The five things you absolutely need to know about VR right now
It’s easy to become overwhelmed by all the virtual reality news that came out of the 2015 Game Developers Conference.
There was new hardware announced, piles of games to play and peripherals that may or may not be released for hardware that may or may not be coming this year. It’s all anyone was talking about, but how should you think about the virtual reality landscape right now?
We’ll make it easier on you; these are the five things you need to know and understand about virtual reality as of today.
Keep your money in your pocket
Everyone is talking about virtual reality, and it seems to be pretty easy to come by funding if you have a piece of hardware or software to sell, but if you’re a casual or even hardcore fan of the technology, you’ll want to keep your wallet under your butt for the time being.
There are many virtual reality devices on the way, but they’re all a ways out. Project Morpheus is coming in the first half of 2016. The HTC Vive that Valve showed off will be released to consumers by the end of this year. The Gear VR is available now, but it’s an “Innovator’s Edition” aimed at developers and enthusiasts. Oculus has only added a software store to Gear VR this past week.
The Development Kit 2 from Oculus VR is the most robust piece of virtual reality equipment in terms of fit and finish and support in the current market, but that’s not saying much. Every piece of equipment we saw at GDC was a big step up from the DK2, and we don’t have even have a date or price point for the consumer version of Oculus’ hardware.
It can be tempting to pick up one of the half-baked solutions that’s on the market now, and lord knows I’m having fun with my Gear VR and DK2, but the consumer products that are less than a year away will be a huge jump forward.
So, theoretically, you could start collecting hardware now, but you’ll be much better off if you wait.
It’s hard to know how it will affect you
Gabe Newell is claiming that “zero percent” of people who play with the HTC Vive are getting sick, and I spoke with VR developer Alex Schwartz of Owlchemy Labs who believed that claim due to Valve’s rock-solid positional tracking solution. The idea that Valve has completely cracked the motion sickness problem has some weight behind it.
But the reality is that Valve requires you to give up an entire room, as the ability to walk around and connect the two wireless base stations is a big part of the company’s technology. I’m a hardcore VR enthusiast who’s been known to spend hours at a time in virtual reality, but even I had to take precautions against getting ill during GDC.
Gear VR is “only” $200, but it also only works with a few of Samsung’s phones, including the Note 4, S6 and S6 Edge. These aren’t inexpensive pieces of hardware, putting the total price for the platform at around $1,000 or so, although of course carriers have subsidies available if you’re willing to sign a contract.
Oculus has probably been the most aggressive on pricing, telling us over and over that mass market virtual reality only happens at a low price. $500 seems high for the consumer version, although sub-$400 pricing wouldn’t be surprising.
That being said, you’ll need a gaming PC that can run virtual reality games at a rock solid 75 frames-per-second at the very least, while the HTC Vive asks you to hit 90 frames-per-second.
The headset is only part of the issue here, as it needs to be connected to equipment that can give you a comfortable experience.
Locked hardware like Samsung’s Gear VR and Sony’s Project Morpheus have a definite advantage in this area, but developers will also likely struggle with the limited power of the PlayStation 4 and Samsung’s smart phones, at least in comparison to high-end gaming PCs.
Virtual reality is going to be very expensive for the next year or two, so get to saving.
This is a huge possibility space for developers
Virtual reality is a new way to play games, with its own rules and limitations. The technology requires new techniques in animation and rendering to take full advantage of it. You won’t be able to put on a headset and play the latest Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty in virtual reality, and you likely wouldn’t want to; unless a game is designed from the ground up for virtual reality, everything from the camera movement to the heads-up display may make you sick.
But that doesn’t mean that the field of current experiences is narrow or clunky. At GDC I played cooking games, I went inside the world of The Hobbit, I teamed up with someone outside of virtual reality to defuse a bomb, I used an undersea vehicle to stalk dinosaurs, and I got into a gunfight that made me feel like I was inside an action film. I played a game that taught me how to breathe in a more relaxing manner. The list goes on and on.
I also played Lucky’s Tale from Playful Corp. which mixed the best parts of Mario 64 with the attention to detail you find in the best rides at a Disney theme park. The developers of that game and I spent an hour talking about the difficulties of making the camera work in a way that didn’t make the player sick. Above and beyond that, they made sure the camera placement and camera animations made the world feel alive and reactive when you moved your head to get a better view of the third-person action.
Lucky’s Tale proved that virtual reality isn’t just for first-person games.
You don’t have to worry about developer support when it comes to virtual reality; there are already more games and demos than anyone would have time to play during an event such as GDC, and that’s just scratching the surface. The amount of experimentation and new ideas is refreshing compared to the often staid nature of mainstream gaming, and it’s likely the first big VR hit will come from a small team you’ve never heard of, not a AAA developer throwing money at the problem.
There is an immense amount of money to be made if virtual reality takes off and you’re sitting on a best-in-class game in your genre, and the field will be much less crowded than standard console or PC spaces.
Indie devs are shooting for the sky with virtual reality, which is great for early adopters of the technology, but it’s going to be a bloodbath if the first hardware is released to a lack of enthusiasm. It’s also impossible to tell which piece of hardware will be dominant, or even when it will be released.
Developers are trapped between a rock and a hard place with virtual reality, and they’re making a rather large bet on the art form without much information about what to expect from the future.
It’s absolutely, positively amazing
There’s a reason GDC was completely filled with people talking about virtual reality with such enthusiasm, and it wasn’t just the dull, persistent smell of venture capital money that permeated the VR space during the show. We were seeing demo after demo on multiple platforms that were amazing.
The HTC Vive may not have the best shot of being a mass market product, but everyone who used it in Valve’s rooms located off the show floor walked out with a huge smile on their face and ideas about possible games buzzing around their heads.
One coworker used the hardware for five minutes and described it as a kind of high; you feel completely wrapped up in a virtual environment, and the developers already signed onto the platform are ready to take you to some amazing places.
What don’t know how much it will cost, outside of my estimate of “so much” (at least at first) and we don’t know what companies will break through to the mainstream first (although my money is on Sony). What we do know is that technology has arrived that’s good enough to get people to invest in the platform.
Whether that translates into one of the most painful crashes tech has ever seen, or the birth of a ubiquitous new way to play games and experience content, is an open question and it’s likely we’re at least a year away from even beginning to answer it. But this isn’t empty hype. The experiences are real, and they’re that good. The problem is that it’s hard to convince you of that without finding a way for each and every reader of this article to try a virtual reality headset for themselves.
For now, though? I’m saving up my pennies.