Since their inception, virtual and augmented realities have been billed as the brave new frontier of video games. Dating all the way back to the ill-advised Virtual Boy, the games industry has longed for these technologies to revolutionise gaming.
Despite the huge leaps forward in recent years, the technology is still embryonic at best. The cost associated with VR headsets remains prohibitive for most consumers, the "killer app" is yet to materialise, and there are still a number of practical obstacles to overcome before VR can make its way into households en masse.
Ultimately this leaves the question regarding the future of VR and AR wide open. The answer regarding AR seems more obvious at present, with the rapid approach of Apple's ARKit and Android's ARCore making the technology more accessible for developers, and the Mira Prism presenting an affordable alternative to the $3,000 Microsoft Hololens.
The future of VR is still an uncertain one at present however. Much like the novel Wii motion controls, followed diligently by Xbox Kinect and PlayStation Move, one could argue that VR in its current form is little more than a gimmick, not fit to replace the tried and true setups we're all so familiar with.
According to Grand View Research, by 2025 VR gaming is expected to exceed $45 billion in revenue. What VR will look like by then is anyone's guess, but location-based gaming could be a likely destination.
Speaking at the Yorkshire Games Festival Tracy Spaight, director of special projects at Wargaming, told GamesIndustry.biz that VR arcades could present a viable application for the tech over the next five to ten years. Looking at Japan, it's already a rapidly growing sector.
"They're having so many people coming - literally thousands every day - that they're turning them away in multitudes because they can't keep up the demand for it," said Spaight. "And it's happening in Russia too, so Wargaming is looking at location-based gaming again because consumer-facing hardware just isn't available to most people. It's either too expensive or you're going to step on your dog and fall over the couch."
A great deal of Spaight's role at Wargaming involves considering the possibilities for AR and VR. He admits that the technology is still pretty basic, but he sees applications way beyond gaming, which has long been the driving force behind its continued development.
With its trilogy of second world war games, Wargaming attracts a wide and varied audience, with a large segment of people interested in the historical dimension. This is where VR and AR enter a world of their own as unique education tools.
"They're having so many people coming... that they're turning them away multitudes because they can't keep up the demand for [VR]"
"The way that we engaged with this segment of our community is creating a tonne of historical content" said Spaight. "Like VR 360 videos of what it's like to drive a T34 tank, or a Tiger 131, or to go inside HMS Caroline or HMS Cavalier and go into the engine room or places that generally the public can't get."
Taking the applications of VR and AR past video games opens up an entirely new world of opportunity for the platforms. Wargaming has used this to its advantage, developing a number of educational projects with the technology.
"What we've done is partner with dozens of museums around the world to take the content that is utterly inaccessible, such as the engine room of HMS Cavalier - it's full of asbestos and has radioactive paint on the dials," said Spaight. "And if you have any physical disabilities or you're older, it's impossible to get around in there without falling off or something. So what we've done is make these spaces accessible to the public, restoring ships to their pre-war configurations."
When the National Museum of the Royal Navy put together its exhibit on the 100 year anniversary of the Battle of Jutland, Wargaming developed a virtual HMS Caroline. The real ship, which is the last surviving vessel still afloat from the battle, couldn't be moved.
"It was literally impossible to move that ship," said Spaight. "We recreated virtually, a six foot long model that was in its original configuration and paint schemes, and so it just appears as an AR exhibit."
Wargaming has worked on numerous museum projects, helping to make history accessible to younger generations and "digital natives". There is also a real intelligence to the approach in terms of generating exposure for its games. In Europe alone, there are 500 million visits to museums each year, and 850 million in the US.
A recent endeavour involved teaming up with the Bovington Tank Museum for an exhibition that featured a range of surviving tanks from the Second World War. In order to bring the display together and complete the tank roster, Wargaming developed a virtual exhibition piece using the Microsoft Hololens.
"We created a full-size, completely accurate Stormtiger that we put right next to the where the Tiger 131 was in the exhibition hall," said Spaight. "And what's cool is that the other tanks, you can't go inside of them, but in ours you can just walk right in and be in the crew compartment.
"We can do stuff that you cannot do with the physical tanks. We can show it animated, show it moving, firing the projectile.... To explain that in text you wouldn't really get it."
Wargaming's application of AR and VR is illustrative of its approach to tangential learning. While there is an obvious business goal in mind for the projects, it serves the admirable dual-purpose of educating its audience.
Other examples of the developer mixing education into its promotional and marketing efforts include commissioning YouTube channel Extra Credits to make videos about the subject material of its games. The three mini-series on the Battle of Kursk, the D-Day landings, and the hunting of the Bismark, enjoy millions views collectively. That represents a staggering level of engagement in the source material and, by extension, the marketing campaigns for these games.
All of this opens up a broader question about how developers and publishers can reconsider their typical marketing approaches, like the simplistic deluge of ads on the London Underground, and consider something more creative, which consumers will want to engage with rather than actively ignore.
Obviously there is a limited scope, heavily dependent on the game in question, but it's hard to ignore the sheer level of traction developers can achieve by exploring new avenues for engaging prospective audience members.