Let's Talk About Virtual Reality

In the simplest terms, opinions on virtual reality as a concept are split into two main camps. There are those who think it’s a gimmick. A fad.

And then there are those who have actually used the Oculus Rift.

Today Sony announced Project Morpheus, a device it is claiming operates on a similar (or higher) level than the latest version of the Oculus Rift. There’s excitement, but it feels muted and tempered by cynicism, some of which is justifiable… plenty of which is not.

Let’s get the justifiable part out of the way. Yes, some people will experience motion sickness. Yes, it is a solitary activity. Yes, it will be difficult to share. Yes, there are multiple, multiple control obstacles that need navigating.

Perhaps most pertinently there’s the issue of how it is packaged, or how it is sold. Sony at least, seems to be positioning Project Morpheus as a peripheral. That's dangerous, considering how badly Sony’s peripherals have done in the past. The Eye Toy did a decent amount of business, but its older brother the PlayStation Eye? Not so much. And let’s not even mention the PlayStation Move.

The point is this: relegating Project Morpheus to ‘peripheral’ status devalues its potential as a gaming device, as a life-changing device. It tells the consumer that this is superfluous to your gaming experience. It’s an add-on, it's DLC.

I think this, more than anything, has the potential to limit the success of virtual reality.

The Oculus Rift seems set to make the same mistakes, positioning itself as something that augments your PC experience when it should be positioning itself as the experience. As far as I can see, technology like virtual reality needs to sold to a mainstream audience not as something that helps you do 'things', but as the thing itself.

That’s how the original Wii was sold, that’s how the iPhone and the iPad became part of our lives and our culture. At the moment, I can’t quite shake the feeling that the Virtual Reality might be selling itself a little short. It shouldn’t be relegated to ‘OMG, let’s play Zelda using the Oculus Rift’ it should be something that changes our video games on a very fundamental level, possibly even our actual lives.

So that’s what I would call the ‘legitimate’ complaints about Virtual Reality, the valid reasons for being cynical about the potential success of the tech.

The rest of the complaints? I’d say try out the Oculus Rift, or Project Morpheus (if it’s all it says it is) and watch those complaints melt into the periphery. That moment will occur the precise second you turn your head and the world responds. Only the stubborn or needlessly cynical will leave that experience less convinced of the veracity of Virtual Reality as a technology.

There’s no overstating it. It is a massive game changer. The feeling of being ‘inside’ a world is difficult to quantify, difficult to explain in words without resorting to hyperbole. Compounding that is the tendency of the tech and game world to pepper its descriptions with hyperbole: ‘it’s like you’re in a cartoon’ ‘this game is a playable poem’ ‘this game is immersive’.

‘Immersive’ ‘immersive’ ‘immersive’. It’s as close as you can get to a dead word when discussing video games but when it comes to virtual reality we must revive it. Because when you put on the Oculus Rift you are literally and actually immersed in that world. You are inside it. You are submerged in that universe and the feeling is almost impossible to explain. When you experience it for the first time, you will not forget it. It’s the difference between visiting the Taj Mahal compared to looking at a postcard.

There’s that hyperbole again. But in this case it might be necessary. How else can I communicate an experience like it?

It is the shock of something new. It is the process of making the most banal things – simple exploration, looking at a basic object – a spectacular interactive experience. It’s a process that redefines scale in a virtual world. It should, and hopefully will, change everything.

If there is a point to all this rambling it is this: virtual reality as a technology has its legitimate issues. There are obstacles to overcome and those obstacles are real. One can only hope that Sony and the Oculus Rift team can overcome them as time goes by.

But the idea that virtual reality is hokey, that it’s a gimmick? That idea has to go. The way we’ve been sold technology in the past has a lot to answer for in this regard. The words that most easily describe the experience of virtual reality have been rendered meaningless, so it’s understandable that there is that level of cynicism, but when you put that headset on for the first time those words will cease to be important. There will only be the ‘experience’ and that experience will almost certainly change the way you think about video games and reignite your imagination.

Virtual Reality does have the potential to change the way we play video games. I hope it realises that potential.


Comments

    Spot on Mr Serrels.
    The technology is solid, plenty of PC mods have already proven that. It's now up to the publishers to get the marketing model right to make it actually be something people will want to adopt eventually.

    Last edited 19/03/14 3:39 pm

    I'm a little skeptical about the PS4's VR headset, mainly in that whether the PS4 would have the horsepower to tackle the stereoscopy, high framerate and low latency required for a good VR experience.

    I remain absolutely optimistic, and have been dying to try the Rift for ages...
    The fact that SONY are bringing it to the average consumer, on a system that's already in so many homes (and my own) leaves me extremely excited. I am always looking for the next immersive experience, and if I can combine the graphics of Killzone: Shadow Fall with head tracked virtual reality?

