VR Gaming: Virtually Reality or Practical Fantasy?

VR Gaming: Virtually Reality or Practical Fantasy?

By RAMSEY BADEN | October 18, 2017

When I was a kid, I didn’t just want to play games – I wanted to be in them. The idea of exploring my favorite game worlds in person was tantalizing. I wanted to pry open decaying dungeon doors with my own hands, or swing a rusty sword that I could see in my own hand.

Virtual reality promises to make this possible. This technology has been hailed by a procession of media outlets as the technology of the future. In its first days, high-profile acquisitions by tech giants like Facebook (which bought Oculus in 2014) and Google (which in September spent $1.1 billion to acquire personnel from HTC’s hardware division) had journalists discussing VR with fervor. A device that plunges its users directly into its content, instead of putting the content in front of them, could change the way we view entertainment, news, and more.

The current question is whether VR can deliver the kind of experience that the world has come to expect.

In the gaming industry, which is crucial to the life and future of VR, sales of VR headsets have slowed significantly. HTC and Facebook still have not released data on sales for the Vive and Oculus headsets. The slowdown can be attributed in part to the high entry cost for VR headsets: a fully functional HTC Vive setup (with headset, hand controllers, and room sensors) currently sells for $600 after a cut from its initial $800 price tag. The equivalent Oculus Rift bundle, which is less technologically sophisticated and lacks the Vive’s room-scale accuracy, is now $400; this new price point was established after a summer sale may have boosted sales for Oculus. Both of these prices are daunting in a market where consumers are used to spending far less to build a capable computer or buy a popular game console.

From a hardware perspective, VR is also demanding – Oculus’ website recommends, at minimum, a $300 graphics card and $200 CPU to be installed in the consumer’s computer. Recommendations for the Vive are similar. This means that in addition to an already pricey headset, consumers are expected to pay a premium for a PC that can actually support VR.

But it is motion sickness that may prove to be the death knell for VR, if left unchecked. Mounting reports point to VR as a potential cause of what has been dubbed “VR sickness” for many users. Motion sickness appears to be tied to the high hardware standards set by current VR headsets, as computers that are not powerful enough to run VR cause users to experience a lag between their head movement and the content’s responses. This may prove to be VR’s Catch-22: If consumers are afraid of motion sickness, they will not invest in VR. Without this capital, VR companies will be unable to improve their hardware by eliminating hardware restrictions and motion sickness. Consumers will then continue to avoid the headsets, and the companies will go out of business.

Despite these significant obstacles, it does not appear that all is lost for VR. Sony’s PlayStation VR, a relative newcomer, has sold over 1 million units since launching in October 2016. It’s quite an impressive figure for a device that costs $400, camera included. While these figures signify that there may be a future for VR gaming, there is still a long journey ahead.

Other technology titans appear to have a different vision for VR. Microsoft and Apple, the unequivocal leaders of the PC world, both appear to lean away from complete “virtual reality,” towards the more subtle “Mixed” or “Augmented Reality.” Microsoft’s HoloLens and Apple’s ARKit software move to broaden the audience for these versions of VR. Microsoft’s vision is a type of eyepiece that displays virtual content in the real world as an overlay, while Apple seeks to reach millions instantly by embedding their software into the next generation of iPhones. Samsung and Google have also developed low-cost headsets that attach directly to their smartphones for simpler VR content. These visions, while at times confusing and difficult for consumers to distinguish, comfortably fall under the VR umbrella without being hampered by the issues that have plagued dedicated VR headsets on traditional computers.

VR’s ultimate viability will be difficult to determine. “VR bars” have begun to appear in major cities like Atlanta, where spaces can be rented for groups to enjoy VR (and a drink or two). These venues could become more prominent in the same way that video game arcades once were. Perhaps this is how VR can truly shine – instead of a model in which consumers are saddled with high prices for the novelty of VR in their homes, VR could become a more public, stationery commodity. VR arcades or movie theaters would allow people to step into other worlds without paying a premium, and companies could develop the technology further without relying on sales from expensive personal devices.

Maybe someday I’ll be able to step in and out of a game like I once envisioned. Although for now, it seems that VR has a long way to go before it matches our imaginations.

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