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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".

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Latest comments (20)

Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 8 years ago
*Ding!* Nail, meet hammer. Hammer, meet head. Brilliant as usual, RF. Go have a cigar and cognac in the corner while I non-rant here (heh)..

VR will indeed be the core gamer crowd's wet dream as well as the developer's, but nope, it'll never* reach the same appeal amongst non-gamers unless it's mandated in at some point (a very bad idea). That and the price point won't be affordable to budget minded families (no, $1000, $500, $300 or even $100 isn't inexpensive to those users who maybe shell out for a half dozen games a year and they'll be the first ones to think they're being priced out of the experience even if it's a cheaper model around that $100 range that eventually pops up in a few years' time).

That said, I can defintely see VR as being a staple at places like amusement parks and places like Dave & Busters where you can treat yourself to an VR experience for a few bucks a pop and only need to worry about catching a case of conjunctivitis if people aren't washing their paws when coming out of the restroom (ewww)... Yeah, there will be lawsuits, mark my words.

Jokes aside, I wish this tech well, as a LOT of money is being invested in this with no promise of major returns if it tanks out like other fads. It'll do well, but people WILL grow tired of the gimmick once it becomes played out. Mobile gaming is different because its ingratiated itself into the culture yet has had its successes and failures on some fronts over time. It seems that with THIS cycle of VR, no one wants to admit the possibility for failure or seems to have a decent backup plan other than taking the headset off if you're having issues (kind of like the 3DS slider in a way)...

OK, shutting up now. I'm up too late (again)...

*"Never" meaning it very likely won't meet the guaranteed overly high expectations of the analysts or rose-colored VR glasses crowd thinking of virtual chickens in every pot with pack-in goggles given away with every TV or computer purchase. Hell, according to SOME analysts, the PC market is dying to already dead (Ah, the things you hear on the radio business reports these days!), so why even make goggles for those masses if an allegedly smaller and smaller market won't be buying in?

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Greg Wilcox on 6th September 2013 11:22am

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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 8 years ago
Limiting this to a VR perception is overshooting the mainstream.

It is important that other technologies are supporting it. Imagine point of view cameras in sports stadiums. Imagine being able to turn you head (not change the position) inside a video. Imagine videos of events, imagine such a camera on the ISS. Crack this code as well and then we are talking mainstream.

Until then, it will be the same as the plastic guitar boom, or the Wii kust for Wii Sports phenomenon. Fun, good money, but not the next thing.
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Tim Ogul Illustrator 8 years ago
I think one thing that might strangle VR in the crib is if they get overly proprietary, and get into one of those "beta vs. VHS" things. They need to ensure that whatever model of VR device you get, it will work fine on PC, PS4, and XBone. If they try to say that if you want to play VR on all thee platforms you'd need three pieces of hardware? Never.
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Show all comments (20)
Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 8 years ago
@Tim: On the flip side, console owners who ONLY have one console and are interested in VR will indeed try and/or buy a proprietary peripheral for the system they own.

Some of that core gamer crowd loves the idea of first-party gear that does something as good as or better than another company's competing product. If that Rift can work on a PS4 or Xbox One and do it better than any tech Sony or Microsoft whips up, some will pay more for it if that's the case. At the end of the day, those are bragging rights for a bunch of people who want to show that tech off, I'd bet...

As usual, we shall see...
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Gil Salvado 3D/2D Artist 8 years ago
The most still annoying thing I constantly keep hearing about the Rift is the feeling of dizziness to nausea. Similar to the effect of sea sickness. And liquorice, ginger or any sort of pharmaceuticals simply fight the symptom. We probably need to stimulate our neural system and fake the feeling of motion which our visual sense is receiving. Which leads us to a Matrix-like VR, because I doubt omni-treads are the solution.

