to let everyone know why they should get involved. Within a matter of weeks normally sane and rational people were rushing out in their lunch breaks to pick up an iPhone, just so they could toss some virtual paper in a bin.
With virtual reality though, it’s a whole new dilemma. In the case of the Oculus Rift they need to make absolutely sure it’s right before they push it out the door. A substandard product could be beyond damaging for VR as a whole. You only have to look at Nintendo’s Virtual Boy for a quick insight into how things can go tragically wrong. Whichever VR device hits the market first will have a huge amount of pressure on it, and it’s for the benefit of the VR industry as a whole that it succeeds.
The Oculus Rift has found its way into the hands of many developers over the last year or so, following one of the most outstanding Kickstarter campaigns the fundraising site has ever seen. The Oculus Development Kits have been available for some time now at $300, prior to going out of stock earlier this month. A lot of people in the loop have got their hands on one, but the majority of people I know won't have even heard of an Oculus Rift, let alone want to stick it on their head.
The first problem that faces VR is that of making consumers understand exactly what it is they’re missing. To the average consumer the Oculus Rift really doesn’t look like much more than a replacement telly for someone living on their own. The head-tracking feature needs to be communicated or people won’t see the point, Oculus will be lumped with the Wii U problem all over again. They could have the best product in the world out there, but if the general public can’t understand why they need it and it can have no chance beyond a niche product. Without dwelling on Nintendo too long, they need their Wii Sports. A game that’s immediately obvious and accessible to everyone, a clear indicator of why they need that product. It’s something that both 3D gaming and film failed to answer, leading it to pretty much fall on its arse in slow-motion post-Avatar.
I haven’t been blessed with the opportunity to use one yet, but I’ve been countlessly reassured that once you use you just sort of get it. Everything clicks into place and you understand why it’s necessary. What VR developers are striving for is not just a sense of immersion but one of presence. You can play Half Life and feel immersed in Black Mesa, but how can you make it feel like you yourself are stood there for yourself, taking it all in. That is presence. That is the Holy Grail of VR. It’s what Oculus, Valve and Sony are striving for. But how do you create presence?
During a recent Steam Dev Days event, Valve’s Michael Abrash hosted a talk titled "What VR Could, Should, and Almost Certainly Will Be Within Two Years," detailing what he believes contributes to presence, which he described as:
"It's the sense of being someplace else while in virtual reality; many people feel as if they've been teleported. Presence is an incredibly powerful sensation, and it's unique to VR; there's no way to create it in any other medium."
The aim of virtual reality is pretty much to achieve exactly what the name implies, creating a reality that is indistinguishable from the real one. The aim being to fool the human brain into believing the virtual display in front of your eyes. Unfortunately, or, I guess fortunately, the human brain is too smart for that, demanding that you can’t just put a screen in front of your eyes and hope for the best.
Many early Rift prototypes made users feel disoriented and sick, owing in part to failings in all nine of the requirements for total presence in a game.
Key targets to obtain total presence:
• A wide field of view (110-degrees)
• At least 1K x 1K resolution per eye
• Low pixel persistence ~3ms
• High refresh rate - at least 95 Hz
• Global display
• High-quality optics
• Optical calibration
• Rock-solid tracking - millimetre-accurate
• Low latency <20ms
Without all of these aspects the users experience is going to suffer. The aim is to make wearing a VR headset indistinguishable from real life, any lag in movement or motion blur as you swing up about is instantly perceptible to your brain, whether consciously or unconsciously. Once the tech reaches the above specs then in theory that should be good for releasing to the general public.
When it comes to convincing people to get involved with an Oculus Rift, or any VR headset for that matter, it undoubtedly comes down to the games. Games which are tailored to the device, which are unplayable anywhere else, unique to this experience.
Private Eye - Hitchcock fans rejoice. This is essentially Rear Window: The Game, and if there's a VR game capable of getting thousands of Midsomer Murders-addicted anti-gamers realed in then this is it. Wheelchair-bound and perched in a confined flat, you must use your pair of binoculars to spy on the block of flats opposite, solving murders, mafia hits and lost footballs.
Euro Truck Simulator 2 - Okay this one can be done perfectly well with out the Rift, but it's too tempting not too include. What more do you need for total trucker immersion than a head-mounted display? All you need is a UV lamp on one arm to give you that lop-sided tan you've always dreamed of and you're in trucker heaven. Checking your mirrors, leaning to the side to see if the roads clear. You can almost smell the stale fags and empty KFC boxes.
Sight Line - Games are all about what you can see. Sight Line makes it all about what you can't see. Everything you look at stays constant, but the moment you take your eyes off it anything can change. It's an unsettling sound experience, balancing the user precariously close to dangerous unreality. This is a game where the laws of physics are not so much broken as crushed beneath Einstein's steel-capped boot, where everything can change and all is not as it seems.
Alone - If there's one genre I'm probably going to be incapable of playing it's the crap-your-pants-em-up, or Horror for short. Alone subverts what we've come to expect from a game by having the player play as a gamer, sat on a virtual couch playing a virtual game. If that's not enough to make your head spin then check out the extensive video for yourself. From loud bumps to strange sights, or whisperings by your ear, Alone looks like an experiment in horror too much for some.
Release and Future Plans
Valve has reportedly been collaborating with Oculus for some time now, with the joint aim of finding technologies that can make virtual reality an affordable reality. VR is expected to be a commercial presence in 2015, with all three of the major players aiming to have VR headsets out by then.
With a nod to the future, Abrash bowed out at the end of his VR speech with a nod to the fans:
"A great VR system at a consumer price in 2015 is more than just possible – it's sitting there waiting to happen. And it will happen, if not in 2015, then soon after. Virtual reality on the PC over the next few years may be as exciting as anything that's ever happened in games. We're sharing what we've learned with you, and we'll continue to do so. There's a huge amount to be learned and figured out about VR, and we certainly can't figure it all out by ourselves; I hope that as you dive into VR, you'll make it a two-way exchange, so together we can make VR one of the great entertainment evolutions."
Do you think Virtual Reality has enough mass appeal to take off? Sony meanwhile has been working on a headset of its own, one which is expected to be shown off at next week's GDC event. No word on just what it entails yet but sources indicate that Sony's VR headset implementation is far superior than we've been witness to so far with the Oculus Rift. Be on the lookout for news of this next week though, as Sony stepping into the arena undoubtedly signals Playstation 4 VR support. If there's a route into the mainstream then the world's fastest-selling games console seems to be the obvious choice.
Do you think Virtual Reality has enough mass appeal to take off?
What unique gaming experiences do you hope to see made with it?