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Reality check: VR's road to relevance

Reality check: VR's road to relevance

Mon 07 Apr 2014 4:35pm GMT / 12:35pm EDT / 9:35am PDT
Technology

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?

The Doorway

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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18 Comments

Brook Davidson
Artist / 3D design

62 93 1.5
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.
Blocking out your local environment is something that is common sense for VR. It wouldn't be VR otherwise. The whole point is to make you feel like you are there in the world, and not just playing a game.

3D TV isn't huge, not because of the glasses. It more due to many reasons. Images popping out of your screen is more of a theater thing. It's not something you would typical want from a normal TV. I suppose the feature is cool to have, but it really isn't necessary to many people and is rather pointless. Now of course, there are certainly some people who don't like it simply because you have to wear glasses, but for the vast majority there are a lot better reasons why they didn't get one. I personally like the whole 3D thing, just not in my living room lol. VR is an entirely different beast and it's honestly stupid to even compare the two as if they are similar, because they are not.

Motion sickness is being solved for VR, and actually apparently it's a lot less of an issue with VR then it is with 3D TVs. As long as the game you are playing was made for the VR headset, you shouldn't get disoriented all to much if it was made properly. Now of course this does depend on the person, but they are working on making this much better and by the time it's released .. most people shouldn't have any issues with it. Again, this isn't the same as 3D glasses where it puts strain on your eyes and gives you a headache.

It's fine for people to be skeptical of VR .. but most people who are .. honestly have no clue what they are talking about. They make baseless claims and assumptions when what they really should be doing is research and trying it out themselves before spouting out non sense. They should also take into consideration that the consumer versions of these things are not even out. The fact it's already amazing people, pretty much just goes to show how good it is, and it's not even done yet. It's only going to get better. The better it gets .. the less likely all issue anyone mentions is going to actually be an issue by the time it hits the consumer market.

In other words, you can't make an accurate skeptic judgement at this moment since there really is no product to judge.

Posted:3 months ago

#1

Greg Wilcox
Creator, Destroy All Fanboys!

2,131 1,038 0.5
In other words, you can't make an accurate skeptic judgement at this moment since there really is no product to judge.
Hmmmm. The flip side of that is you can't call VR "a bigger than phenomenon than smartphones" if there's not only no product to judge, but ALL the kinks haven't been worked out yet. As for how much "better" it's going to get, the "better" it gets, the higher the price point to pay for those improvements, correct?

While I do think VR will do incredibly well, it's not going to float at all with the most die-hard skeptics, those who suffer from any form of motion-related illness that can't be fixed or those who just don't want the experience mandated into their lives. Let it find its niche and do well there as opposed to overhyping it as bigger than something a lot more useful to many.

Granted, some will say you don't "need" a smartphone (just a phone) and I'd agree. The same will go for VR. Not "needed" but if tried and liked, it will become PART of one's entertainment life, not THE be-all, end all trend to end all trends.

Keep it real and the future is saner and less likely to disappoint.

Posted:3 months ago

#2

Lewis Brown
Snr Sourcer/Recruiter

193 53 0.3
I'm not sure the Smart phnoe is a fair comparison I can see

Posted:3 months ago

#3
iSee VR as potentially like the new tech fad, the 3D tv, the giant plasma screen, the bendy phone, the dying smartphone, the phablet, the Synga that was, the double dipped doughnut, the eReader...at teh end of the day, we try to recreate what we see, sense, smell and feel of teh everyday world in a electronic simulacra. to worship at the temple of the e nano God temple

Posted:3 months ago

#4
When comparing VR to the other technologies mentioned there is one essential difference.
Many people have wanted VR for a long time. Similarly, in the early days, most people knew they would want a car or colour TV long before they could afford them. The adoption rate will be dictated by cost and quality.
You have to take note when even the head of XBox says it isn't a fad - after their competitor has announced a product and before they have.

Posted:3 months ago

#5

Eyal Teler
Programmer

75 73 1.0
I think that people like Tim Sweeney who have access to up to date VR hardware are in much better position to judge it than analysts or posters who haven't. That doesn't mean that I agree with his assessment, but I've certainly read a lot of good things about the Oculus Rift from people who tried it, while the more cynical views tend to come from those who haven't, so for now I still have some belief that the Rift is VR in a way we haven't experienced it before, and there's something compelling about it which makes people say things like Sweeney has (even if I think he exaggerated).

Posted:3 months ago

#6

Brook Davidson
Artist / 3D design

62 93 1.5
@Grag
As for how much "better" it's going to get, the "better" it gets, the higher the price point to pay for those improvements, correct?
Well no, not at all. At first obviously it will cost a lot while the parts are new. But making these parts don't typically stay expensive. By the time it hits retail it will probably cost the same amount, you have to always enter time as a factor. So, just because more features are added, doesn't necessary mean it will cost more, it all depends on when it is released.
Hmmmm. The flip side of that is you can't call VR "a bigger than phenomenon than smartphones" if there's not only no product to judge
I agree with you on this. Saying it's going to be a bigger phenomenon than smart phones is just as bad as being the biggest skeptic. I personally doubt it will ever reach that level. Though I can imagine something like google glass being more popular than smart phones, course I mean a much more advanced version of it. Maybe 10 or so years from now lol.
Let it find its niche and do well there as opposed to overhyping it as bigger than something a lot more useful to many.
The issue with that is, the technology really should be hyped in my opinion because it's much bigger then most people would think. It's simply very useful and can be used for so much more then simply gaming. I don't understand why everyone feels we should limit something like that. Why stop at the sky, why don't we go further to the moon, or mars, or even pluto. The point is, it's simply stupid not to try. It's a piece of amazing technology and we would be dumb not to utilize it to it's fullest. A computer was part of a niche for a while, until some decided that it could be so much more. Now look at computers today. There where people just like some of the skeptics here who said no one will want to use a computer >.> .. it's to complicated, you are wasting you time. It's just another gimmick.

