VR, Presence, And The Future Of Gaming

Written by Jon Sutton on Sat, Mar 15, 2014 3:00 PM
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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?

Technology Uptake

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.

Head-Mounted Revolution

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?

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.

The Games

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?

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18:41 Mar-17-2014

Not to offend any of you, but I find it somewhat bothersome when people run off and jump on the "Keyboard or death" bandwagon for what seems like very little reason. I most certainly admit that keyboard & mouse is a great control method, but that doesn't apply to all games, not by a long shot. Fighting/racing/sports games in general, as well as most action-oriented games (such as Assassin's Creed) are pretty much gamepad territory as far as I'm concerned.

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18:52 Mar-17-2014

Then how come I finished Assassins Creed on mouse and keyboard ONLY, managing it with a smile on my face? No one is jumping on any bandwagon. Once I've tried it out I may change my mind :) but so far I still prefer my mouse and keyboard. Btw Fifa, Assassins Creed, Batman etc all works great on mouse and keyboard. I agree, racing games isn't really made for mouse and keyboard-play but that's why you get a racing wheel :)

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19:22 Mar-17-2014

I've tried a lot of things with mouse and keyboard, and I really find it a very clumsy and inconvenient way to play most action or sports games. Not saying it can't be done, or that some people don't prefer it...guess I'm just a product of growing up in the 80s/90s, back when controller was pretty much all we had, and PC's still took 25 minutes to boot up :D

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19:48 Mar-17-2014

I find that anything where you can control the camera angle, or the direction your facing is better with a mouse/keyboard, fighters and racing games I'd play with a pad.

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12:26 Mar-18-2014

It's really just personal preference. For me, I don't like playing FPS games with a controller because I'm used to having more control with the mouse. But for hack-and-slash, third person, platforming games, etc. I prefer controllers. Also, controllers are good for gaming on the couch with a big-screen TV and if you just wanna relax. But if you're feeling serious, K&M is the way to go.

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20:35 Mar-17-2014

In a game like AC where camera control and character direction can be controlled independently, I find the mouse inconvenient. I end up having to rotate the mouse way beyond the normal arc that I'd play in, whereas the gamepad lets me do this fairly easily with the joysticks. Keyboard and mouse is weird that way to me, for some things it's very precise, for others it's a little clumsy.

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01:25 Mar-18-2014

Anything that involves driving is a controller must for me. Keyboard and mouse for everything else. I didn't know how much I would enjoy AC4 or Thief on my K+M but they were both tight and easy to play that way. Of course it helps that I can map every key but the space bar to my mouse.

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01:29 Mar-18-2014

That being said, who gives a flying f*ck what other people are using to play their games?

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14:26 Mar-19-2014

Just for clarification, who cares if someone else is using a keyboard and mouse to play their racing game or a controller to play their FPS? What difference does it make to you if someone else prefers what you don't? Far too many people want to stand on their soapbox and shout, "STOP LIKING WHAT I DON'T LIKE!"

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20:26 Mar-16-2014

Give me my trusted mouse and keyboard and I'm happy.

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13:57 Mar-16-2014

I still prefer playing with a mouse and keyboard.

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16:31 Mar-16-2014

me too :Đ

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20:01 Mar-16-2014

You still use mouse and keyboard. WASD is your legs, your head is your head, mouse is your aiming reticle. I wore the Oculus for a good while at the last GDC. You have to try it before you can "prefer" one or the other. ;) (No offense)

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20:51 Mar-16-2014

good point, no idea why you have negative votes O.o

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21:07 Mar-16-2014

Thank you. My negative reputation on GD was created by this page alone. No joke. People are apparently sensitive about the issue.

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21:41 Mar-16-2014

hehe can happen, years ago I lost over 15 thumbs in one discussion, took me days to prove it was really possible to overclock "locked" i3-2130 by 5% and its igpu by 70%, even Pip was confused first :)

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21:37 Mar-16-2014

I would work to repair your reputation then by posting more helpful things in other articles. You will find that the members of GD can be very understanding, forgiving and supportive of it's other members. You won't find a better group of informed game debaters anywhere else.