    My god, this is why I have the hobby I have.

    I see it's status as a peripheral being a good thing.

    Stops gamers thinking it's mandatory dead weight the way they currently think of Kinect2.

    Last edited 19/03/14 3:48 pm

      Hardly think it's fair to talk on behalf of gamers like that, personally think the Kinect's system functionality justifies it's price alone, and any game that uses it like (like DR3's implementation, subbing in FIFA or Project Sparks motion capture) is just a bonus. Additionally, keeping it with the console ensures every console has a Kinect, which eases the minds of developers thinking about implementing Kinect features.

      Good on Sony for trying to break into the VR market, it should be healthy for the future of VR, but don't try and use the story as ammunition to take shots at something you don't like and mask it as the will of gamers.

      Last edited 20/03/14 1:09 am

    I agree that there is a certain danger with Sony's peripheral approach - it runs the risk of being the next Move / Kinect / 3D TV. Making it mandatory, well, that didn't go so well for Kinect...
    A lot of the real momentum (and, dare I say validation), is already happening. It's the enthusiast space - it should be breaking similar grounds to where PC gaming had to go 15+ years ago.
    I, for one, look forward to getting a VR headset for my PC once the consumer models are available, because as an enthusiast of gaming, I want those new experiences. I don't expect it to be a mainstream thing for at least 5-10 years. Then again, modern tech moves more rapidly than anything before it, so that could be more like 3-5.

    With my extremely limited experience with the Oculus (three short demos played in quick succession), it certainly made one hell of an impression. That initial 'moment' when you turn your head and the world responds? Yep, that was me. That moment sold me.
    And so, hearing that Sony have one on the way for the PS4 is great news as far as I'm concerned. I really like what Oculus are doing, but I can't be bothered getting into the tweaking and upgrading that goes hand in hand with PC gaming - I'd rather take something out of the box, plug it in, and have all the optimization already done for me. Give me some sliders to adjust on the unit for that individual comfort and away I go.
    And Sony already have the motion controllers in place to make interaction a non-issue. A lot of people hate the Move,or flat out just didn't buy it, but that doesn't mean it's not perfect for a VR display. And it's all designed exclusively for one platform so it'll all work perfectly. I think, done right, that the home console market may be a better option to encourage mass adoption than those with high-end PCs and the ability to make them work to the best of their abilities.
    Plug and play is how it'll become widespread ... so long as it works properly.

    I've used the Oculus Rift and I still think it's a gimmick. Call me cynical, but if this is the direction games are going to be moving in, I'm not liking it.

    VR as a concept though has been around for a very long time. I remember trying out the VR machines at Intencity back in the late 90's. I wasn't overly impressed then, and I'm still not overly impressed by new tech like the Oculus. I've even tried out the full body machines that let you physically walk around and interact in the virtual world.

    I dunno, there's just something about VR as a concept that I'm just not liking. I can't put my finger on it, but I'm just not "feeling" it, as it were. I like the idea of VR - but so far no implementation of it...not even the Oculus, has produced what I would expect.

    Last edited 19/03/14 3:51 pm

    I'm not saying it isn't the future, I'm just saying the future isn't now. Though the tech is miles ahead of the old VR rigs we jumped into 20 years ago, it still has a long way to go. Anyone old enough to remember will recall the countless articles and personal anecdotes that accompanied the first VR craze. We are now 14 years past what the "experts" predicted would be the grand explosion of Virtual Reality.
    The Rift is impressive, this new gadget from Sony is interesting, but lets try to be realistic, VR isn't going to be anything more than an interesting tech demo for at least a decade.

    This is such a dumb and presumptuous article. So everyone who tries the rift and hates it must be wrong?

    I genuinely don't have any interest in VR games. First person games generally bore me. As far as immersion goes, story and character are far more important to me than perspective and graphics.

    It feels to me like it really is a peripheral. Like a steering wheel for racing games, it can greatly improve your experience but it's not make-or-break.

    I also personally think that the isolating factors are a big issue. I don't want to be cut off from my family, and I don't want them to be entirely withdrawn either. I see it as an important part of our digital life that anyone can sit down on the couch or pull up a chair beside the PC and engage in whatever is happening on a screen.

    I hope you all have a lovely time with it, I'm just a bit sad that I won't be able to use it (I have something called esomorphic diplopia and while I don't look cross eyed my brain has trouble merging the two images). Feels like suddenly, after playing games for nearly 40 years, I won't be able to participate. Which sucks for me. But like I said, I hope it works out, and I agree with Mark's point.

