Virtual dreams dominate GDC

Can the VR dream defy the odds and become a commercial reality in this generation of hardware?

Almost every conference on the games industry calendar makes some vague, buzzwordy claim to show its participants "the future", to look ahead down a metaphorical highway (probably a lovely straight one in the American midwest, like you'd see on the insipidly inspirational cover of a second-rate self-help book) and give us tantalising glimpses of things to come. Of course, most of this is rubbish. Consumer-focused shows' horizon on the future is about three months out, as they're meant to sell you games in the coming weeks, not get you excited about things you can't actually buy for real money yet. Business conferences, meanwhile, engage themselves in the task of teaching people about the present, not the future. That looks boring on marketing copy (which is why nobody ever writes it), but informing people about the market data, skills and tools they need today is actually a much more important and useful function than "a glimpse of the future" would be.

GDC is one of the only exceptions. It's not that GDC doesn't focus on the present, for the most part; it's just that it's pretty much impossible to put that many tech geeks together in the world's geekiest city (a title for which even Tokyo can't really challenge San Francisco) and not end up trying to peer into the future. Unburdened by the need to sell games in the short term and populated more heavily by technologists, designers and artists than by marketers and salespeople, GDC naturally evolves into a forum for talking about what's next, rather than what's now.

This year, what's next is virtual reality. VR isn't the only strong theme emerging from the show; there's continued excitement about the exodus of creatives making the bold leap from AAA development to indie, an important ongoing discussion about F2P techniques and its place in the market, and plenty more besides. But VR is the big, exciting thing that's coming down the pipeline. Oculus Rift has a new development kit, sporting vastly superior hardware to the last version, and now Sony has confirmed its ambitions in the market with Project Morpheus, a gorgeously designed prototype for a PS4 headset whose specifications are a close match for its rival.

"I think we need to be a little cautious in our optimism. Let's not forget that just because something is technologically possible does not mean that it will take off with consumers and creators"

The excitement is easy to understand; VR is a lifelong dream of many technologists. Ever since we first walked down a corridor in Wolfenstein 3D, we've dreamed of removing the greatest barrier to immersion in that experience - the monitor screen sitting in front of our faces, a flat, frustrating window that separates us from the increasingly beautiful and compelling worlds behind its dull glass. As successive generations of VR technology have stumbled and failed, both commercially and technologically, the dream of immersion has been kept alive only by science fiction. To dream of VR has been to dream of being a fly trapped behind a window, ever bouncing and skittering across the flat glass and unable to access the world trapped beyond.

Now it's closer than ever. The technological problems which held back previous generations of VR have been overcome by smaller, lighter, sharper LED and OLED displays with incredible pixel densities, by superbly sensitive accelerometers and gyroscopes, and by vastly powerful GPUs capable of maintaining the framerates needed for immersive VR without a sick-bag to hand. Moreover, VR suddenly feels like the right technology at the right time. There's a sense, perhaps somewhat misplaced, that the core gaming experience is under attack - that the unique experiences afforded by AAA software on consoles and PCs are being chipped away at the edges by social, casual and mobile games. Few core gamers welcome sweeping predictions that we'll all be gaming on mobile phones in the not-too-distant future, leading to a feeling that core gaming needs something new, big and exciting to justify the high costs and bulky, whirring boxes. VR could be just that something, a white knight riding in to save the core gaming market with the kind of experience mobile games are unlikely to offer for quite some time, if ever.

GDC is excited. Hell, I'm excited too. Introducing functional, usable VR tech into the mix opens up new realms of possibility for games, as well as asking a great many more questions that require creative answers. How will we control VR games, for example? Sony is definitely on to something with the PlayStation Move controllers, which have proven themselves to be fantastic for manipulating objects in 3D space, while there's also the fascinating possibility that Microsoft's Kinect technology might come into its own as a VR controller thanks to its ability to track whole-body movements. We're starting to learn already that VR games require new ways of thinking about HUD and other GUI elements, that they restrict some things about character movement (the sick bag thing again) while opening up new potential in other areas. Game design for VR headsets is going to be a new challenge that's quite different to designing for a flat screen, it seems.