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20:39 Mar-17-2014

Good advice. Still, I find it odd I can say something and get slammed for it, and someone can agree with me and be praised for it. Maybe someone's just hazing me. I'm new here. I get it. I've given no reason to deserve respect.

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21:02 Mar-17-2014

oh wow gtx 680 and that cpu? how much of a bottleneck do you experience?

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00:49 Mar-18-2014

Not too bad, honestly. I'd love a new one, but to upgrade my CPU now would require a new mobo, which would require new RAM, so it's a big investment all at once. Any better CPUs that would fit my mobo are almost $300, so it'd be a waste.

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00:59 Mar-18-2014

I'm basically riding this out till The Witcher 3 releases. There are only 4 games out of my library of 200+ that I can't max out - Guild Wars 2, Assassin's Creed 3, Borderlands 2, and Crysis 3. My mobo PCIe is only 2.0, too. Crazy good GPU.

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06:12 Mar-16-2014

When you hear a loud song through your headphone, you can't hear someone calling you from another room.
Imagine yourself wearing a VR headset and being fully "immersed" while someone tries to rob you or worse.
That sounds scary to me.
You do want to be aware of whats going on around you. Don't you?

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10:42 Mar-16-2014

Completely agree. It will be scary as hell, not being aware of anything around you.

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12:02 Mar-16-2014

I assume you sleep though right? Probably even dream too. Regardless of that, I can't imagine that you'd be walking around while immersed in VR, it wouldn't be practical or safe (not for being mugged, but because you couldn't see where you were going, unless the VR was a altered representation of what you were actually surrounded by, which would be cool). In the same way you wouldn't be walking around the place with your console/PC, I don't think it's meant for mobile use.

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12:37 Mar-16-2014

I do sleep at night, but when I hear some noise or a person screaming I would wake up to see whats happening.
But if I were using a VR headset, I wouldn't be able to see whats around me.
I wouldn't be able to hear well if someone calls me from another room as the audio from the game would keep me distracted.

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13:05 Mar-16-2014

"I can't imagine that you'd be walking around while immersed in VR, it wouldn't be practical or safe"
Of course not. I never said (nor did I mean to say) that I would be walking around with the headset.

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13:41 Mar-16-2014

Fair enough, it's just that I don't anticipate being robbed in my home, and as for someone screaming/calling you, I generally don't hear them when I have headphones on, which is quite often depending on the game, i.e ventrilo/teamspeak for co-op stuff. I'd assume that all these levels can be adjusted so that your immersion level would be for you to decide, wether you want to use the speakers on the VR device or the sound system connected to your computer, would be your choice

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14:13 Mar-16-2014

The situation I described earlier only counts when the player uses the VR device for both video & audio, ergo immersed. Lower the volume, more safer they are. It gets better when the player uses external speakers. But still, the player would be slower to react to a robbery or a similar situation due to obvious reasons.

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05:17 Mar-16-2014

Only need to take a look close by, in worlds of game, anime, and manga, to see why/how this could be a potentially terrible path down which to tread. Perfect examples include the .HACK// series, or something like Sword Art Online. Immersion is good, but there have to be limits and boundaries, otherwise we could end up with all manner of extremely bad things happen. I mean if the brain really truly believes what you're experiencing is real, injury or death could be bad...

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08:19 Mar-16-2014

Your brains isn't going to trick you into dying while using VR. You've watching far too much TV and not reading enough about... well... anything. Really, you should be more worried about friends calling you a insert derogatory slang when they see you wearing something that makes you look so dumb.

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18:18 Mar-16-2014

Uh huh, if you say so. I'm sure that once we develop proper robot AI they won't go all Terminator on us either right? Cause virtually every single movie about robots with AI ends up with them deciding we suck in one way or another and then trying to kill us all.
Not saying it's all going to happen, just saying sometimes it's a good idea to step back and really think about all the stuff that could go wrong.

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19:26 Mar-16-2014

You keep quoting Hollywood at like they know what they f*ck they're talking about. Take what Bruce Willis says about the Glock in Die Hard. It was all wrong. It's not a ceramic gun that be taken through airport security. Hollywood doesn't know jack and you only show your lack of intelligence by quoting them.

