We are officially in virtual reality hype mode, and it looks like it’s going to be the ‘device’ that will define 2016, yet where does its place fit into gaming?
VR gaming is not new. During the 90s, a company called Virtuality Group introduced a VR arcade cabinet to players called, unsurprisingly, Virtuality cabinets. They were huge units where players stepped into, placed virtual goggles over their heads and immersed themselves in 3D polygonal worlds.
The device shipped with many games, including a VR version of Pac-Man and a fast-paced game called Zone Hunter. And here we are in the 21st century where we are witnessing a rebirth of virtual reality.
In July 2014, Facebook announced it’s acquisition of Oculus Rift, a VR Kickstarter, for $2 billion. Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, suggested that virtual reality has applications beyond gaming such as communication, where people can share ‘virtual reality media’ similar to image and video capture and sharing today, but gaming remains important for virtual reality technology.
Oculus Rift announced its retail unit will go for $600 and will be released in 20 countries on March 28 of this year. The package will include built-in headphones and mic, sensor and an Xbox One controller that is compatible for a variety games, including VR platformer Lucky’s Tale, which is bundled with every Rift. All preorders will also receive a free copy of EVE: Valkyrie, an outer space dogfight game.
Some developers thought the Rift’s price is steep given by console standards. After all, the whole point of console gaming is meant to provide reasonably priced hardware for a convenient gaming experience. Most analysts estimate Rift sales will be in the low hundred-thousands and only a few expect sales to top 1 million. The headset requires a somewhat beefy PC setup.
- NVIDIA GTX 970 / AMD 290 equivalent or greater
- Intel i5-4590 equivalent or greater
- 8GB+ RAM
- Compatible HDMI 1.3 video output
- 2x USB 3.0 ports
- Windows 7 SP1 or newer
The specs above are about targeting high frames per second, in order to make VR gaming a comfortable experience and to avoid the dreaded motion sickness ailment, more on that later.
Even though these specs aren’t on the higher end spectrum by PC gaming standards, it still needs around a $900 investment ($1500 total with headset) according to Oculus Rift. Yet shockingly, Nvidia recently claimed that computers today are not powerful enough to run virtual reality games.
The word is still out on PlayStation VR’s price and release date, as it skipped CES 2016. However, analysts do believe it is in a better position compared to other VR gaming competitors because it is powered by PlayStation 4.
Early adopters are important to companies because they beta test products. Early VR adopters will be more critical than usual, because they will identify kinks for developers to fix and essentially hold VR’s commercial fate in their hands.
Now of course PlayStation VR isn’t capable of delivering the highest-fidelity experience against competitors like the Rift and HTC HTCCY +% Vive, especially taking into account the near-limitless horsepower of a dedicated gaming PC. The thing is, the majority of consumers don’t care about that. It is the core reason consoles remain dominant in the living room: They’re approachable, accessible, and affordable.
VR won’t be going mainstream in 2016, and probably not in 2017, but in order for that critical mass adoption to happen, all the guesswork needs to be removed. Confusing system specs and competing products certainly won’t drive VR adoption forward on PC as quickly as it could on a more uniform console environment like the PlayStation 4.
I think it’s perfectly plausible that PlayStation VR could even successfully branch out beyond gaming and offer the range of apps that are needed to capture the mainstream’s attention and really propel VR into the limelight. Multimedia experiences, shopping apps, virtual theme parks, and non-game simulations of all kinds. Much in the same way consumers flocked to the PS2 for its DVD player.
Sony is coming into this market, technically speaking, with a much higher potential installed base than Oculus Rift or HTC’s Vive, and a much more affordable cost of entry.
So, if you’re a developer or someone brand new to VR, which one will you choose?
VR’s elephant in the room lies in reports of motion sickness that some experience while using the headset. Oculus Rift acknowledged that nausea remains an issue, but it uses movement-tracking technology to remove the ailment. Personally, I tested out Oculus Rift Development Kit 2 twice in 2014 and 2015 and both had different results.
The first time, I played two different demos for well over 20 minutes. The first one simulates a tamed rollercoaster ride and the other demo involved waggling your head around in order to hit balls. Following the demos, I sweated profusely and felt nauseated for well over 2 hours.
The second outing was more forgiving. It was a demo of carnival pirate ship ride, where you swung around for about 3 minutes. A staff member gently held my back during the demo’s entirety, in case I experienced any sudden shift in motion. Altogether, no severe nausea, just a bit of dizziness for a few minutes.
Time will tell how VR games will pan out. While simple demo, like the ones I mentioned, are appropriate for conventions, the question is still out whether someone will come home from school/work and decides to put on goggles to experience an immersive world, yet with currently limited gameplay.
Pessimism is a natural reaction to untested tech, but I, and other fellow gamers, should give virtual reality gaming the benefit of the doubt for now. Besides, let early adopters test out the product for us, who already crashed the Rift’s preorder website.