Yet for all this enthusiasm, I think we need to be a little cautious in our optimism. Let's not forget that just because something is technologically possible does not mean that it will take off with consumers and creators; the lesson of 3D TV and the legacy of countless thousands of unloved 3D glasses gathering dust behind consumers' TVs should tell us that. Oculus and Sony are in the fray and Microsoft is making interested noises, but as of this moment, no VR headset actually exists in final market-ready form. Nor does any VR headset have a price point, a release date, or a finished piece of software to its name. These things will come, of course, but I'd be surprised if we see a 2014 release date for any consumer VR headset - and I'd be equally surprised if any such headset costs less than a decent, medium-sized television. Those costs will inevitably limit the early audience for VR, and as this would-be revolution begins to gather pace, there's a danger that a flood of low-cost imitators offering sub-par experiences could try to occupy the cheaper price points exposed by expensive premium hardware and consequently derail the whole dream.

"Even if this revolution stumbles and falls in the consumer arena, the efforts being made in technology and design will undoubtedly help to fuel another VR effort further down the line"

Then there's the question of software. I suspect that a lot of consumers, and perhaps even some developers, imagine themselves plugging in VR headsets and enjoying their favourite games in perfect immersion - but this isn't what's going to happen. VR games will require far more significant recoding and redesigning than games for 3D TVs did. The controls, the HUD, the movement systems and even the entire layout of some levels will need to be reconsidered. No doubt, a "language" of VR interaction and presentation will rapidly evolve, providing ready-made answers to some of the challenges of turning an existing game world into a VR experience - but the effort involved will remain significant. Custom-built VR experiences will be better, of course, but developers will be relying on selling such games to a pretty small installed base, at first.

Ultimately, that's going to be the big commercial challenge facing VR - installed base. Both Oculus and Morpheus are designed as peripherals, something you buy to attach to an existing gaming system, be it a PC or a PS4. As with any ambitious peripheral that's existed in the past, developers will face a choice between focusing efforts on building an experience for everyone who owns a PC or a PS4, or devoting resources to building out a VR experience for the minority who have also bought a headset. In many cases, commercial sense will win out over technological idealism, and VR adaptation will be an afterthought, or simply non-existent. Sony, in particular, is in a position to alleviate some of this difficulty thanks to its first-party studios and its influence over third-parties, but putting expensive VR headsets into the historical context of other optional peripherals is a sobering mental exercise.

None of this is to say that the work being undertaken on VR is worthless. Far from it; even if this revolution stumbles and falls in the consumer arena, the efforts being made in technology and design will undoubtedly help to fuel another VR effort further down the line. This is one dream that seems very unlikely to be abandoned, no matter how many times it fails to win traction among consumers, and one day the technology will be cheap and ubiquitous enough to make truly mass-market success inevitable. That day may actually be tomorrow (well, next year), or it may be far off in the future - we won't know for certain until the efforts of Sony, Oculus and others are actually out in the marketplace and facing the tough judgments of consumers.

Perhaps that's the real problem with visions of the future; they rarely come with an accurate date attached. Given enough time, almost every technological dream (or nightmare) will become possible. I have no doubt that VR's time is coming, but no certainty about how far off it may be. In the present hardware cycle, many of the signs are positive - but until consumers finally get to choose whether to buy expensive VR headsets, and developers face tough choices about whether to spend big on supporting the VR dream, we won't know whether this is really a glimpse of the future, or another Kinect-style albatross in the making.

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Latest comments (14)

Thomas Dolby Project Manager / Lead Programmer, Ai Solve5 years ago
Great article Rob, you're right in that it's wise to take a step back and look at the realities behind VR at the moment, it's far too easy to get sucked in to indulging the geeky fantasy that it offers. It's certainly going to be a slow uptake, but I think it's mainly held back by high price points and hardware, certainly not lack of enthusiasm. Frame rates, resolutions and price points are problems the tech industry is good at solving, the hardest battle is creating something that people are passionate about, and that battle already seems close to being won.