People whom give up or are skeptical of everything .. lose out on some serious opportunities. Some think it's good to be a skeptic, however to much of it, is a curse in my opinion. Makes a person just seem boring and unimaginative and bitter.
The same will go for VR. Not "needed" but if tried and liked, it will become PART of one's entertainment life, not THE be-all, end all trend to end all trends.
This seems to be a very big misconception. No one ever said it's going to be "THE be-all, end all trend to end all trends." Ok well .. maybe a couple of people have, but most people are not saying that. VR is simply just another device used to play games. It should never be a requirement nor do I think that will ever happen, at least not any time soon.

Posted:3 months ago

#7
obviously its obvious that it is in the interest of some demographics to promote certain new the or that they are enthusiastic about it to initiate/convert enough early adopters...I imagine VR will be pretty cool, but I doubt if granny might fancy it all that much or folks with motion visual issues. It still has a significant bunch of tech issues and hurdles to overcome, so lets have less hype, more final product, and then we can all do the same song/dance appropriately

Posted:3 months ago

#8

Jim Webb
Executive Editor/Community Director

2,232 2,161 1.0
Thanks for the level headed article, Steve.

The aggrandized hype and hyperbole from some of the press and especially those involved in the projects is actually doing more harm to my interest in the products than any technical concerns. Bigger than smartphones? That's not hope in your product, that's arrogance. The cynic in me wonders if they have some running bet to see who can dish out the most outlandish soundbite during their next interview.

Be excited for your product, but be humble in the process. Claiming to be the best thing since sliced bread is almost always a failing proposition. Consumer expectations are dashed by the realities of the device on the shelves. Promise the moon, you better bring the moon. But I'm just not confident they can do that.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Jim Webb on 8th April 2014 2:42pm

Posted:3 months ago

#9
I would agree about the hype. Probably best not to pre-order anything with shipping delays if you suspect it might not live up to expectations. I think there may be two issues here: does VR have a future and are all vendors being honest?

Posted:3 months ago

#10

Neil Young
Programmer

269 294 1.1
Good article - we've seen massive progress recently on the visual end of VR, but that's not the only issue that will need to be overcome for a mainstream product. I'm sure Occulus, Sony, and any other teams will have some possible solutions for them - but we shouldn't assume the other issues are resolved just because the visual tech has matured.

Posted:3 months ago

#11

Eric Leisy
VR Production Designer

114 124 1.1
I appreciate this article. I would also agree with a lot of people, that a skeptic is "just about always" someone who hasn't tried out one of these devices. We have some VR projects that we are working on here on campus at Nike WHQ. I'm not going to blow everyone up with hyperbole, and I can't really say to much without crossing my NDA, but I have gone from being pretty guarded about this device to a full convert. I think it's an inaccurate comparison to say this is going to be bigger than smartphones, but I wouldn't be surprised if they become integrated somehow into the smartphone experience. Some of the projects we're working on suggest the possibility of these augmented reality type experiences. Being able to virtually check out a product or a far away running track is pretty cool.

I also think its very inaccurate to compare this technology to 3D TV. 3D TV is a gimmick, it's like oh gee whizz neat novelty. You never forget you're watching a 3D TV, and it's always going to be limited by the size of the screen. With VR, when I'm working on a session, you can get to the point where you become so involved in what you're doing that the VR reality becomes your reality, and you forget about the real reality. This is actually a dangerous thing I foresee being a problem in the future - with headphones and VR helmet on, its astonishing how disconnected one can get from reality in a session.

Anyway, the point I'm saying, is you can get to a point where you forget about the interface, and just become connected to the experience - and this will only get better. As a working progressional, i think 300 to 400 is pretty cheap for this kind of experience, but i know not all will agree. I think this will be a revolutionary interface system, but who knows how well it will catch the mainstream imagination. It's so hard to predict for me.

Posted:3 months ago

#12

Nick Parker
Consultant

279 143 0.5
Agree with everything said because, at this stage, any opinion could fit in the "not sure" voting box. These early days of VR are crucial for future development of, what I see, a viable platform. Don't be too critical of what we see and know now but try to imagine how the experience could be further down the line. Early stage development means early adopters and they will always be, in our industry as in many others, those that spend the most amount of time (and money) enjoying the (gaming) experience. Long term, VR could perform multiple daily tasks and offer multiple experiences as well as gaming and become a mass market, must have experience, either as a stand alone or incorporated in mainstream communication technologies that exist today.

Posted:3 months ago

#13

Jed Ashforth
Senior Game Designer, Immersive Technology Group

102 155 1.5
That's not hope in your product, that's arrogance ... Be excited for your product, but be humble in the process.
@ Jim - As far as anyone knows, Epic aren't making a VR headset, so one must assume Tim Sweeney was enthusing about somebody else's tech, so I'm not sure how that's arrogant - unless you're reading Tim's comments as discussing one of their VR games / experiences?

Posted:3 months ago

#14

Jim Webb
Executive Editor/Community Director

2,232 2,161 1.0
Jed, I was speaking in general. Look at my second sentence. I'm referencing the VR industry as a whole. From those directly involved, those that make the games and those that cover the news...

Posted:3 months ago

#15

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