The question if this will become the new normal some day lies within another question. What can this media allow us, which no other can?
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Yes, this is by far the biggest problem they have to solve. It can result in devastating word of mouth.
The catch is that it has to become mainstream enough so all devs design their games with the rift in mind, and very very deep structural changes to games are necessary to make them work with rift. Thinks like severely limiting lateral movement speed, avoid height changes (mask them with elevator rides), design damage avoiding systems that don't require quick dodging, etc.
If they don't do it, it won't be a simple nuisance like black bars or a framedrop here and there, it will literally be a nauseating experience that makes you sick.
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Ruben Monteiro Engineer 8 years ago
I guess I must be one of those "utterly miserable luddites", since I find checking your phone every 5 mins to see if someone just texted you with the incredible news that they're eating a banana is a quite silly state to be in.
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Henry Durrant Programmer, SUMO Digital8 years ago
It depends whether you think PC-gaming is "Mainstream" or not. VR headsets could be as ubiquitous as headphone&mic headsets.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Henry Durrant on 6th September 2013 2:09pm

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Now we learn that LG have a VR HMD project that they will reveal at CES'14 and suddenly the whole gambit has changed for Oculus and the whole VR community. This is not homebrew or nerds this is serious, and with Oculus, Sony and LG throwing their hats into the ring, and the amount of interest generated in the concept the rest will follow.

But remember nature a-pours-a-vacuum; so where is all this interest coming from in VR - the collapse of a number of console game studios and the reaction to the Next Gen (Gen-8) consoles releases seem to have been the harbinger for a change of tack from the corporations towards VR... the consumer console games industry must feel very very frightened!

There is only so much time for the consumer mainstream to try and ignore VR before they have to up their game and learn how to cover a technology that will not be spoon fed to them by marketing managers at EA!
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That said, I can defintely see VR as being a staple at places like amusement parks and places like Dave & Busters where you can treat yourself to an VR experience for a few bucks a pop
You are well on the money regarding this - the Digital Out-of-Home Entertainment (DOE) industry supported the last emergence of VR in the 90's and we are behind the latest growth in public interest. Even with the ultra low $300 price point the full PC rig needed to optimally run VR for the consumer is such that the majority will see the system at a demonstration event or in a DOE attraction.

As the consumer games industry hemorrhages below the waterline - we await the investors to turn their interest to VR in DOE installation, and the investment in a new model for the consumer game experience - possible on a rental scheme or event a LAN gaming approach to future immersion?
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heirdt von braun Marketing Specialist 8 years ago
VR headsets have always belonged to niche markets, that's true, but this doesn't mean they will always be, it depends on its execution. There are many applications for it right now, however, price and content are the biggest barrier of adoption. Oculus Rift has already a pair of ideas to make it happen, also gamers seem to be interested and that's very important. It's no longer about who's gonna get the best image quality, it's all about making it affordable, practical and offering a big level of interactivity.

If Sony is blending PSeye technology with the VR headset probably means they're gonna surpass any level of interactivity never achieved before. It's not just about hardware anymore, no video game console works like that, it's also about software and we should not underestimate SCEI's efforts, PSeye opens the door to many possibilities and software happens to be one of their strengths.

Also please notice how most recent HMZ model (Sony) already streams 720p 60hz video without compromises, response time is very valuable for gaming, and Oculus Rift suffers from lag. Curiously SCEI's latest console will support PSVita video streaming technology since there's dedicated hardware for it, so I believe response time will be good for their product, and finally PS4 GPU support 3D stereoscopic rendering easily as it features 32 ROPs. That's a little bit more than 2x the fill rate than Xbox One hardware, and constitutes an effective differentiator in case this product experience a decent level of success. The competence will not make it happen easily (Xbox One GPU features only 16 ROPs). This is also important as developers will not sacrifice video games performance and it will be much easier to apply. I think Sony has legs to support this technology and make it easier than ever before. I cannot guarantee its success, but at least I can guarantee it will be much more interesting this time.

I firmly believe a VR headset could compete with Kinect. Xbox camera was big years ago, and technology has been vastly improved. However it's basically the same product, a PS4 VR headset could potentially provide a fresh way to interact with video games. Who knows, maybe SCEI could make this thing a fundamental part of their strategy, just like Kinect is for MS. PS4 eye camera was ditched from the PS4 bundle, and that was a great decision. As everybody knows many fans are asking MS to make the same, and MS has only defended their product without justifying it. If Sony can make this peace of hardware affordable then I think they will have a slight marketing advantage. Maybe will not sell that much, who knows, but I think will reinforce Playstation perception as innovative, pioneering and revolutionary as it has always been. Image and positioning are very important because the brand is the most valuable intangible asset owned by a company.

