The promise that the virtual reality craze of the mid 90s posed never really materialized, producing many attempts, but little success and now – nearly 20 years on – we’re still waiting. The last several months have seen some significant developments in hardware, but this can only be contextualized as far as current technology allows, and what we can expect or label as ‘virtual reality’ must be determined by the same.
So with all this in mind, my big question is this: are we actually ready for virtual reality? I don’t think we have been in the past and after so many prior failings, I’m not convinced we are just yet.
Before we get to virtual reality though, I want to discuss games in general and our expectations. Modern video games are constantly striving for that element of progressive realism; more realistic visuals, sound, and gameplay. But more realistic than what exactly? How many of us have actually discovered mythical realms, faced the apocalypse, or been stranded on a desert island? After all, one of the main reasons we play video games in the first place is to escape our own realities; to have fun; to be entertained. So how real does this experience need to be, assuming we still want to have fun?
For example, Far Cry 3 is an excellent first-person RPG, however features such as hunting animals for their hides in order to ‘craft’ larger satchels or holsters at times feels somewhat hollow. Sure, these measures are ones which would be essential if actually stranded on a pirate-ridden island, but by killing and skinning virtual animals, highlighting a menu item and selecting ‘craft’; we haven’t actually crafted anything. Just like lopping the head off of a virtual yellow flower and selecting a menu item to create health supplies, does not make us actual chemists. Likewise, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas demanded we treat lead character CJ to a meal every time his stomach rumbled; forcing us to drag his butt to the gym if we over-indulged. I’m all for fully-customizable characterization, but such features are largely superfluous, tedious, and more importantly, not realistic; Far Cry 3 signals the locations of different varieties of plants (which the player must craft into power-ups or medicine) on the map, and they glow in-game in order to catch the player’s attention. What’s worse, these features have the potential to suck the fun out of the experience as they quickly become a chore.
Developers include these gimmicks in order to create this much sought after sense of ‘realism’. Sports titles have tried their hand in recent renditions. EA’s Madden, NBA and FIFA titles all include various interpretations of ‘Be a Pro’, whereupon you control just one single player on the field of play, embarking on a new career with the aim of taking your player to the top. It sounds good in theory, however- primarily due to the third-person camera angle- it’s awkward and actually not much fun when only allowed to control one in-game player. To achieve the ‘perfect’ simulation, the actual player would need to be on the actual field, actually playing the game. This serves to illustrate what we expect from games in order to have fun; that we adjust our expectations to suit. The ‘God-like‘ camera angle is accepted, albeit wholly unrealistic, because it’s not particularly entertaining otherwise. In essence, we run on convenient assumptions when playing games. We tend not to question where our protagonist stashes all the guns and loot he/she’s able to carry around, or the fact that they are able to walk away virtually unscathed from a brawl against 50 enemies- it’s just what they do. And we expect them to re-spawn or start again from the last checkpoint if they accidentally meet their demise, of course.
As far as virtual reality is concerned, there has been a herd of previous attempts; none of which are particularly worth remembering due to over-pricing or lack of quality (in most cases both). The most publicized hardware amid the hyperbole of the 90s was the ill-fated Sega VR – a virtual reality headset add-on for the Sega Genesis/MegaDrive. After years of extensive publicity and advertising, it was cancelled in 1994, before being swiftly swept under the carpet. What followed was Nintendo’s Virtual Boy, an awkward binocular-style, height-adjustable headset which did produce (sort of) 3D visuals, but was grossly hindered by its linear polygonal graphics, lack of rendering and the fact that the hardware only allowed for a black and red display. Selling less than 800’000 units worldwide, the Virtual Boy was scrapped after less than a year in circulation.
Fast forward to 2006 and the introduction of the Nintendo Wii. The Wii introduced motion technology to home console gaming and – alongside a host of family-inspired game packages- was able to capture a wider demographic, finding great success as a result. No one can rightly argue with the sales figures the console has delivered and the innovative steps it took towards motion-sensitive gaming; however the Wii is not without its flaws. Many games are let down by the limitations of the Wii itself. Too often games revert to using the same movements time and time again in order to overcome obstacles, most pertinently and frankly disappointing, Zelda: Skyward Sword. Many games do not require full movements to execute on-screen maneuvers, such as Wii boxing; the player can simulate haymaker-style punches by simply flicking the control forward thus recreating the speed of a regular movement. It’s a shame because the Wii introduced such revolutionary technology – enough to get us moving, for want of a better cliche – but was then crippled by its own technological barriers. Essentially the idea is there, no doubt, but in practice the Wii too often flatters to deceive.
So what of future developments? Where is virtual reality heading now, a mere matter of months before we enter the next generation of gaming? Further gimmicks have surfaced, most notably Microsoft’s most recent forthcoming project – IllumiRoom. Working in conjunction with the Kinect, IllumiRoom scans the layout of your living room, before projecting imagery around your TV in an attempt to create a more immersive gaming experience. Aside from the fact that not everyone has their television set up against a large wall space, this is far from what we’ve grown to anticipate from any sort of virtual reality experience and looks to be another gimmick-driven impostor.
Easy to see then, that the elusive concept of virtual reality is one which has arguably failed to fulfill our expectations up until this point. As mentioned earlier, I’m not convinced we’re ready for virtual reality. The attempts made thus far have been largely lackluster. But I am someone who wants to believe; someone who wants to be convinced. Last year’s incredibly successful Kickstarter campaign which raised $2.4 million for the development of the Oculus Rift VR headset, is without doubt a step in the right direction. First presented at E3 last year and most recently at CES 2013, this VR headset is set for release in 2014 and will incorporate full 3D stereoscopic vision and one-on-one 9DOF sensors to accurately track user movement. Admittedly confusing for those unfamiliar with such technical specifications (i.e- me), but essentially the Oculus Rift is the most advanced VR headset thus far. Designed in the style of ski goggles, the Oculus Rift still requires the use of a game controller for movement, however aiming and looking are achieved by moving your head in whichever direction necessary.
Many reports so far (such as IGN) have noted minor symptoms of motion sickness and disorientation whilst using the hardware, however once overcome, have commended the complete immersion it delivers. Doom 3: BFG Edition is the only playable demo available for the Oculus Rift so far, and although an appropriate style of game to showcase the hardware’s capabilities, the player is stripped of control during cutscenes – compromising the continuity of the experience. It goes without saying then, that Half Life 3 would be a very wise candidate for the virtual reality treatment and Valve are said to be on board with its development. Here’s the crux: if the Oculus Rift lives up to its promise; if it delivers what it says it will and manages to avoid disappointing us like so many other virtual reality wannabes have before; then this may very well be the game changer. Development is still in the early stages but from what’s been shown so far, the prospect is certainly intriguing if not downright exciting.
Then again, it’s hard not to get caught up in the PR of it all, and hype does not guarantee success- let’s not forget the Sega VR. As it transpired, we weren’t ready for virtual reality then, and if the Oculus Rift fails, maybe we’re still not now. The hype surrounding virtual reality has gotten to the stage where our expectations are so high and any offering at this stage must be of utmost quality; otherwise it will be deemed a valiant failure. One day technology will become so advanced that we’ll be able to recreate the electrical impulses in our brains and discover how to duplicate the stimuli necessary to create fully immersive visions. We’ll recreate the ‘Simulated Reality’ of The Matrix.
We’re not there yet, I truly hope we’re closer than we think, but I remain unconvinced until then.