E3 2015 was supposed to be the year of VR. It was supposed to be the coming out party for the future of video games. What happened?
It’s a question I’ve been giving a lot of thought. Along with the obvious follow-up: will virtual reality actually live up to its promise? Will it be a success?
My opinion in a single sentence. I love VR, and I want it to succeed so badly because I love it, but recently I’ve started worrying about the obstacles.
Perhaps there are too many obstacles. Perhaps those obstacles are insurmountable.
Here is a list of reasons why VR should succeed.
— It’s a unique, truly immersive experience that feels like a genuine forward leap for interactive experiences.
That’s one thing. It’s an important thing. But here is the flip-side of that argument. Here is a list of reasons why it might not succeed, off-the-top of my head.
— It’s an expensive peripheral.
— It’s not a social experience.
— Setting it up is complicated.
— It’s heavy.
— There’s going to be a lot of negative mainstream press.
— It’s a fragmented thing, too many different models.
— You have to use it to ‘get it’.
— People get motion sick.
— People are going to get injured while using it.
— There aren’t enough games yet.
— No-one has really solved the issue of how to move in 3D space.
— VR has failed in the past and has a bad reputation.
That list took me five minutes to write. Worst of all: it feels like the beginning of a longer, more detailed list. It’s not definitive. Not even close.
How to describe the moment when I first used the Oculus Rift. Life-changing seems silly and overblown. It didn’t literally change my life, but here’s what happened: my brain was immediately alive with all the possibilities, I was suddenly enthusiastic about the future of interactive entertainment. In short: I was aboard the hype train. I was aware of the obstacles then, but they somehow melted away at face of my white-hot-burning enthusiasm. How could this fail? It was incredible.
VR is still incredible.
It still has the potential to blow me away. This is not 3DTV. This is not a pair of weird glasses and $28 for a movie ticket. VR is the real deal. It changes your video game experience, it transforms it. VR is not the kind of thing you get ‘used to’. It’s not an augmentation, it’s a revolution really. Literally.
To have tried VR is to love it.
Well, that’s what I used to think. I used to think the world was divided into people who didn’t like VR and people who had actually used it. Now it’s starting to feel a little fragmented. There are people who literally have no intention of ever trying it. There are people as hyped as me. There are people who tried VR and were completely underwhelmed. People who tried VR and instantly wanted to throw up.
Once upon a time VR seemed like the safest bet to me, but in the wake of my first play reality has slowly started chipping away at the armour. Casting the first stone: you, the Kotaku Audience. I very rarely comment on what you guys and girls click/don’t click on, but this is impossible to ignore: Kotaku readers simply aren’t that interested in reading about VR. Whether it’s the Oculus Rift, Project Morpheus or Gear VR, VR is simply a topic that has never gained traction with you. That surprised me. That still surprises me.
Second thing: VR’s struggle to solve problems that I hoped might be solved already. Prime among them, the fact that it’s still being sold as a mostly PC peripheral. By this time I was hoping that Oculus would have some sort of solution that made VR more accessible to a broader audience. I expected some sort of console style package, some one-size-fits-all solution that people could buy in JB Hi-Fi or Dick Smith. We don’t have that yet. If mainstream tech stores do sell VR headsets, they’re gonna sit snugly between keyboards and expensive headsets.
That’s not where VR belongs.
Thirdly, and most recently, VR’s absence from E3 was concerning. It barely registered at Microsoft’s conference, despite the fact the Oculus is going to work with the Xbox One. It barely showed up at Sony’s conference despite the fact Sony is working on its own proprietary tech. The games Sony did show? Worryingly low-tech, short experiences. Sony isn’t going all-in on VR just yet.
So a disappointing showing, but one that makes perfect sense.
And this is probably the most worrying part. These companies – your Microsofts, your Sonys, your Valves – they’re starting to realise: VR is an extremely tough sell. You literally cannot comprehend the impact of VR until it’s on your head and you’re experiencing it. This is, by far, the biggest obstacle to the success of VR as a medium.
Will VR succeed? In the long term: probably. When experiencing VR is as simple as putting on a pair of sunglasses, when all problems are solved and all obstacles are removed there is little doubt that VR will be ‘a thing’. Right now that future is a blip on the vanishing point. It’s an end point stretching into some impossible distance. Somehow it feels further away than it did two years ago.
That’s not how these things are supposed to work.
Somehow, by becoming more real, VR feels less likely to succeed. As details become more concrete the obstacles become more obvious. An irony: the closer virtual reality comes to actual reality, the less real it becomes. Sort of like a mirage. Close enough to touch, but my hand goes right through it. Almost as if it doesn’t exist at all.