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18:37 Mar-17-2014

I actually didn't quote anyone or anything, as a quote is a direct reiteration of something that has already been said or written elsewhere. I never once implied movies are all to be taken at face value, I merely suggest that there are things we can learn from them and at least be mindful of things that may happen. In 99% of films dealing with AI it turns out badly for humans, and if you can't see some sense with that then maybe I'm not the one lacking intelligence...

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00:06 Mar-16-2014

Someone should make a Weeping Angels game compatible with the Oculus Rift

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08:21 Mar-16-2014

Anything that holds the image of an angel becomes an angel itself.

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22:14 Mar-15-2014

I'm kinda happy with real reality, so i don't need a virtual one :)

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11:40 Mar-16-2014

But then again, you can explore beautiful worlds that you won't be able to visit in real life, or have to wait till someone actually makes that world IRL :P

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13:43 Mar-16-2014

And i have no need to, i'm already living in a beautiful world that is all i need.

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13:57 Mar-16-2014

i agree with fudge on that one, this world is amazing enough.

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16:36 Mar-16-2014

Haha, I guess it can be more useful for people who can't travel around much :3

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17:38 Mar-16-2014

thats a good point.

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20:08 Mar-16-2014

So, you're on game debate, talking about not needing virtual worlds. You don't play Skyrim? or video games? What's your point exactly? That Oculus has two screens and your monitor has only one? You demand immersion, but only one screen? :)

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20:22 Mar-16-2014

I'm immersing well enough even with one monitor, yes i like virtual worlds of Skyrim and such. But i just said that i don't need THAT much immersion, since i like real world better i don't think i want to be that deep in a game's world. Just my opinion :)

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20:28 Mar-16-2014

Have you tried it?

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20:32 Mar-16-2014

Well, no i haven't. But i'm not the type that wants to get super immersed with a game, so i just think that Oculus wouldn't be a device for me.

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20:39 Mar-16-2014

Have you ever been to a 3D movie? If so, did you feel reality slipping away?
I ask because I actually have used the Oculus. How do you know you wouldn't simply find it "cool"? You have strong opinions about something you haven't tried

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21:05 Mar-16-2014

Well, i actually think that 3D movies are just a gimmick, and to me they don't add up any extra enjoyment. But i'm just not interested in immersing myself fully into a game, i'm more of a casual gamer, to me it just isn't appealing to try to get virtual world as real as possible. But if i someday will have a chance to try Oculus i will, maybe it'll surprise me positively.

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21:10 Mar-16-2014

I can't say whether or not you'd actually buy it, but I'd be pretty shocked if you didn't like it. I mean, I liked it and didn't buy it. I think people just fear the term "virtual reality". It's really just 3D. It's cool, honestly.

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18:57 Mar-15-2014

Head mounted anything fails. Most people don't like 3D TVs at home because they have to wear those stupid glasses. You really think that they're going to like wearing a giant VR helmet? It's going to fail just like 3D TVs are failing.

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18:25 Mar-15-2014

I was a little skeptical about it all, then I had a go with one of my friend's Rifts, and it was amazing. The level of immersion is truly staggering, it really does feel like you're in the game, you want to reach out and touch objects within it because they look so much like they're actually there.

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20:32 Mar-16-2014

Woah, woah. Slow down. Are you offering up an opinion that's based on experience? Look around you - that ish doesn't fly around here. Say you hate change, give a down-vote to the people who ask you to keep an open mind, and move along.

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20:42 Mar-16-2014

@Brad. Reading what he said he is talking about his experience with a Rift and giving his personal opinion. You need to back up and read what it is people are saying before you open your mouth.

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20:51 Mar-16-2014

@RogueRequest. Agreed 100%

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20:49 Mar-16-2014

So that's the way YOU do it here on GD. Doesn't mean we all have to conform to your set of standards eh...

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21:15 Mar-16-2014

LMAO. Dangit! I really do need a sarcastic font. I'm saying that (unlike a lot of other people), he's actually providing useful information. It was sarcasm. I'm on his side. Too many people are hating the Oculus, but haven't tried it.

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21:34 Mar-16-2014

Well, rereading it, I could see how you meant it that way. The unfortunate thing about the written word is that it can sometime be very hard to convey sarcasm. That being said, most people know whether they are going to enjoy or not enjoy things like the Rift just because they've dealt with things like 3D TV.

