Your VR Apathy Is Entirely Understandable

Your VR Apathy Is Entirely Understandable

First impression in a room full of people playing virtual reality games: these people look goofy, and the games they’re playing look dull. Then you put on the headset.

With the headset on, wow, some of them are so impressive! This is how it is with VR, and let’s not pretend otherwise. These games do not show well unless you’re playing them. Any apathy you have is completely reasonable, and if you’re a bystander you may be wondering if VR is just more manufactured hype like 3D TVs a few years ago.

The difference between watching a VR game on a monitor or in a trailer and actually playing it is often astounding. If you watch a trailer for a VR game or watch a live VR session as its graphics are output to a TV for spectators, you might as well be looking at a postcard for the Grand Canyon and not quite understanding how incredible it is to be there.

At a PlayStation VR event yesterday, I experienced the disparity myself. I was in a room full of people in goggles all looking like Stevie Wonder as they swayed and bobbed their heads while playing VR games that just didn’t look all that cool in the monitors around them. Those monitors were supposed to be showing the rest of us what the VR gamers were seeing, but a monitor can’t really do that.

I asked someone there to point me to a good VR demo, and they recommended I try the VR version of the old Atari tank combat game Battlezone. Another reporter was busy playing, so I watched an output of his VR feed on a monitor. It didn’t look that good. It looked like what you see in this trailer here:

Update: The video has since been made private.

I was talking to one of the developers, being polite, expressing my curiosity. He was assuring me that usually Rebellion turns their games up to 11 but that in VR you need to turn them down to seven to avoid sensory overload. The problem is that then the games look like sevens on the TV. The journalist ahead of me finished his session, I put the headset on and — holy shit — it does indeed look like an 11 when you’re inside it.

The problem is that I can’t show you VR. I can’t show you how much more impressive it is to have the real world blotted out of your vision and to have an entire hangar full of Tron-looking tanks around you. If you watch the trailer, you can sort of tell that the player is sitting in a large cockpit, but that’s not the same as seeing a sprawling set of displays extending what seem like a couple of metres beyond you.

I can only use words to convey how neat it is to drive out into combat and look up through the glass canopy of my virtual tank and see enemies fighters flying above me. Forget the Grand Canyon metaphor. For those of you who haven’t tried VR, it’d be like trying to describe what it look like to be behind the wheel of a car if the only thing you’d ever seen were videos of cars. Trust me, I’d say. It’s cooler when you’re inside one.

RIGS in action, as seen in a December PlayStation hype video.

RIGS in action, as seen in a December PlayStation hype video.

I was even more impressed with a three-on-three VR sports game called RIGS, which, apologies if I haven’t bored you with that description already. I’m not big on sports games myself, but I am big on this one, now that I’ve virtually stood some 4m off the virtual ground while wearing a heavily-armed virtual mech suit.

You’re in a three-dimensional arena, shooting members of the other team and collecting orbs to charge yourself up, and then you run up one of the ramps in the centre of the arena and slam dunk yourself through a huge horizontal hoop.

Please trust me that slam dunking yourself while wearing a towering mech suit looks cool in VR. It just doesn’t look that cool in trailers.

Here at the 2016 Game Developers Conference, VR is a hot topic. Heck, it’s probably the hot topic. VR panels have extremely long lines. The conference has had to move VR-centric talks to larger rooms to accommodate the massive crowds.

Clearly there’s money behind all this. Sony is betting on VR. Facebook, via Oculus, is betting on VR. Valve and HTC are betting on VR. Samsung, AMD and plenty of others are getting in on the game too. And, yeah, it’s entirely possible that this is the 3D TV all over again, or maybe is the Wii and Kinect all over again. Maybe this is some imperfect tech that is exciting in small doses but can’t sustain long, satisfying games.

When I’m talking about VR with people who work at game companies, they are surprised when I tell them that VR stories do badly on our site. People don’t click.

Any reporter I talk to, though, knows the score. VR = traffic death. Readers don’t care.

Well, readers, I don’t blame you. No matter how wildly VR trailers zoom the camera into a VR headset, no matter how hard they try to recreate the experience in 2D, in the end you’re just seeing a regular old game trailer. You’re seeing a bunch of games that look set to seven. Hopefully all these wealthy companies will make it easier for more people to try VR goggles later this year, and more people will be able to find out which games play at 11.


  • If you watch a trailer for a VR game or watch a live VR session as its graphics are output to a TV for spectators, you might as well be looking at a postcard for the Grand Canyon and not quite understanding how incredible it is to be there.Great analogy, will have to remember that one.

    Personally, my jaw hit the floor the moment I saw the Battlezone trailer. But then I think I would want it even if it was non-VR 😛

  • The main issue as VR is more than just screenshots, the key selling point is that it’s an experience. You don’t just play Alien Isolation in VR, you experience it. It’s that angle that can be pretty hard to get across with just screenshots and videos.

  • That’s just it though, games writers are not writing about VR games in a manner that is any way helpful.

