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Roundtable: Is VR finally ready to be the next big thing?

There's plenty of excitement around Oculus Rift and castAR right now, but how successful will they be?

For much of the past decade, the gaming industry has dismissed virtual reality as a relic of the '90s, a game design dead end along the lines of full-motion video or anthroporphic platforming animal mascots with attitude. But those attitudes have been changing.

Yesterday, Technical Illusions launched its Kickstarter campaign for castAR, a combination augmented reality and virtual reality glasses system. Barely 24 hours into its month-long funding period, castAR is nearly three-quarters of the way to its $400,000 goal. The project's early success brings to mind another crowdfunded VR effort, the Oculus Rift, which raised more than $1 million in its first 36 hours on Kickstarter.

Clearly, there is some interest in these premium-priced gaming accoutrements, and a number of veteran developers seem convinced of these devices' potential. The Oculus Rift pitch video had endorsements from the likes of Valve's Gabe Newell and Cliff Bleszinski, plus the project was so appealing to John Carmack that the longtime id CTO joined the upstart company on a full-time basis. The castAR project had fewer testimonials, but has garnered full-throated support on Twitter from Arkane Studios' Harvey Smith, Gree GM Steve Lin, Q-Games' Dylan Cuthbert, Bennett Foddy, and more.

Oculus and castAR have already proven they can generate some money and excitement, but what's their true potential? Will they ultimately prove to be disruptive technologies, or simply another trend that falls by the wayside before the bugs are worked out? Is there room in between for one or the other to establish itself as a luxury product for a niche audience? The GamesIndustry International crew shares their thoughts on whether these virtual endeavors will prove to be actually successful.

Brendan Sinclair

Given that I haven't actually tried either system, I reserve the right to shamelessly backtrack and abandon these opinions at a later date. That said, I see little hope of commercial success for castAR and modest potential for the Rift. I think it speaks volumes to me that even while castAR creator Jeri Ellsworth was designing the system at Valve software, Gabe Newell was endorsing the Oculus Rift, saying in the pitch video, "If anybody's going to tackle this set of hard problems, we think that [Oculus founder] Palmer [Luckey] is going to do it."

"[T]here are plenty of gamers willing to spend $250 or more...for a supposedly richer gaming experience."

Brendan Sinclair

With its required reflective mat and piecemeal construction (Do you want the VR clip-ons to the AR glasses? How about the controller or the RFID tags? Oh, and which kind of tags: basic or precision?), the castAR system sounds like heaven for people who don't mind getting their hands a bit dirty and wrangling the technology and rearranging a room to meet their needs. But the same complexity that could potentially empower a unique experience will almost certainly hamstring the castAR's potential in the market.

On the other hand, I could see Oculus succeeding nicely as a pricey peripheral for well-off gamers. As headset makers Turtle Beach, Mad Catz, and Astro Gaming have shown, there are plenty of gamers willing to spend $250 or more and wear some goofy looking plastic on their heads for a supposedly richer gaming experience. Given the positive word-of-mouth and developer enthusiasm for Oculus, I see no reason it couldn't slot itself nicely into that corner of the industry.

James Brightman

Maybe this isn't a fair comparison, but do you remember how excited everyone seemed about Ouya? Now that it's launched that excitement has dwindled to a whisper. The fact is that any VR platform is just that - a platform - and as anyone in the industry will tell you, a platform is only as good as its games. Ouya has failed to offer most people a compelling reason to pick one up, and my hunch is that the same unfortunate fate is in store for Rift and castAR. At least Ouya had price on its side, but that's not too likely to be true for VR devices.

"Maybe this isn't a fair comparison, but do you remember how excited everyone seemed about Ouya?"

James Brightman

I would agree with Brendan that of the two VR devices, Rift seems to stand a better chance at success as of this moment. Palmer Luckey was recently endorsed by Popular Mechanics, which awarded him the number seven spot in its "10 Innovators Who Changed the World in 2013" list, and numerous devs have raved about the technology, so clearly there's some momentum on Rift's side. I just don't think there's going to be enough support from enough devs to give VR in general a chance at reaching critical mass.

I hope I'm proven wrong. I had the chance to test out an early prototype of Rift during an interview with John Carmack and the experience is definitely immersive and far more impressive than any gimmicky attempt at VR headsets I'd seen before, but for the vast majority of gamers, it's not likely to be worth the outlay of cash, and that in turn will make more developers hesitant to throw their full weight behind the product.

Steve Peterson

I've experienced the Oculus VR for a brief time with an early version, and it seemed to be responsive and provide a good image. Will it "disrupt" the game industry as Cliff Bleszinski opines? Not likely, as I think it's got too many strikes against it.

"The technologies that have really disrupted the game industry over the last decades have generally been easy to use, relatively inexpensive, and promote connections between gamers."

