Can the VR dream go mainstream?
As Sony jumps on the Oculus bandwagon, is the dream of mass-market VR about to come true?
In a sense, a whole generation has already grown up with virtual reality. The technology was a staple of science fiction films of the 1980s and 1990s, from the neon dreamscapes of Tron via the squishy organic ickiness of Cronenberg's eXistenZ to the slick totalitarian nightmare of The Matrix. Even in films where it wasn't a core story element, VR headsets or virtual worlds were movie shorthand for "hey, we're in the future".
Hey - we're in the future. It's now clear that Sony is working seriously on a VR headset for PlayStation 4, which will compete with the Kickstarter sensation that is Oculus Rift - the HD version of which has been wowing almost everyone who tries it out. After countless abortive attempts at VR tech, laid low by poor framerates, awful resolution, glitchy head tracking and, in many cases, the sheer discomfort of wearing the heavy headsets themselves, the message from both Oculus and Sony seems to be "this time it actually works" - a message borne out from personal brief experience, and more usefully from acres of positive coverage of more long-term testing.
In the midst of the warranted enthusiasm about these strides forward in a technology many of us have dreamed about since childhood, there's a question nobody seems particularly keen to ask. Is this a mainstream technology, or simply a sideshow for a dedicated band of early adopters? VR unquestionably has applications in a host of serious fields - medical treatment, military training, search and rescue and many others - but does it have a future as a well-supported entertainment device? Can anyone really picture a time when a couple of VR headsets snuggle on charging cradles below the living room TV?
"Is this a mainstream technology, or simply a sideshow for a dedicated band of early adopters?"
We don't want to ask those questions, I suspect because we fear that we already know what the answers are. A world that has heavily adopted VR in the home genuinely is quite hard to envisage. The technology is, by its nature, antisocial - as long as you assume that "social" is confined to real rather than virtual environments, of course. It's designed from first principles to exclude the world around you in favour of a constructed virtual world. Where something like Google Glass augments reality (and plenty of people find that creepy enough in itself), Oculus Rift and its ilk replace reality outright. That's an intriguing prospect but one which seems, at least to most people, like one with a very limited set of usage scenarios.
After all, think about how the "dream" of VR was presented in all of those movies of the 80s and 90s. We may have watched them as children and thought about how cool it would be to step into a virtual environment - but even if you leave aside the scary hand-waving "dangers of the virtual world" storylines (seriously, if you've written the line "if we die in the game, we die in reality!" in a story or script, go out, get some fresh air, and consider a career change), the depiction of VR was never all that positive. Science fiction is generally a moral tale about today dressed in the speculative clothing of tomorrow - within those parables, VR mostly served as a warning about how isolated and confined technology could make us. VR users were at best, drooling vegetables whose minds were engaged far away from the people around them; at worst, withered tube-fed husks who didn't even know the real world existed.
"I'm not convinced that VR has a place as a mainstream entertainment device - it's simply a step too far in disconnection from your surroundings"
These depictions were contemporary comment more than anything else - a statement about fears that we were becoming more and more absorbed in technology and media to the exclusion of the real world and those around us. VR was the ultimate expression of that fear - a technology which would entirely replace the real world. To those of us who view games as escapist fantasy, that's beguiling, but it's easy to see how such complete escapism can be no different to isolation or disconnection. For exactly the same reason that film makers of previous decades used VR to express their fears about technology, I'm not convinced that VR has a place as a mainstream entertainment device - it's simply a step too far in disconnection from your surroundings. It will undoubtedly find a great niche market among a specific class of core gamer (and I'll be happy to be among them), but ultimately, it is a class of device that belongs in the den or the bedroom, not the living room, and it will concern and disturb enough people to keep it locked out of many homes for years to come.
There is a counter-argument to this, if I may be permitted to play my own Devil's Advocate - smartphones. If you had made a film in the 1980s in which everyone on a train carriage stared and tapped on panes of glass, unspeaking, for the duration of their journeys, or in which a family sat around a television engaging with the black slabs in their hands rather than in conversation with one another, it would have looked like a dystopian nightmare. "Nobody will ever permit that to happen to society," you might have thought - yet here we are, a nation of people who decry those who can't stop checking their phones while out for a dinner date, yet secretly can't wait for our date to take a bathroom break so we can reach into our pockets.
It's not a dystopian nightmare, unless you're a utterly miserable luddite - the kind of person who sniffs at smartphones and honks out "well mine makes phonecalls just fine!", as if a completely bone-headed misunderstanding of technological progress makes you into the smartest guy in the room and not just an earth-shattering bore. It's just a bit socially annoying. We got used to this new reality in small steps - it's the new normal. Who is to say, then, that VR headsets won't also become the New Normal?
"We got used to this new reality in small steps - it's the new normal. Who is to say, then, that VR headsets won't also become the New Normal?"
In the very long term, I think that reasoning is probably sound. I buy it with regards to Google Glass style HUD systems, a product I don't like very much right now but which I fully expect will become normal for us all within the coming decade, just as smartphones did this decade. As VR headsets become smaller, lighter and less intrusive - ultimately, a few decades down the line, probably being built into contact lenses or something of that sort - they will indeed become the new normal, at least for some people. In the medium term, though, VR seems destined to be an exciting niche, at best. I personally can't wait to see what kind of experiences we can have on future versions of Oculus Rift and Sony's headset, but I have no expectation that this will break out of the core gamer market (a few tens of millions of consumers, which is admittedly not to be sniffed at) for years to come.
One of the most sensible rules that anyone talking about the future - be it serious speculation or pure science fiction - ought to follow is "never say never"; the best way to look like a fool down the line is to proclaim anything to be impossible. With regard to mainstream adoption of VR, then, I'm certainly not prepared to say "never" - but with a slightly heavy heart, I'm definitely prepared to say "not yet".