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Can Virtual Reality Deliver on its “Revolutionary” Promises?

Oculus Rift

Read the comments section of any article or video on virtual reality, and the words “game changer” and “revolution” will most likely appear. Michael Abrash, Chief Scientist at Oculus, claims that VR could even “transform the entire entertainment industry”. Despite the enormous hype around virtual reality, there are lingering concerns whether VR can succeed as a mainstream, sustainable business that few are considering. Though there’s little doubt that today’s VR technology works very well and offers an exciting new way to experience games, it may not be the next big innovation that so many are expecting it to be, but rather a niche product with waning novelty.

For one thing, VR is predominantly designed for first person games, alienating all other genres and decreasing its versatility as a platform. Real-time strategy and third-person games make up a sizable portion of the video game market, but don’t benefit from the immersive, first person perspective that VR offers. Would playing an RTS in virtual reality add enough to the experience to warrant buying and wearing a head-mounted display? Non first-person games have yet to prove that they benefit from VR in any essential or significant way, which may limit the appeal of the platform.

Take Lucky’s Tale for instance. Debuted during this year’s E3, Lucky’s Tale is a third person platformer exclusive to the Oculus Rift. The game is designed like a traditional platformer, but it uses head tracking to control camera movements. Lucky’s Tale has the rare distinction of being in third person, but its use of VR seems like an ancillary benefit, a neat gimmick, rather than an essential component to the game. Once the novelty of the technology has faded, non-first person games may not have a strong enough VR experience to convince players to wear a headset.

Titanfall

Playing one of today’s multiplayer FPSs may also be impractical in virtual reality. Games like Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Titanfall are often frantic and chaotic, requiring quick reflexes and rapid movement. It’s not hard to imagine the nausea a competitive FPS would create after a brief period of use with the technology. If VR is unable to cater to the wide range of video game genres or capitalize on the popularity of multiplayer in first-person shooters, the platform’s ability to gain mainstream appeal should be put into question.

Further still is VR’s intrusiveness as a hardware product. If virtual reality is to ever gain mass appeal, it must eventually reach casual consumers. But do the general gaming population, the Call of Duty and Madden players of the world, care enough about immersion to harness a bulky, blinding rig to their faces? Casual games are defined by their accessibility, ease of use, and convenience–words not often used to describe VR or immersion-driven games.

After the decline of the Wii, Kinect, and PlayStation Move, it’s hard to be optimistic about VR as a successful mainstream product. Though motion gaming was accessible enough to reach even grandparents, it faded into obscurity because of diminished novelty. VR isn’t as socially accepted as motion gaming yet, and even if it does catch on, its sense of presence, like motion controls, may too become predictable and exhausted after a time. Will standing over a virtual never-ending death pit be as instinctively terrifying on the 20th time? Some already don’t seem to think so.

Oculus-Rift-GDC-2013

But perhaps the biggest initial hurdle VR must overcome is communicating its value to consumers. Sony’s VR peripheral was demoed on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon a few weeks ago, and the result was chaotic, embarrassing, and unimpressive. The demo, using the headset and PlayStation Move controllers, looked silly and gimmick-y. Fallon and Channing Tatum stumbled around aimlessly for two minutes, while the tech expert frantically tried to communicate VR. “This is what the future is going to be like”, he affirms in desperation, as Fallon and Tatum stand clueless and look ridiculous.

And VR does look very gimmick-y, especially when peripherals like the Omni treadmill and the failed PlayStation Move are used to demonstrate it. Video games are so often viewed as a solitary pastime, played in isolation from the outside world. VR is not only reinforcing this stereotype but also arguably making it worse. It’s not surprising that further disconnecting oneself from reality may put people off the technology, as it has with Mario and Zelda creator Shigeru Miyamoto. Marketers have their work cut out for them if they intend to market VR as a hip gaming platform.

Virtual reality is looking like the next 3D television. Like VR, 3D TV was touted as a game-changing innovation, with executives saying “it’s quite simply the entertainment revolution of our time”. But it flopped because of the limited amount of programming worth watching in 3D, the social awkwardness of wearing 3D glasses, and the fading novelty of the technology. Right now, VR is in its Avatar stage, the time where those who have seen it are convinced that it will change the world. Big investments and lofty expectations are being made, and if VR fails to address these concerns, this may lead to a second, perhaps permanent crash of the VR market.


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