Steve Peterson

The technologies that have really disrupted the game industry over the last decades have generally been easy to use, relatively inexpensive, and promote connections between gamers. Examples include the Wii, smartphones (not too cheap, but if you bought them as a phone the gaming came free), online multiplayer gaming... None of these things necessarily had a huge technical edge or raw power. You get disruption in an industry when something can be widely adopted, which usually occurs because it's better, easier, cheaper, or some combination of those qualities.

VR, whether through the Oculus Rift, castAR or some other device, doesn't meet those standards. Let's say the cost is only $200... that's still pretty expensive for something that needs to connect to a PC or a console in order to function. And you have to wear it on your head, which tends to look goofy and isolate you from others. It's certainly not going to be as easy to use as, say, a Kinect.

Can they provide an interesting, even compelling experience? Probably, and there may well be a very cool game or a dozen of them waiting to be unleashed from VR. The number of people who will experience that is a small percentage of the total audience, though, akin to the number experiencing console games with full 7.1 audio on a 70-inch 3D screen, or those turbocharged PC gamers with three-screen racing simulators, a steering wheel and pedals. It's cool, but not anywhere near a significant market segment.

Mike Williams

I'm just not seeing the castAR as a device that's going to hit anyone beyond enthusiasts. It's not the price, it's the set up. castAR doesn't fit into the spaces that most of us have for our desktop gaming PCs. It's even less flexible than Microsoft's Kinect in certain living room scenarios. castAR has definite uses, but these use cases seem as sporadic as the original Microsoft Surface (now called PixelSense).

"castAR has definite uses, but these use cases seem as sporadic as the original Microsoft Surface."

Mike Williams

In contrast, the Oculus Rift can fit anywhere, since the device just sits on your head. If you want to Rift in your cubby at work, that's doable. As Brendan notes, high-end PC gamers are already blowing crazy money on peripherals, so Oculus Rift has a solid spot to occupy at a $200 price point.

Is this where everything is going? No. castAR only has certain applications and the Oculus Rift works better when your body in the game world mirrors your body in the real world. Games like EVE: Valkyrie and iRacing have you seated in the game world and they feel real; other titles are slightly disorienting. And that's not even going into games that only sort of work with the Oculus Rift, like 2D platformers and third-person games. Oculus Rift is cool, but it's not replacing the PC monitor anytime soon.

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Latest comments (16)

Jack Pochop Studying Telecommunications, Indiana University4 years ago
I think that, if any recent consumer tech is any indication, 3D televisions are a telltale sign that the vast majority of us simply aren't ready for expensively niche, cumbersome gadgets. As many of the GI crew mentioned, VR at this point requires you to fully plunk your noggin into the $200 eyewear -- which, most everyone else will not have access to.

3D TV has nowhere near reached the point of saturation most internet folks presumed it would even two or three years ago. 3D television even offers relatively low-cost headsets for the whole bunch to enjoy, whereas VR headsets appear to be a considerably soloist activity. Even if extra headsets were an option, they are at least $100 more expensive than those extra 3D glasses offered by TV manufacturers.

I think that, at the real heart of the problem, there's a huge separation between recreation in the home and what can still largely be considered "arcade recreation." Living rooms and recreation spaces in the home are still serving functions we have traditionally appreciated them for: comfort and group entertainment. VR technology offers neither of those qualities at this moment in time, so is it really a technology we see being popularized in the next year?

Maybe 3D TV isn't a good springboard for my assumptions, but I think it's the closest household-geared technology we can compare to VR right now. My vote goes against VR as ready for popularization, but I'm all for being proven wrong.
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Jed Ashforth Senior Game Designer, Immersive Technology Group, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe4 years ago
Two crew members who have only briefly tried an early prototype of the Rift , one who has never tried either device, and one who has.
It's certainly an Interesting mix to bring together on a roundtable debating if this is the 'next big thing'.

The Oculus has been pretty easy to get hold of for at least 4 or 5 months now, it would have been more interesting to hear these opinions if the writers had spent more time with the device and sample some of it's more up-to-date software offerings? A lot has changed in the last 6 months on the software front, and there's some very impressive experiences out there already.
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Jack Pochop Studying Telecommunications, Indiana University4 years ago
@Jed I don't think the quality of the Oculus VR is actually the issue here -- it's its ability to contend and emerge in the popular market, right alongside consoles and other set-top boxes. So actually playing the thing doesn't seem to factor into this discussion, it's just whether or not VR has enough "stick" and, price-wise, allure to find its way into people's homes.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Jack Pochop on 15th October 2013 5:56pm

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Show all comments (16)
Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 4 years ago
Again as a cheap peripheral, it would be ok. If they intend to make this into a seperate gaming platform then that might be a problem.
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Tom Hunt Game Developer, neocade4 years ago
VR will remain a niche market initially, which is precisely the best place for it and everyone making games for it to be. it may not yet be at the point where you have, say, EA making a VR-first or VR-exclusive title, but everything i've seen so far about the Oculus VR at least indicates to me (i.e. the lines at *any* conference it shows up at) that there will at the very least be a strong niche market for Rift games. if it just explodes and goes mainstream, then that happens. it could happen - but as a small developer, that's not where i'm looking anyway - i'm looking at the niche opportunities, and that's where I'm seeing the Rift when it first comes out.

