Can Virtual Reality Avoid The Fate of Motion Control
Virtual reality gaming is closer to being a mass-produced product than ever before. With a few headsets already available for purchase, and both Sony and Oculus set to release their headsets in 2016, for better or worse virtual reality is just that, a reality.
Where We're Going, We Don't Need Controllers
Let's just get this out of the way, I for one am very excited about the potential of VR, despite having never used any. For a long time the prospect of truly great VR seemed dead, largely thanks to the abysmal Virtual Boy from Nintendo. In the past 5 years however, wearing a clunky visor and immersing oneself in a fairly impressive world has become surprisingly commonplace. I mean, all you have to do is hop on over to YouTube and you can see Pewdiepie, Markiplier, Teens React, and many more popular channels using the Oculus Rift. The technology has become very popular and well-known in a short amount of time.
YouTubers like those mentioned above are a big reason why the Oculus Rift is as well known as it is. The product was Kickstarted back in 2012 but was purchased by Facebook in 2014 for $1.6 Billion. Kickstarter backers felt shortchanged by the Facebook acquisition, assuming it would no longer be a gaming dedicated device. That's just the thing though, the potential of virtual reality lies in many areas beyond gaming, but we'll get to that later.
As mentioned previously, Sony are releasing a VR device in early 2016. The device, currently codenamed Project Morpheus, will work with the PS4 and is said to be very immersive and reactive, as well as more comfortable than the Oculus Rift. One notable difference between the two systems is that Sony will be pushing it as a gaming device, more so than Facebook. Sony have already announced a few games that will support VR, as well as opened an England-based studio to work solely on Morpheus games. The tech demos that Sony have showed off thus farm, which include EVE: Valkyrie, The Deep, The Heist and more, have been incredibly well received.
The Virtual Reality Skinny
So there's a ton of hype around VR right now, but that doesn't guarantee success. The cost effectiveness of these devices may well be the biggest issue they face. In this regard, Sony has Oculus Rift beaten already.
For gamers to actually use the Oculus Rift they will need a very high-end PC. Such a desktop will cost between $1000-£1500 to set-up, assuming you know how to rig a gaming PC, and it won't even really work on laptops. And then comes the part where you have to actually but the Rift itself, which may cost anywhere between $200-$400. These facts alone presents a serious barrier to entry for anyone who wants to use the device.
That being said, you can also check out the Samsung Gear VR set. Samsung partnered with Oculus VR to produce one of the latest consumer-ready headsets. The Samsung Gear allows you to plug your Galaxy smartphone into the headset and use apps, play games, and watch trailers. The Samsung Gear VR is an affordable, albeit problematic, way to jump in with VR. Hopefully more Oculus support and integrationcomes sooner rather than later.
On the other hand, Sony will release Morpheus next year and it will run on your PS4. No pricing point has been announced for Morpheus yet but that and games are expected to be shown at E3 2015. Assuming the device will cost around $200, that's all you have to pay if you already own a PS4. For Morpheus to really be successful, Sony should bundle it with the PS4 and cut the combined price a little. Regardless of how they promote and sell it, the Morpheus is vastly more accessible than the Oculus Rift. However that also doesn't guarantee success; enter PlayStation Move.
Let's Avoid This
Back in the hayday of the Nintendo Wii, Sony and Microsoft misread the market and thought that motion controlled gaming was the future. Needless to say they were wrong. The Wii ran hot and fast for a few years, selling over a hundred million units, but then it took a massive heart attack and dropped dead. Never to be seen again. This is around the time Sony released the Playstation Move and Microsoft went with the Kinect. Neither of these were bad products, the Move worked very well and much better than the Wii but there were no games for it, and the Kinect had a ton of potential. However swinging a Nunchuk like a sword, using Move as a gun, and jumping around your living room with Kinect turned out to be another fad. Sony had the wherewithall to abandon the Move and double-down on hardcore gamers with the PS4, Microsoft however went full steam ahead with Kinect and, well, we all know how that turned out. I won't even start on the disaster that is the Wii U.
So now we have the next big thing, or so we're being told. The truth is, VR has much more potential than motion control ever had. That being said, developers need to come up with a new type of game that suits VR, because the fact is that nobody wants to play Uncharted or Call of Duty with anything other than a classic controller. Horror games, however, have a great chance at success with VR. As seen in the Youtube videos mentioned earlier, horror works incredibly well with VR. As will games like EVE: Valkyrie and No Man's Sky - games that are more about exploration than combat. However, if you ask me, the potential of VR is somewhat lost with video games.