    Games writers are writing about what video game companies are doing to flog VR.

    There’s a big difference here.

    The rise of critical writing about games was welcome, but the inherent issue there was always ‘applying a school of thought’ to something that hadn’t received it yet.

    Right now, VR is unproven. Sony’ is going to want evangelists who love VR now to be reviewing VR games in the future, clearly. Sony is not going to want academics and critical thinking to get in the way of making a buck.

    Games writers have had to deal with a lot of headaches in the modern gaming landscape, that is understandable. I do not envy the likes of Totilo/etc who need to come up with a way to translate such personal experiences into words, but right now, it’s exceptionally difficult for me to separate hype from critique. So it’s not very helpful.

    TLDR: The “revelation” that gee, you have actually got to play a game to actually see what the fuss is about is so quaint. That was conveniently forgotten by the gaming press when the Wii and iOS games happened. Glad to see memories have been jogged.

  • Completely agree with this.

    This last week I have spent my time taking my Gear VR with me to all my client meetings as in discussion most people can’t understand how it feels to be in VR.

    After a quick play of AltSpace or watching a Video Sample though they change camp really quick 🙂

  • I said yesterday: how many gimmicky add-ons have we bought over the years only to find them in the cupboard a year later while we’ve still got the 2D TV, console and controller that suits our lifestyles so perfectly? I can think of a dozen without too much effort. The only things that have ever stuck have been small, non-invasive developments like rumble controllers and surround sound.

    I’m not sold that your average Joe is going to be able to come home and completely disconnect themselves from the real world with any regularity. Most of my mates struggle to play a game of anything online because they’re constantly being dragged away from the TV to participate in life.

    I’m not sold that the headset won’t be uncomfortable, or the controls reliable, that it won’t give you a headache, but more than all of that I’m not sold that it’s going to deliver significantly improved gaming experiences- and they would need to be a significant improvement to justify the cost and difficulty in finding time to actually play in VR.

    I AM excited for the hundreds of videos of people falling over their expensive furniture, treading on their babies, getting assaulted (in the groin) by their mates, being videoed whacking off (ok, a little less excited by that).

    So yeah, if it is the future I’m more than happy to wait another year or two while the young guys with more disposable income and less responsibilities try it out.

    • I AM excited for the hundreds of videos of people falling over their expensive furniture, treading on their babies, getting assaulted (in the groin) by their mates, being videoed whacking off (ok, a little less excited by that).

      Yeah, it’s going to be like the second coming of the “Wii controller smashing TV / furniture / bystander” videos from back in the day. Good times.

      • Yeah, except instead of the controller flying off and smashing the TV, you’re going to be smashing the TV directly! It’s like a whole new level of destruction.

    • There are two major things that concern me. First, the price. Doesnt matter what people say, these peripherals need to get to the point where parents are mass buying them next christmas, or they risk enough critical mass for developers to continue supporting them.

      Second, is wearing them, similar to you. People whinged about a pair of glasses for 3D, what are they going to do with something weighing 100 times more?

      The Playstation VR is starting to get to the price point where I think its worth the risk to me, but in general they need to be closer to $200 than $500. Its about primary device versus peripheral – people pay more for the core asset, not the extras. What would sway me would be a package with a camera, move, and game coming with the headset.

      • I can’t imagine there being a day when my girlfriend is sitting in the lounge room watching My Kitchen Rules on a Wednesday night and I’m standing next to her waving my hands around with a headset covering my eyes and ears… it’s just a difficult setup to imagine being used as a day-to-day form of relaxation.

        When I’m at my happiest playing games I get a half a day at least to sit and relax and engross myself in the experience…. Will you be able to do that with a headset? I’d doubt it- I get a headache if I wear a hat for more than a few hours.

        Will I really be sitting there all day with a hot and sweaty headset on? Will I get a sore neck from looking around constantly with my body fixed in a comparatively still position? How long until the heat from the screen starts to hurt my eyes? Will I get tired standing up? Will I get sore knees from pivoting my top half with my feet planted?

        I can imagine VR becoming something like a game of paintball on the weekend. Something you commit dedicated time to and enjoy for a few games over a couple of hours playing a game like Rocket League in short 10-20 minute bursts.

        To be perfectly honest I’m worried about the potential for a game like the Witcher as much as it excites me. I want these games to keep existing and to be as fun as possible, but I’m just not going to be able to keep playing them if they move to a more-immersive experience.

        • Hehe. For some reason your first paragraph made me mentally picture a VR version of Fruit Ninja…

          But in general, yeah, those are possible issues. Could they be TOO immersive, and people ignore health issues?

          Weight is just one of the things, but thats something that can be sorted with time. The right design can balance weight pretty well these days, and not just dump it all on the back of the neck. Or smaller electronics meaning less need for a full helmet, or lighter goggles, or something.

          It can be sorted, just not at the start. And again, that creates issues with getting to a critical mass, whatever that will need to be. 100k? 1m? 12?

