Wednesday, April 13, 2016

A more level-headed (non-user) impression of VR

I have been ranting for several blog posts about how VR seems to be going to the wrong direction, and it's way too expensive. However, I would like to write some thoughts in a more level-headed manner, and ponder if VR has actually "failed" in a manner of speaking.

You see, when Oculus first started developing the Oculus Rift, the general vision of the whole VR thing was that it would become essentially a new display device for almost all of your games, just way, way more immersive and cooler, because rather than just seeing the game on a flat screen, you would be seeing it in stereo, which would mean that it would really look like you are in the game, not just watching it on a flat screen. In other words, VR headsets would become a more or less generic display device for most games (which of course would need to add explicit support, but if such headsets become popular, it would be a no-brainer.) And not just like a 3D monitor, but due to it being a visor with lenses, you are pretty much surrounded by the geometry of the game, and it will feel so three-dimensional that you feel like you could literally touch the objects if you reach out.

However, it turns out that VR "doesn't work" as a generic display device for games. And "doesn't work" doesn't mean there's some technical impediment stopping games from supporting it. Instead, the "doesn't work" in this context means that most people easily get motion sickness if the game is controlled by something else than their own movement (ie. keyboard+mouse or a gamepad). This is because when the visual sensory input does not match your body's sensory input (balance and all other nuanced senses, which our bodies have quite a lot), the brain gets confused and usually causes dizziness and nausea. Especially when our sense of balance does not match what we visually perceive, we get nauseous very quickly. And it's not something that goes away rapidly; once nauseous like this, it can persist for a quite long time even after stopping; even over an hour.

This is something that one can get used to. In the same way that one gets used to riding a bus or a boat without getting seasick (which has very similar reasons), one can get used to playing regular old FPS games in stereo vision for hours without getting motion sickness. Many people report this.

However, that doesn't matter. It seems that the device manufacturers, and developers at large, have taken the stance that VR "doesn't work" in traditional games, and most of them have basically no interest in adding support to any of their existing games, nor any of their future "traditional" games. They are only interested in developing games designed specifically for the VR, using all the techniques that avoid motion sickness.

So what is VR good for, then? Maybe the only even moderately large genre where it works well is vehicle simulation (with which I mean racing games, car simulators, flight simulators and space simulators). This perhaps because most people are already used to driving or riding vehicles, so they don't get motion sickness in such a familiar environment.

As for the "walk around your room" game mechanic... The only genre that I can think of, which has potential for making some actual serious games, is golf. Other than that... I don't know. Maybe tennis and other sports where you are mostly standing still?

In other words, with this game mechanic VR seems to pretty much be a glorified Kinect, maybe mixed with Wii controls. And we all know how successful Kinect was... (Sure, it will work a thousand times better than the Kinect, and will look a thousand times more impressive, but in terms of gameplay... pretty much the same thing.)

So if game developers decide to stick to only game mechanics that do not cause motion sickness, it seems to limit the possibilities of VR quite a lot. The standing-up game mechanic is extremely limiting in terms of game design, becoming pretty much a glorified Kinect. Almost the only feasible sit-down mechanic is with vehicle simulators. So what else is there?

Many people are advocating VR, and saying that it will create and inspire a whole new plethora of game genres. Which pretty much sounds like what Microsoft was saying about the Kinect. And we all know how that turned out. Personally, I'm a bit skeptical.

Is VR a failure, after all? After people get bored of the tech demos, will VR be relegated to the role of a vehicle simulation peripheral, alongside racing wheels and such? Even though VR could be used for so much more?

And I am taking their word for it (ie. of HTC/Valve and Oculus). In other words, I'm assuming here that VR indeed is pretty much unusable in traditional games because of the motion sickness problem. If that's indeed the case, then that limits the uses of VR by an enormous margin. Maybe so much that it could even be considered a failure. It's too niche to be used for generic gaming, and for the wider market.

I am not the only one who is skeptical. There are other people who have actually bought the Vive, and are already saying the tech demos are getting boring, and the amateurish games available so far as completely sub-par, and also boring. Sure, this may change in the future, but so far it seems quite bad.

It doesn't help that the devices are so hugely expensive. If the intent of HTC/Valve and of Oculus is to make VR widely popular, you don't achieve that by pricing the devices for like 1% of gamers, who have too much money to spend. How many triple-A games are you expecting to see for a device with such an abysmal adoption rate? It's just not profitable to make big-budget games that only maybe 1% of the market will buy.

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