Immersive? Yes. Terrifying? You Betcha'
Experiences Or Games?
If you've seen the Sony tech demo's, they show things that are more like experiences than games. Take The Deep for example, a demo in which you are a deep-sea diver in a cage that is being lowered into the ocean. You can look all around and see the different fish and fauna of the ocean. The demo culminates with a shark attacking your cage. This demo looks really cool and immersive, and a lot more interesting than The Heist - a demo about a shoot-out in a jewel store. While the latter demo was praised for how well the shooting and cover-mechanics worked, the shark demo is more amazing. What I mean by that is that VR seems best utilised when it throws you into a world you may otherwise never be in.
A while back it was reported that NASA was working with Sony to create a demo for Morpheus, a demo in which you walk around the surface of Mars. This is exactly the kind of experience I want from VR. Users have cited motion sickness and dizziness from using both Morpheus and Oculus Rift, although that is said to be improving in both devices. So it stands to reason that no one would want to use a VR helmet for an extended period of time, which completely runs against the way people play video games. Therefore paying a few bucks and getting to walk around and interact with Mars, the Bat Cave, The Simpsons house, the Millenium Falcon, or any other cool location, seems more appealing than playing an erratic shooter. Maybe that just comes down to personal preference.
More Of This Please
One other potential of VR that I want to mention is live events. I'm not much of a tech guy, so my understanding of how VR works or could work, might be way off when I explain this. Anyway, if VR is a success and a significant portion of PS4 owners also have Morpheus, as well as other devices in homes, imagine a scenario in which you can pay to watch a sport or music event live. For example, you could pay $30 or whatever, put on the visor and watch the World Cup final as if you were right there in the crowd. The same goes for a concert, the Superbowl, Wrestlemania, whatever you wish. That's an exciting prospect to me and one I would definitely pay for. Let's just hope we don't end up in some sort of weird Matrix situation. At least not in my lifetime.
So that particular dream aside, the other big obstacle facing VR is the actual games. As I said earlier, the failure of the Xbox Kinect and PlayStation Move was the lack of games. Neither device supported games that actually interested hardcore gamers, i.e. those willing to fork over the money for the thing. For VR to be a success, especially for Sony, there will need to be games for Morpheus. And not just sports games or half-baked things, actual great games. And for great games to be made, developers have to feel like they can make money on the device. Studio's stopped working on the Kinect because no one was buying the games and Microsoft weren't supporting them with advertising.
The opposite needs to happen with Morpheus. Sony need to come out swinging; announce the device with a reasonable price point, lots of awesome experiences like The Deep, and at least 1 must-have game. The must-have game can't just be any old game, it had to utilise VR to its full potential and show that it couldn't have worked on any other device. Those tenets and a huge marketing push are what can drive Morpheus to be a success. It needs to be touted as the next big thing, the ultimate (not just gaming) experience.
The Facebook Effect
As for Oculus Rift, I'm not sure what the future holds. The product will almost certainly begin its life with a very niche audience, due to price point and PC culture. Few people will be willing to pay for the high-end PC needed, nevermind the device itself. However, the wild card is Facebook. Why the company purchased Oculus is still a mystery but with that much revenue and social influence behind it, Facebook may be able to make Oculus mainstream and a necessity. It stands to reason that Facebook will one day create a Sims style world in which Facebook users can strap on the visor, log-in, take control of a personalised avatar and begin socializing. Why the average person on the street would find this appealing is the biggest hurdle right now but if anyone can figure that out it's Facebook.
The future of virtual reality may be incredibly bright, or incredibly short-lived. Sony are sure to hit the ground running with Morpheus and the gaming side of things but the longevity of the device is questionable. The Oculus Rift on the other hand could be a slow burn. The price of using it currently is far too high but as years pass and the specs needed cheapen, more people may jump on board. However, in both instances they will need reasons to jump on board, be it with games, experiences, live events, or social networking. VR has tons of potential and with a variety of fantastic developers, publishers and genuises working on it, I have faith that it may just be the game-chaning experience we all dream it can be.