    In fact it's akin to the problems that MS are having with Kinect and Nintendo are having with the WiiU - they are being presented as options, peripherals, rather than intrinsic centres of the experience. Hopefully VR doesn't go the same way, but I fear that with Sony on the peripheral trail with it, it's going to be relegated to the curb.

      Disclaimer: frothing at the mouth excited about this tech.

      Now that's out of the way, I'm curious. Is it a permanent condition, and has your brain adapted through suppression?
      If it's a misalignment that worries you, have you wondered about possibly being able to customise this sort of technology to align with your natural sight? I understand that there could be a risk associated with meddling with brain function disconnected from the real world, but as use of the tech matures, there might be some good advances in this area.
      If you don't normally have stereoscopic vision, then could you still see any value in having a headset in 'flat' vision and experiencing the immersion that comes with the head tracking?

      Sorry if I've overstepped with any of these questions.

        I hadn't thought about the advantages of head tracking alone, that's a good point. With the other stuff, it's basically like going cross eyed - most of the time I can cope fine and probably suppress one of the images, but when I need to merge the two visual inputs quickly (ie a tennis ball heading towards me looks like two tennis balls heading towards me - I am crap at tennis) or with concentrated precision (like using binoculars or a viewmaster, or indeed a VR headset) it all falls apart.

        The corrective technology available is basically a prism in my glasses which bends the image a bit but it's only a crutch as my case is pretty severe. Operation is available but it basically involves pulling out one of my eyeballs and cutting the muscle behind it - you can see why I'm not rushing to the hospital waving a load of cash. Apparently the options are getting better all the time so I'm holding off as long as possible.

        Sorry if that's TMI!

        Last edited 19/03/14 5:59 pm

          I'm a rift developer and we are actually working with people with your exact condition. A developer can adjust the images separately to cater for some versions of this.
          Also, even if used with just one eye, and forgoing the '3D' portion, our testers have found it still to be incredibly immersive, just due to being able to look to the left, over your shoulder, up, down etc. and have the world being all around you.
          So even in 2D the experience can be pretty amazing and still very playable, even for people that only have one eye.

            Don't suppose you're working with it in C++ at all, rather than Unity?

            I was having some problems with it last year and finding help around the place hasn't been easy. Oculus Support weren't entirely helpful before they just kind of disappeared.

            Thanks for that reply @poita. Consider my interest rekindled! And, you know, if you need any testers... :)

    I too agree with the article, I think the only real obstacle here is for Sony to make this a must have peripheral. In saying that though, i think this is a step up from previous efforts. The eye did well, the sequel didnt because it was old news. The move didnt do so well either because everyone had already used the Wii and it was old news. VR hasnt hit the consoles yet and I think this will do better.

    Really at this stage I can see the potential but my biggest worry is the price. I think anything over $150 and it's gonna be a VERY hard sell.

      Yeah that's my biggest worry at this point. I'm keen for both the Rift and Morpheus but wonder if enough of my fellow consumers will be keen enough for devs to actually become interested in optimizing their games, heck even making their games, for it.

        Yeah. The price of the Rift was just announced and it was $350... if Sony has a similar price for the Morpheus I really cant see it selling well at all and will most likely be a complete flop. Damn I really hope they can pull some internal strings and get the price down to something competitive (after all even the Kinect kind of struggled at $150).

    Some form of VR is the future of gaming... However it is likely that this is not it, but more of a stepping stone to it. While it is nice to claim and aim for 1080p and 90 degrees field of view for the FINAL product, i highly doubt we will see that when it is released when the PS4 is struggling to meet resolution targets in its games now (KZ:SF multi being the latest discovered).

    Regardless of whether it hits its targets, mass adoption of this peripheral solely depends on a) price b) software available c) good word of mouth. This could be a VERY expensive exercise for sony if they fail to get a) or b) done correct.

    The price is easily the biggest concern because if it is going to do what they say it will, this could easily end costing $300-400 without Sony taking a loss (which they likely wouldn't in their situation). At that price i hardly see mass adoption occurring among PS4 owners when it costs almost as much as the console itself.

    Software is also critical. If Sony is serious about supporting this, then they need to come out swinging and make all first party games that come out after it has been released to adopt VR support. There are problems with that though - i can imagine some developers that already have long development times (Team ICO) stuggle even more if Sony pushes them to adopt VR support. We could literally be seeing a Team ICO game only once every 10-15 years which is simply unsustainable. Even more then that though, it is likely that the development cycle of all Sony first party games would be increased by a bit (not much mind you - months likely) in order to add VR support.