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18:11 Mar-15-2014

I'm ready for the future, my oculus fund just reached 500 dollars, Yeaa!!

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17:45 Mar-15-2014

I for one am very much looking forward to virtual reality, the immersion value that could be obtained, though daunting, is fantastic. If it can "trick" the brain into believing something that isn't possible in your own life then it's benefits can not be measured. Depending on the style of VR that might be offered then it can have huge health benefits as well, as apposed to sitting on a chair to play your favourite games, you have to physically move about... less fat kids \o/.

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18:05 Mar-15-2014

VR will be a huge success for porn, actually probably will be mostly used for porn sadly. No way to hide from the truth.

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18:09 Mar-15-2014

Just like the internet these days.

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18:15 Mar-15-2014

Porn has its place in society as well, how many law students would america be short if strippers couldn't afford their collage degrees.

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08:24 Mar-16-2014

Porn is porn. Exotic dancing is an art form. Not the same thing. Porn is multi-billion dollar a year business though. I am actually surprised that the porn industry hasn't thrown more money into the VR ring. Probably because they know it's going to fail.

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20:18 Mar-16-2014

You can get a degree in making collages? Which college offers collage degrees? Are the collages porn-specific? There isn't a porn college that offers a degree in porn collages, is there? Is there perhaps a collage of these colleges?

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16:47 Mar-15-2014

Virtual Reality has no appeal to me at all. Let me keep playing PC games like I normally do :)

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17:03 Mar-15-2014

I agree with you on that one. Mouse and keyboard are all i need.

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17:16 Mar-15-2014

Agreed

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18:25 Mar-15-2014

Agreed :) i think it is just too much :)

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05:48 Mar-16-2014

Haha, I'm glad that there are people of the same mindset I have. I'm really disinterested in all the VR crap.

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05:59 Mar-16-2014

Agreed. Thumbs up to all of you :)

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20:23 Mar-16-2014

Yeah! Immersion is stupid! Thumbs-up to all your open-minded comments! I hope gaming stays exactly like it is forever! Two screens is just way too much for two eyes. First they give us stereo headphones and now this?! Enough is enough!

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23:32 Mar-16-2014

If you have a hard time accepting other people's views, I suggest you stop using the Internet. Seriously, the only thing you've done in this article is just bitching about the fact that other people don't think VR is for them/something they would like and want to use.

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23:36 Mar-16-2014

Besides, immersion, for me at least, is a mute point when referring to VR. Immersion should come from the story, characters and different worlds, not some gimmicky gadget you have to put on your head. Have you never read a book and got immersed in the story? I have and I didn't need anything besides the book itself.

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20:45 Mar-17-2014

I was in a bad mood. Sorry. :/ That being said, people on here are awfully closed-minded. They are saying they prefer m&k to something they haven't even tried. Have you noticed the only pro-Oculus people are the ones who actually TRIED it?

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21:57 Mar-17-2014

It's fine, happens to all of us! :)
Well, some people don't need to try something to know that it is not for them. I wouldn't really call it an awful close-mindedness, mostly cause all of us have things we have never tried, but go "HELL NO!" at the sight of it. You could say - don't fix it if it ain't broke, as i

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21:59 Mar-17-2014

..as in - why try something else when I'm perfectly content with mouse and keyboard? Nevertheless, opinions will always differ so this quarrel is kind of pointless. Have a nice day! :)

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01:01 Mar-18-2014

You too :) Sorry for being a jerk earlier. Too late to remove the comment. :/

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16:04 Mar-15-2014

to be honest, it's scary :P

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16:25 Mar-15-2014

If my folks saw that thing on my head, they will certainly take me for a cyborg or something. But it may lead to more psychological issues as well. Gamers play games quite enough, they dont need this kind of virtual reality becoming their reality.

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05:50 Mar-16-2014

Couldn't agree more!

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06:04 Mar-16-2014

" it may lead to more psychological issues as well."
Exactly what I was thinking.

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13:02 Mar-16-2014

on the other hand, it seems more logical than (semi) 3D monitors which are just a marketing gimmick :))

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