          • You’re right to worry about even the short term physical issues, it’s not just the weight and comfort of the device- it’s the physical toll of moving in a limited space without moving fully.

            When you move your head most of the time, you’re either moving your whole body with it OR you’re controlling your body by having your arms fixed to something solid.
            Try it if you’re at a desk right now- lift your arms like you would if you were controlling a game with motion controllers and then turn your neck – it’s a surprisingly physically taxing thing to do keeping your arms and body still without having them fixed to something like a steering wheel or planted to a desk.

            If you’re going to play for a decent period you’ll either be standing the whole time pivoting your body with your feet planted, moving your feet (inherently dangerous when you can’t see or hear) or sitting with your neck moving independently of your still body and arms…. All those positions are going to get physically taxing over the course of anything more than a 30 minute long session, and they’re all going to get really bad for a lot of people if done for long sessions.

  • I’m not all that apathetic towards VR. Seems pretty clear to me that there are countless uses for it and we’re only just starting to scratch the surface now. It will be the next big “must have” common household electronic device.

    My issue is the cost….I’ll be able to afford one eventually but need to build a PC that can handle it first.

    • In 5 years though the cost should be pretty reasonable, then we’ll see the general public getting on board. The first wave is for enthusiasts who will show their mates, and then people will begin to get it.

  • I’m entirely excited about VR. I’m also massively amused that people think gaming will be a driver of this technology.

  • It’s kind of funny that VR as a games peripheral makes me apathetic towards it but the idea of VR in more practical applications such as AR and 3D design makes me super enthusiastic about it.

  • I have tried a few VR games at Cons and I have to say it didn’t really do anything for me. I am short-sighted which one would think would mean VR wouldn’t be a problem since it is point blank range but I struggled to see anything on the games I tried.
    This was with an Occulus Rift so I don’t know if there would be any difference on any of the other VR systems but it looks like I will have to sit out the VR revolution.

    • If it was a DK2, the lenses would have need to be swapped for short sighted people, and if you were extremely short sighted? Would have still been super blurry – the focal length is out at about 2 meters for these things so unless you can see clearly at that distance – yeah it would have been blurry.

      The PSVR and HTC Vive both allow you to wear glasses while wearing the systems (unless your glasses are particularly large) – I wear glasses myselff (i’m quite short-sighted) and I have an oculus adjusted to my specs for dev, but the PSVR and HTC Vive headsets both work juuuust fine.

      A good demo person would have asked you this and warned you about the blurry vision :/

    • Rather counterintuitively, VR headsets are focused at infinity. Even though the screen is right next to your face, the lenses mean it’s like looking at something that’s really far away.
      In principle, this reduces eye strain, but it does mean being shortsighted will mess up the experience quite a bit.

      You’d have to adjust it to take that into account to have a good experience with it.

  • I am terribly apathetic, and I fear that would be unlikely to change even given the opportunity to try one of the many systems.

  • The interesting thing is the Sony VR is probably the lowest spec on paper, but consistently the games have been the most fun.

    I can’t wait for battlezone.

  • I first used a VR setup back in the early 90’s.
    In this generation I’ve used Oculus DK1, DK2 Prototype, and DK2
    I’m keen to invest, but my wife got really nautious with DK1 and DK2 Prototype and has no interest in trying again.
    She also sees it as a super niche market. I have a racing wheel and pedals- I use it when I play Euro Truck Simulator 2 (which isnt often). Her fear, is that my VR setup (like my wheel and pedals) would be sitting behind the monitor on my desk 99.9% of the time, unless I felt the urge to play 1 of 400 games in my Steam collection that is a VR game.

    I can’t argue with her- at present she’s right.

    • We’ve yet to see anyone react with Nausea on the Vive (though it requires a *lot* of room) – though the Nausea on the DK2 (Assuming the demos were fine) is a warning sign. That being said a *lot* of demos had poor mechanics that increased discomfort.

  • For those of you who haven’t tried VR, it’d be like trying to describe what it look like to be behind the wheel of a car if the only thing you’d ever seen were videos of cars. Trust me, I’d say. It’s cooler when you’re inside one.

    That’s just the thing. I’ve had cynical oldies like myself (I’m over 50), giggling like 5 year olds, rediscovering what it’s like to be new to games. Words are just not sufficient. You HAVE TO experience VR to understand it.

  • I have absolutely no interest in VR, and would prefer that tech boffins work on holodecks instead.

  • I think PS VR is worth it just for the cinema function, games are a bonus 🙂

    Seriously though I am unsure about how well it will do but that’s not going to effect my enjoyment of it. Hell it’s the price of 4 or 5 PS4 games. Hardly a huge investment.

  • A colleague of mine has the new galaxy with the oculus partner’d VR setup.
    He’s in love with it- he said the app that lets him watch movies as though he’s in an IMAX cinema is one of the real winners too.
    Just thought I’d share.

  • My main concern is having a screen inches from yours eyes for long periods can’t be good for your eyesight. I can’t even focus that closely but perhaps I’m missing something.

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