I've worn the SD Oculus and it won me over almost immediately, all I can say is that it has my full backing at least. I really hope it succeeds because I haven't been this excited about gaming tech in quite a while.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Thomas Dolby on 21st March 2014 1:52pm

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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 5 years ago
Excellent article, Rob.

Here's what's going to likely happen outside Sony and Oculus HQ:

There WILL be a slew of cheaper knockoffs from Asia priced at around $99 (or less) that offer "VR" of questionable quality and have built in software that will probably be that same sprite-based stuff that pops up in those MANY Wii-like knockoffs or be hastily put together "immersive" games that only impress those who spend that $99 (or less) because to them, it LOOKS cool and they don't have the $300 (or more) those more reliable and actual VR units cost. Why pay 400 bucks for a PS4 and maybe another 3-4 for those specs when you can get 100 games AND a funky space Viewmaster for under 100 bills?

Yeah, that will need to get sorted out fast. Granted, people here and gamers in the know won't go near that crap. However, in the real world where people look at cost first and not quality when it comes to entertainment options, I'm betting these coming junk units show some surprising legs when it comes to longevity and popularity.

My money is on this bad gear popping up before either Sony and Oculus are ready and as they roll out and appeal to those who KNOW the difference between crap and not crap, we'll see a shift. As in... here come the pricier but still knock-off brands to do something similar (but not for the PS4, as we know Sony has that locked up). That said, I can see PC gamers who don't have Rift money buying a half price unit that works well enough to make them go "ooh!" while TV owners will get cheap "VR" headsets for TV and movie watching that are basically big panorama tunnels of eyestrain.

So, Sony will have its big market, Oculus will have theirs, I guess Microsoft is up to something (Maybe a Rift partnership, as Windows will still be around and games coming to PC can fit on the One easily enough - allegedly), Nintendo has the 3DS and everyone else will settle happily for what they can afford (even if it's total junk)...
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Edward Buffery Head of LQA (UK), Testronic5 years ago
3D TV had nothing compared to VR, I wasn't excited before they came out and barely anyone I knew was so it's difficult to imagine where the target audience was supposed to be. I don't even prefer the 3D option for most of my cinema trips.

I'm a PC gamer but I use my PC for more than just gaming. Perhaps for similar reasons, one of the main reasons I'm following the Rift more closely than Sony's offering is because the potential for high quality VR goes way beyond just the gaming world. VR is a halfway step towards something like the Holodeck in terms of it's potential applications.

Sure, the thought of playing games using a decent VR setup is a nice idea, but beyond that I can't wait to see how VR can and will be used for training, experimentation, micro-scale procedures such as surgery, therapy, education, marketing, simulation, non-interactive entertainment, communication, and other social interactions. Maybe it will take 5 years to really branch out or maybe 20 years but hopefully I'll still be around to see it happen :)
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Show all comments (14)
To coin a phrase used by some of the executives of Oculus VR - are we aiming for "Good enough VR - or the Holly Grail! of VR"

The problem is will the PC's upgrade-ability of graphics offer a fast VR platform, or can Sony ensure a hold on a simple plug and play VR approach. And in the middle of all this, the new contenders are starting to circle - though some are being overlooked by the sudden media interest.
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 5 years ago
@Kevin: Interesting. I was talking to some PC gaming-only pals recently and while both love the idea of the Rift, they're a tiny afraid of it "downgrading" the visuals from what they come to expect on their higher-end systems and big monitors. That and it seems that by the time it's out, there will probably be a new graphics card to buy that beefs up "plain" visuals even more so gaming on those monitors with unhampered resolution or any other issues might make VR secondary. That said, I can see them both falling over that consumer version and running over old ladies once it's in a shop somewhere...
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@Greg - ha! wont be running over old ladies for Oculus... that will only be sold online.
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 5 years ago
@Kevin: It's the FUTURE! Anything can happen!