Given that my analysis/opinion is probably not unique, I would wager that there will be more than enough devs, particularly "indie" devs, making new, relatively exclusive content for the Rift that it could very well take off with consumers and maybe go a little beyond hardcore niche or maybe into the mainstream a bit.
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Petter Solberg Freelance Writer & Artist, 4 years ago
I was never particularly interested in Ouya, and I don't think it's comparable to Oculus Rift. It's not the final destination, but I think it's a decent first step (I don't think most of the previous VR/AR prototypes even qualify as first steps). And as we all should know by know: hardware is only part of the equation..
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Sandy Lobban Founder, Noise Me Up4 years ago
As impressive as it might be visually, I dont think it'll be the next big thing. There are many social reasons that the TV, and smaller screens have put the 3D hardware gravy train back in the box for another 20-30 years. Apart from looking better this is pretty similar. Personally I like to be in the laziest possible position when playing a game, and able to reach for my food and beer without knocking them over. Naturally, audio is also a big part of my gaming experiences.

Ill only change my mind if I can have a flashing light on top that tells the wife to feed and hydrate me.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Sandy Lobban on 15th October 2013 9:56pm

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Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant 4 years ago
No.
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Paul Jace Merchandiser 4 years ago
Is VR the next big thing? No but it is the next 3D esque gimmick. Remember how everyone(especially Sony) was touting 3D gaming back in 2010/2011? That's probably where the discussion with VR will be in 2015/2016.
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Morgan King Animator 4 years ago
Take this anecdote for what it's worth, but I'm passing on the next-gen consoles for the foreseeable future in favor of the consumer Rift release. Mostly, I just want experiences that feel truly new, and that's not really happening on consoles or in the mobile space. It's not going to suddenly arrive and dominate all of gaming, but I think there's a very good chance this is going to be a profoundly different experience from headsets and 3D displays that have come before - the head-tracking is a massive leap in control systems - and VR offers a world of non-gaming applications that could have a lot of mainstream interest. I can totally see my mom enjoying a VR gondola ride through 1920s Venice, for example. Or a guided Jurassic Park tour? And, on the social front, interacting with people in VR with Sixense tracking is going to be completely unlike anything we've done with avatars thus far. I think the array of unique gaming experiences will keep this from merely falling into gimmick territory.

VR might not be the next big mainstream thing in the upcoming few years, but a couple of hardware iterations and a dedicated niche audience developing content (which seems to already be firmly entrenched) could really take this somewhere over the next decade.
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Shane Sweeney Academic 4 years ago
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Jed Ashforth Senior Game Designer, Immersive Technology Group, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe4 years ago
@Jack Thanks Jack, but I disagree with you. The writer's opinions of whether the tech has the 'stick' and 'allure to find it's way into people's homes' will be informed by the level of exposure they've had to it, so I do think it would have been more interesting to hear opinions from writers with a wider mix of experience of using OR and CastAR.
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Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 4 years ago
"[T]here are plenty of gamers willing to spend $250 or more...for a supposedly richer gaming experience."
Well maybe for a console and thats it. If I find myself spending an additional 250$ to expirience yet another gaming expirience Im fine with just my consoles. 250$ isnt easy to muster especially if you wanna spend it on games. And Id rather spend cash on games then hardware.
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Oculus will allow players and gamers an experience unlike they have ever had before. Word of mouth will spread like wildfire, and to be honest, the price tag of around 300 or so I think is actually really cheap for this leap in technology.

For gamers its always about experiencing something new and first. VR and the Oculus is indeed the future if they are simply able to iron out the last few lil nagging issues which I am confident they will.

For the naysayers out there I ask one thing.. " have you tried it yet?".
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Ruben Monteiro Engineer 4 years ago
Most folks can't even be bothered to put on a pair of glasses to watch 3D, how do you think they'll react to this cumbersome helmet thing?
I really want to believe the whole stepping into another dimension thing, but I'm afraid that's sci-fi at the moment. Kudos for the R&D efforts, but we're not there yet. This is going into the Nice Try But No Cigar department.
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There seems to be a block in the consumer game scene to review its history? And by that not the selective history by some wiki journos. We saw in the late 90's network first person shooters gaining credibility on PC's such as with Counter Strike, when allin the console scene at the time dismissed by then developers saying there was no link to future business as it was just a PC thing!

Will we look back as this AR / VR rebirth in the same way?
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