Reality check: VR's road to relevance
Is virtual reality really going to be "a bigger than phenomenon than smartphones"? Not hardly, says Steve Peterson
We've seen a lot of excitement and buzz building around the Oculus Rift and VR in general over the last year, increasing as Sony introduced Project Morpheus and several other companies showed VR technology at GDC. The buzz hit a high point when Facebook shelled out $2 billion to acquire Oculus, and Epic's Tim Sweeney declared, "It's technology that I think will completely change the world. I think it's going to be a bigger phenomenon than smartphones."
Let's just pause here and stop hyperventilating, before we pass out. It's time to take a look at reality, and not the virtual kind. The game industry regularly sees new hardware introduced, often with predictions of massive impact or amazing games, and all too often the reality falls far short of the early promises. How do we sort through these predictions and promises in the excitement of the moment?
It's important to remember that game hardware per se is meaningless. It's a rather expensive paperweight or doorstop or objet d'art that does nothing in itself but demonstrate how much free cash you have. Game hardware only becomes meaningful when you turn it on and it delivers a game, and the quality of the game is what matters. Now, game hardware that helps games deliver better experiences is a good thing, but we can't get too excited over raw hardware speeds and feeds.
Game hardware is like a door. There are many types of doors, with different compositions, types of hinges and locks, and so forth. Generally, though, it's what the door leads to that's important, not the door itself. Sometimes many doors lead to the same place, which lessens the importance of each door. That's the non-exclusive game, where many types of game hardware deliver the same (or similar) game experiences.
"The experiences that VR can provide will have to be sufficiently amazing to not just barely clear those barriers, but leap over them, in order for VR to become a major market for games"
Therefore, look at what experiences game hardware brings you. Are they exclusive to that hardware? That's a plus. Is the experience worth enough to justify the hardware price? Sometimes it's not, and sometimes you have to look at the total value a device delivers to you (such as streaming video, or in the case of smartphones a whole array of capabilities beyond games).
Barriers to customers
Another way to evaluate the market potential for game hardware is to look at the barriers to customers that are presented, and determine if the value is sufficient to get customers past those barriers. A good example is the original iPhone: It was expensive, and very different. The iPhone lacked a physical keyboard, the battery life was pathetic compared to standard cellphones, and it was pretty poor at making phone calls, with lousy voice quality and terrible signal acquisition. There was no App Store or any thought of one, and the device was expensive. Yet, with all those drawbacks, the iPhone sold well and went on to spark a revolution. Why? Because all the things it could do, like maps and calendars and email, were all pretty cool, much better than a standard cellphone and easy to access. People put up with the annoyances because of the iPhone's unique abilities and the quality of the experience.
Game hardware has several barriers in its journey to market. Pricing is an important one; game devices costing hundreds of dollars are a tougher sell than cheaper ones. Look at the PS4 and the Xbox One, which are more alike than any two new consoles have ever been, separated by $100... and so far the PS4 has been outselling the Xbox One by roughly 50 percent. No wonder Microsoft has been bundling games and encouraging sales at major retailers to eliminate that price differential.
VR hardware is going to cost hundreds of dollars, and it will require (at least for Oculus Rift and Project Morpheus) an additional external box (a PC or a console) to drive it, which is hundreds of dollars more. Another barrier is the fact that you have to put this on your head, blocking out your local environment. (A big part of the reason 3D TV fizzled is that you had to put on glasses, and even without blocking out the rest of the world people found that annoying.) Let's not forget motion sickness potential (another killer for 3D TV), and the possibility VR may never work well for half the population.
The experiences that VR can provide will have to be sufficiently amazing to not just barely clear those barriers, but leap over them, in order for VR to become a major market for games.
Clear path to delivery
Finally, let's not underestimate the value of a clear path to delivery of promised game hardware benefits. When Nvidia tells me I can buy a graphics card and get a better frame rate at max settings with my favorite game, that's easy to believe. When you tell me that the PS4 or the Xbox One will give me prettier games at higher resolution than a PS3 or an Xbox 360, that doesn't seem unlikely. The hardware is straightforward, and asking game developers to add more polygons and higher resolution textures to existing game designs may require a lot of work by artists, but it's not a technical breakthrough.
However, go back to the PlayStation 2 and the Emotion Engine promises that were made at that launch. Sony said the new chips in their console would enable game developers to really put emotions into the games, and usher in a whole new era of gaming. Sure, we all love the deep emotional interactive stories we get in games now because of that, right? Not hardly. Game designers still struggle with how to program emotion into game designs, and just because a press release said they can doesn't make it so.
The Wii U promised unique and compelling game experiences with the GamePad controller, but even Nintendo's CEO acknowledges that they have yet to really deliver on that. Nintendo is working to come up with some games that really deliver a compelling enough experience with the Gamepad to justify purchase of the Wii U in large numbers. They may yet accomplish that, but so far it hasn't happened. It's not easy, if it's at all possible.
So when VR hardware promises to deliver incredible new experiences, some skepticism is justified. They are talking about something that hasn't really been delivered before, requiring new variations of games and new game mechanics and control schemes. Certainly, this could be delivered in time, but it's not straightforward at all.
VR hardware does have great potential, particularly in specific vertical markets like imaging or military simulations or training. VR may yet become a gaming phenomenon, and may eventually reach broad acceptance and become a significant platform for games. That's still not anywhere close to fruition, and it's not at all certain it can ever be the case. Enjoy the buzz, but be careful about investing too much into VR (whether it's money, time, or your enthusiasm) at this point.
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