But seriously, I'd HOPE they at least have a retail presence/strategy for the Rift (such as pop-up shops in major markets) simply because the casual user/average Joe who isn't up on the industry won't go near something they can't try out first or hold in their hands before they open that wallet.

Sure, many folks will snap up a Rift sight unseen or because they read or heard how awesome it is. But there will be a large group of people who will remain skeptical because it's a product that claims to do a lot but you can't see for yourself until you pay a few hundred bucks... which sounds incredibly fishy to those who may have been duped before or just want to know how easy or difficult it is to use.
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Keith Andrew Freelance Journalist, Keith Andrew Media5 years ago
It kinda didn't dominate GDC though. I mean, both Oculus and Morpheus were there but...that was about it.
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Richard Pygott Level Designer 5 years ago
simple, for VR to be a commercially viable it needs 2 simple things -

1 - affordable
2 - software

I know that is stating the obvious, but these are complicated times, and sometimes being simple just works
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Nick Parker Consultant 5 years ago
Great to see mature perspectives and not emotional opinions on whether VR is viable or not - better to sit on the fence at the moment for the reasons Rob quite rightly points out.
"Both Oculus and Morpheus are designed as peripherals, something you buy to attach to an existing gaming system, be it a PC or a PS4."
Could VR become a platform in its own right, even if it is subordinate to PC and PS4 (or any other gaming device) in the value chain? So not just a peripheral but a dedicated exclusive means to access a market?
I'm sure it will reach the mass market sometime and more ambitious wider industries as Edwards suggests.
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Ben Gonshaw Game Design Consultant, AKQA5 years ago
VR is a great, great drug. Try it once and you're immediately sold. I am, and I'll come back to that experience again and again.

The feeling of presence you get from VR is its main asset and its biggest flaw, because to achieve it means utterly shutting yourself out of reality. Closing you off from the people around you means it's currently impossible to use in a family or social setting.

I can see a very dedicated minority becoming utterly sucked into VR as an indispensable part of many game experiences. That minority will still be a sizeable audience, making it possible to create VR only titles at a decent budget.
In the mainstream it will become a hot item whose lustre gradually fades, following a similar trajectory to the Wii - as a curiosity that moves from must have gadget, to gimmicky thing in a cupboard.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Ben Gonshaw on 24th March 2014 4:14pm

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James Berg Games User Researcher, EA Canada5 years ago
It seems like software is going to be the big difficulty - it's the Kinect 360 problem again, where the hardware is really cool, but to develop a AAA experience for it, you're limiting your audience size substantially. I'm really hopeful, but yeah, it's not going to be something we're all using 6 months from now.
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Julian Williams Founder, WIZDISH Ltd.5 years ago
Some people see VR as a niche within gaming, others point out the non-gaming uses. The real market will be providing games for those who don't currently find them that compelling. Gaming has always become more popular as the quality and technology has improved. Monitors, gamepads and even tablet touchscreens are major roadblocks to really wide scale adoption. The number of people who have bought and played casual games indicates the latent interest and provides a hint of what is to come. If we are thinking of VR as a hardcore niche we are looking through the wrong end of the telescope.
VR has to be tried first hand to have any understanding of it, so this won't all happen overnight, and many things that people imagine will or won't work turn out to be the reverse. Physically moving your body massively increases the illusion that an experience is real and VR exploits the brain’s capacity to blend real and imaginary stimulus. VR will have a similar impact as Television and the Internet. It may be hard to imagine now, but so it was with those technologies.
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Edward Buffery Head of LQA (UK), Testronic5 years ago
Regarding the retail angle, having a demo stand in a store for Joe public to wander up to and randomly try out with no prior knowledge of the system will do wonders for spreading the word. People will get their friends to come try it, record each others' reactions, ask the staff how much it costs and what software you can get for it, then tell people about it when they get home.
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