    Finally if they don't have third party support and you are really only getting Sony first party games support it, it makes it as relevant as the Kinect/Move/Eyetoy. Sony will need to work hard to convince developers to add support and while i am sure a few of the big ones will jump on board initially (Ubisoft and EA would be most likely) their continued support after a few games will solely come down to how widely adopted it is. If there is not good sale numbers from the get go because of either poor price, poor software or both then it will be dead 6 months in.

    If Sony however perform the miracle of not only reaching their targets in terms of its design but it is also priced right and has a "killer app" and good third party support then i will be there day 1 with cash in hand.

    Last edited 19/03/14 5:34 pm

      the PS4 is struggling to meet resolution targets in its games nowIn fairness to the PS4 (and also XB1), the machines are so damned new that no one has figured out the tricks to streamline and optimise their code for them yet, it's little wonder early stuff runs a bit shit. It's pretty much been that way with all new hardware, software developers take a while to adapt if they're used to doing things a different way and they need to discover new tricks to get the most out of the machine.

    @markserrels Great article, but the major point of: "Sony at least, seems to be positioning Project Morpheus as a peripheral." strikes me as odd.

    Anton Mikhailov (head of R&D) at the reveal today said on stage 'This is a medium, not a peripheral.'

    It was a major point later expounded on.

    VR is surely the way to go. Games can keep getting prettier and having more particles and smarter AI but as long as you have to control it with a keyboard or controller and watch it on a monitor, we're really not moving forward with gaming are we? When the technology becomes good enough and affordable we'll all be looking back at the days we played our regular games on a tv and thinking of it like speaking through a tin can. Get with the future people!

    You've convinced me, I'm going to run out right now and buy an Oculus Rif... oh...

    It sounds lovely but until it's a product I can buy in 1440p it might as well be a drawing on paper to me.

    Now Sony, they have the potential to actually make a major difference in the race. In order to be used on a console it needs to be standardised and so simple to operate that people who put DVDs in upside down can use it. That gives it a huge advantage over anything that the PC can do for the simple fact that a single architecture means no need for drivers and no chance of incompatibility.

    What they need to do to make it a success it be aggressive as hell, ideally they need to beat the rift to market with a high quality device, they may not be direct competitors in the market but they'd have the first useable one on the shelf. They need to max out the research on making sure as many people with some manner of visual impairment can use it. If, for example, they can't get it to work with something as simple as glasses then people with some of the harder vision issues are shit out of luck. If nothing else, the gamer nerd stereotype includes glasses, you don't exclude that...

    They need to market the device as something that will revolutionise the way games are played. This isn't a new way to watch TV, this isn't a quirky way to hang out with friends in playstation home, this isn't some tech demo, this shit is for games or its for the bin. If either gamers or developers see Sony as saying "hey, here's something you might want to look at one day", it'll flop. Maximum enthusiasm or bust, guys.

    They need an exclusive system seller that will get people slavering and beating down the door to demand one. I recommend MechWarrior. Not really realistic but I just want one (which doesn't suck, this cannot be stressed enough). A launch lineup with a MechWarrior-alike game, a new Gran Turismo, an FPS with uncoupled head movement akin to Arma, a sports game (biking, skiing? something traditionally unisex anyway) and some kind of exploration/platform thing like a cross between Tomb Raider & Mirrors Edge would be a fuck of a strong lineup, they'd sell well and create demand for more jumpstarting a solid market. Make good games and the thing will sell itself, put in a half arsed effort and the whole thing will collapse into itself and just waste you money and time.

    I suppose the TLDR version is: Sony, pour shitloads of resources into this or don't bother.

    The difference is that EB Games has probably already opened pre-orders for the Morpheus.

    This isn't an attack on the PS4 (I plan to buy one), but I have serious doubts that the console has the horsepower to do stereoscopic vision with low latency. Even fairly good PC's struggle, and it seems to be the Rift's biggest hurdle.

      The PS4 could do it easily, it just means having lower poly counts etc.
      If you had games that look as good as the later PS3 games, but were working in VR, then taht is more than good enough for a mindblowing experience.

      The main problem is as stated, even avoiding all the isolation and control issues (which makes it not truly mainstream) having it be a peripheral, whether the Sony VR or the Rift is a serious problem.
      If a company released a VR Station that developers could write for, then I think there would be more chance of success. I can't think of a gaming add-on that has ever achieved enough penetration to get great develope support. The kinect is about as close as it gets, and it hasn't had any killer titles other than Dance Central.

      Having said all that, I am a rift developer and will probably buy the sony HMD when it comes out, but I will be surprised if it sells enough units to become worth developing for. Maybe if they have some killer priced bundles along with GT7 or Eve or some other killer app. But otherwise..

    Didn't The Lawnmower Man teach us anything about the dangers of VR?

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