Ever since the Virtual Boy for gamers and The Lawnmower Man for movie-goers, we have been looking forward to a virtual reality system that would actually work. More than 3D and motion-control gaming, VR has always seemed like the next step for gaming to make. Now, like the buses of London, it appears that a number of them are starting to arrive at the same time.
Revealed to the world in 2012, the Oculus Rift from Oculus VR was the first to peek over the parapets of the world of tomorrow to show gamers what was coming next. Favoured by John Carmack of id Software fame and garnering support from the gaming community through a Kickstarter campaign, from the initial development kits to the more recent ‘Crystal Cove’ edition, the Oculus Rift seems to have become a success before it has even launched. Of course, having no clear competition also benefited them.
No more however.
This week, Sony have unveiled their own prototype VR headset to the world at the Games Developer’s Conference 2014 – under the guise of Project Morpheus. The initial specs appear to match, or at least come close to, Oculus’ more recent iteration – with a 1080p display, head- and position-tracking. At this time, few specifications other than these are known, with the ones I mentioned also not confirmed for the consumer version. However, based on the presentation Sony had at GDC, it appears that they have been working on the device since 2010.
Not only have Valve also been rumoured to have their own version of a headset in the works, but there may also be an Xbox version on the horizon. It appears that the games industry is starting to head in the VR direction, with home consoles now seemingly powerful enough to use such devices.
So is this the future? Personally, I am still not convinced.
Last year, I was able to sample Oculus’ offering, pre-Crystal Cove, at the Eurogamer Expo. The game on hand was the PC version of War Thunder, the free-to-play air combat game from Gaijin Entertainment. The hardware itself was impressive, though clunky (to be expected for a prototype). The game was also suited to the format as a cockpit is perfect for looking around you and spotting enemies without changing the orientation of your plane completely.
However, as soon as I left the demo booth, multiple game genres that I liked came to mind that would not easily work with the format. Third-person shooters sprang to mind first – how would using a VR headset with that genre work? What point-of-view would you take? And how would that be preferable to the standard set-up?
Immersion is probably the biggest trump card VR evangelists can use to counteract criticism of the format. This may be the case for games running on a PC or Mac powerful enough to support the hardware but they will have a job convincing me that either of the two next-gen home consoles will be able to adequately power these devices. At the moment, they are struggling to hit 1080p and maintain their frame-rates (an important aspect for VR headsets to function optimally).
Not to continue to be a Moaning Michael, but the uptake in VR technology may not be high enough either. For a device powerful and well-equipped enough to give you an adequate experience, you are looking at spending north of £200 at least. If the limited number of genres supported doesn’t diminish the game library too much, you also have to think about the fact that these devices will have to be bought separately from the console, so developer enthusiasm may not be enough to provide you with enough titles to play. Finally, you have the lack of a standardised set of APIs to consider, meaning many of said titles may support one brand but not the other.
I may be coming across overly negative here but the companies involved still have a lot of questions to answer before I can see these devices being anything other than a pricey, novelty item. Thankfully, with no firm release dates announced for any of them (and some of them that we still don’t know actually exist), there is plenty of time for said answers to be heard.