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Has the time really come for virtual reality?

I can’t recall exactly when my first experience of virtual reality took place – it was some time in the early nineties – but I do remember being helped to put on the heavy-ass headset, and then feeling that I’d been transported to a whole other place.

The game was Legend Quest (there are videos out there on YouTube, check out this feature from Tomorrow’s World) – I was an Elf Thief. The gameplay specifics and our objectives are now a little foggy, it was a blur of new, but I had a blast even though the entire thing lasted maybe fifteen minutes tops. It was all I thought about for weeks afterwards.

Virtual reality

That was twenty-five years ago and I haven’t yet had the opportunity to try it again. It irks me some. I realise that the recent resurgence in the field has only just kicked things off again – it’s almost as if they’ve had to start from scratch – but knowing the effect it had on my younger self, combined with today’s tech, modern graphical capabilities and gameplay mechanics, the potential of modern virtual reality to genuinely blow my mind is huge.

It was Palmer Luckey’s original Oculus Rift prototype that seemed to get the VR ball rolling once again. With the backing of Id Software’s John Carmack at E3 2012 and a successful Kickstarter campaign, things began to take shape. Then in March 2014 Facebook bought Oculus VR for $2 billion ($400k cash, $1.6 bln in Facebook stock). That’s one hell of an investment – Mark Zuckerberg clearly sees plenty of scope for virtual reality in the future. With that kind of financial commitment, it seems unlikely it’ll just be a flash in the pan. Ready or not, it’s coming.

Oculus Rift

Since then it seems like the world and its mother have jumped on the VR bandwagon. The current market is fit to bursting with folk setting up for their piece of the pie, in spite of the fact that there hasn’t been a ‘killer app’ yet developed, or any genuine public desire. It’s potential pie. It doesn’t even really exist yet. It’s virtual pie.

Now alongside the Oculus Rift, we have glut of alternatives. Sony’s Project Morpheus, Samsung’s Gear VR, HTC and Valve’s Vive, Google’s Cardboard, Avegant’s Glyph, to name but a few of the bigger names. Some of these are headsets proper with integrated screens, but there are several lower cost options that allow for a phone to be used in place of dedicated screens. The diversity on display is reassuring, the competition is great for innovation. The prospect for massive strides to be made in the technology and the software is very real. I am definitely excited for the future.

Google Cardboard

I am certainly keen to give it a go again – hopefully I will get the opportunity one day – but am I excited at the idea of owning my very own virtual reality headset? I can’t say I am, and I suspect many other gamers are in the same camp at this stage.  I own a PS4, so let’s say, for arguments sake, that Project Morpheus currently holds the most appeal. You’ve got dedicated hardware to run it on, along with software support from a company with years of experience and a proven track record. I’m pretty sure it’s not the potential price tag that’s putting me off either – I get the impression that it’ll be priced relatively low by Sony. That all sounds rather encouraging, so what’s my problem?

The most troubling concern I have is the nature of play itself. Is everything we play on these goggles going to be similar to the demonstrations we’ve seen already? I don’t just want to play tech-demos. Are we going to get games that attempt to ape what we’re currently playing on regular screens with pads and mice? Or will they be brand new experiences that we can’t get anywhere else? Either way, there’s going to be a significant adjustment period. What is the recommended length of a play session? What’s safe? I presume there will be plenty of health concerns when they’re out for public consumption. Are we even going to get games that you can spend hours in?

Virtual reality

Add to all that the idea of strapping a headset on and standing (or sitting – can we sit?) in the middle of your living room, whilst your partner, family, pets, whatever, watch you flap about in a world of your own. It strikes me as another novelty peripheral like Microsoft’s Kinect or Sony’s Move. Impressive tech, no doubt, but how many of those games are still being played? You might wheel them out at a party or gathering, “Look at this, it’s really cool!” (for about twenty minutes), but then back in the box it goes with all your other cables and assorted AV crap.

Let me be clear, I’m not against VR. That would be difficult, since I’ve not experienced this new wave first-hand. I would relish the opportunity. What I’m struggling with is taking it seriously as a medium for decent games, and not just a series of novelty showcases. I just fear it’s being promoted to gamers, as a gaming device, before it’s ready. Maybe a symptom of today’s media hype machine. Maybe it’s being done intentionally. Maybe I’m worrying about nothing, and my first experience will make me an instant convert. In the meantime I choose to remain sceptical, but will cling to that first memory of being Elvish.

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