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.
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."
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.
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?"
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.