This is the only way SCEI could compete with MS creating products with a more favourable perception, and it's coincidentally the main strategy Apple has implemented combating MS for years. Can we imagine a VR headset for the masses?. Well, that depends on many factors, but only one will become decisive as I bet Sony will make a good product based on their large history of constant innovations in the electronics industry: Marketing strategies, and yes I believe Sony has done a great job until now.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by heirdt von braun on 6th September 2013 4:00pm

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matthew bennion Web Development 8 years ago
We seem to going round in a big technological circle at the moment. First 3d and now vr! Sadly the problems associated with the last iteration will plague this one as the real issue hasn't been addressed. Without hardware to facilitate real physical movement vr will never catch on, that revolving feeling of motion sickness will still exist as your move around the virtual world with your controller. . .
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Jonatan Crafoord Indie Developer, Really Interactive AB8 years ago
I usually love these columns, and it's hard to disagree when the conclusion is so vague as "not yet". But now, for a moment, imagine someone making these same arguments about headphones vs loudspeakers in 1913. In hindsight, I'm fairly sure the debate is going to look a bit silly.
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Mark Beesly Business Director, Dare8 years ago
I'm with Klaus. VR's take up by mainstream will be driven by the speed of adoption by a wide range of entertainment content producers outside of just gaming. If the bulk of the content for VR is gaming based, then in the short term I can see that this would be limiting, for all of the eloquently sited reasons above. In addition, much as we might like to think otherwise, Interactive gaming itself is not yet for everyone by any means, irrespective of the medium it is viewed with. If however, feature films and the like start to be shot in 360 degrees with VR in mind then that's a whole different matter. Watching films is already a significantly immersive (and thus often acceptably not very social) experience. People watch films often just to escape for a couple of hours, and VR would only enhance this immersion. I'll buy into it whatever because I am riveted by it, but it's films, and as Klaus says, live events that I can see driving mass consumer take up, rather than gaming (apologies if this is an unpopular view given the venue for the comment!).
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Soma Content Creator 8 years ago
There is a counter-argument to this, if I may be permitted to play my own Devil's Advocate - smartphones.
..and this is for sure the future in this gaming era of total immersion and clouds :

May you watch my film about this great product called DIVE :
Please go to the DUROVIS page and see whats already happening. Great article, like always.
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Bill Garrison Studying Student, DigiPen Institute of Technology8 years ago
I think head mounted displays have a pretty big future if they can get the fidelity right. Virtual reality will be a niche application of them.
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Rodney Smith Developer 8 years ago
for me my vr dreams are over, i was a rift kickstarter but when i got and tried it, i got the greatest dose of motion sickness i've ever had. i don't suffer with it when i travel but just using the rift for just a few minutes (under 20) would make me feel ill for upto 8 hours after. no joke.

great hardware though not for me :( big shame!

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Rodney Smith on 6th September 2013 11:00pm

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Marty Howe Director, Figurehead Studios8 years ago
"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 in time, I think.
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Eyal Teler Programmer 8 years ago
I think that VR has a chance to succeed precisely because we're moving in a direction of wanting to be apart from our surroundings. We could be in our 2x3 metre room and yet feel like we're watching a movie in the theatre. We could be in a game world without needing a TV or monitor, let alone the three that we currently use for "surround gaming". And of course, it's great for escapism, porn, etc.

It's all a question of how good the implementations are. I'm sure these would get better with time. Will they be good enough for the mass audience next year? Probably not, but if they will be good enough to a large enough subset of hardcore gamers, then development of them would accelerate. If not, we'll probably see another cycle some years from now.
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Adam Campbell Product Manager, Azoomee8 years ago
I guess that will be dictated by implementation with games/software, price competition and market interest.

It is possible for the tech to flop like "3D" with expensive requirements and unimpressive usage but it also has an opportunity to soar. I do think VR has more potential for enhancing the game experience than stereoscopic 3D personally.
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