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.