A couple of years ago we got to try the Oculus Rift for the first time. It was the janky developer’s kit that first went on sale, with a low resolution, and laggy head tracking, but it was amazing. On our way into Rezzed in Birmingham we’d run into the Undercurrent developers carrying a big box marked ‘Oculus’ and hassled them a little until they let us have a go once they’d set up. It was a simple sim where you’re in a submarine and could explore a bit, but it was revelatory. It’s really hard to understand just how astounding this kind of VR is until you try it, then it instantly makes sense. Your brain is surprisingly easily fooled into believing you’re in these environments and the immersion is nothing short of breathtaking. Since then we’ve had a go with a few different games at different shows, the DK2 which featured higher resolution and better tracking which seemed like the sort of thing we’d be happy to buy off a shop shelf.
Of course the Oculus Rift still isn’t out yet, and after the company was acquired by Facebook we don’t really know when we’ll finally see the consumer model. There’s other projects like Sony’s Morpheus, Project Totem and the newly announced Razer OSVR and I’m sure we’ll see more of them (as well as a couple of currently unannounced products) at this year’s E3. It really is the year of virtual reality and we’re sure to see at least some of these on shop shelves in November/December – but is it all good news?
The benefits of VR are immediately obvious. You get almost complete immersion in a 3D world along with a more realistic field of view, better interaction with 3d objects (thanks to the ability to look at them from different angles and get a better sense of scale) and even the chance to do more mundane activities like watching films or shopping for products in a new way. Ever wanted to watch The Matrix on a 200ft screen? Easy. Want to ask your friends to come join you? Done. Want to riff along like Mystery Science Theatre 3000? Why not?
Unfortunately some of the downsides are clear too. If you’re trying to render an image in 3D, however you do it you’re going to be rendering that image twice. That means games that run great at 1080p on a single screen won’t run as well on a dual-screen headset. There’s also an issue with nausea. While our experiences have just left us a little dizzy, if you have any kind of screen tearing or an unstable framerate it could begin to cause real trouble. Some games lend themselves well to tricking your brain, anything where you’re sitting down, like a space sim or driving game but as soon as you’re running around or doing acrobatics there’s a severe disconnect between what your body feels and what you’re seeing. It’s like when you try to read in a moving vehicle, for some people it can take a lot of getting used to.
We don’t see that as the biggest barrier to VR though. Thankfully we weren’t affected by the nausea and never experience motion sickness. Instead we’re much more concerned about the social impact of any kind of VR headset. As it stands it’s already easy to get absorbed into a video game – I’m sure many of us have found ourselves late at night in front of a screen, deeply immersed into something that’s hooked us, putting off getting food or sleep to try and get just a little bit further. At least when we’re in this kind of trance someone else can always get our attention, or our phone can go, or we can see the sun coming up and realise it’s really time we went to bed. In VR you’re completely immersed. You won’t know what time it is, won’t see your phone, won’t even be able to see other people moving about in your house. As easy as it is to lose track of time in gaming right now, it’ll be much worse when the outside world is completely blocked out.
It’s also tremendously anti-social for anyone with a family or significant other in the same house. At your computer you can still hold a conversation and be around people, with the headset on you’ll be in your own little world, completing ignoring anyone around you. In short bursts that’s fine but we all know some games will take it beyond any kind of short-session gameplay. One of the first genres to really embrace the technology is the space simulator open-universe group with Elite:Dangerous and Star Citizen already boasting some impressive support for the technology. How many people are going to end up in marathon sessions in VR while cruising around the Universe. How easy will it be to neglect things like food, sleep or hygiene when the world you’re paying attention to cares little for these things.
The same arguments have come up every time a new piece of technology comes out but this is the first time the immersion has been so complete. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the tech is dangerous, but I can definitely see it being unhealthy for people with poor self-discipline and I count myself among that group. For us this year the main factor in whether or not we buy into VR isn’t likely to be game support, tech specs or price, it’s going to be whether we think we’ll be able to stop ourselves from using it constantly.