Back in 2016, I became a convert and likely insufferable evangelist for virtual reality after someone let me try out the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive. At the time, I was completely enamored with Valve’s The Lab and the seemingly endless potential for immersive experiences made possible by dropping you into a world that completely surrounds you. I wasn’t one of those super-early adopters who bought the Rift development kits, but what I lacked in timing, I made up for in enthusiasm.
I took to VR headsets like Mr. Toad took to motor cars. Which means that over the last few years, I’ve tried all of the major commercially-available ones, and I’ve wasted disposable income on several of them. So I’ve got opinions, and I think they’re reasonably well-informed. Here’s my take on the current state of things:
- VR isn’t just a fad that’s already gone the way of 3D Televisions. For about as long as I’ve been interested in VR, people have been declaring that VR was “dead” or at best, that it had no future in gaming and entertainment. The most common comparison that people made was to 3D televisions, which TV manufacturers tried to convince us were an essential part of the home theater of the future, but which just about completely disappeared within a few years. Even though interest has cooled a lot, I think it’s impossible for home VR to go away completely, simply because it still suggests so much potential for new experiences every time you put on a headset.
- VR will remain a niche entertainment platform. That said, home VR as we know it today is never going to take over as The Next Big Thing, either. A few years ago, a lot of people were suggesting that VR headsets would become the new video game consoles, and therefore the bar for success would be an HMD to achieve PS4 or Xbox-level sales. That’s not going to happen. I’ve been pretty disappointed in the PSVR overall, but I think in terms of market positioning and ease of use and overall philosophy, it’s the one that most got it right — it’s an easy to use accessory for specialized experiences.
- VR needs experiences designed for VR, and not just different presentation of existing games. For a while, I was starting to become convinced that VR had “flopped” since I almost never went through the effort of setting up and putting on the Vive or PSVR again, so they just sat collecting dust. When I was in the mood to play a game, I almost always went to the Switch, suggesting that The Future of Games Is Mobile and Accessible. But I think the real conclusion is that there are different experiences for different platforms, and the one-size-fits-all mentality of video games is a relic of the “console wars.” Not every type of game is going to work well in VR, and IMO the ones that do work exceptionally well in VR can only work well in VR. The comparison to 3D TVs is apt, since it shows that people thought of VR as a different way of presenting familiar content, but it’s actually an entirely new type of content. Altogether.
- Stop trying to make “epic” VR happen. Related to that, I think a lot of people (including myself) assumed that the tipping point for VR adoption would come as soon as one of the big publishers made the VR equivalent of Skyrim or Halo: the huge, big-budget game that will incontrovertibly prove the viability of VR as an entertainment platform. But actually playing Skyrim or Fallout in VR turns out to be a drag, in some part because you can’t just lose hours to a game in VR without noticing. The fact that most VR experiences have been brief isn’t a bug; it’s a feature. The success of Beat Saber doesn’t mean that VR is a baby platform for stupid casuals, unless you’re a teenager on a message board. Instead, it means that we’re getting closer to finding out what kinds of short, dense experiences work inside a VR headset.
- The biggest obstacle to VR is that it’s isolating and anti-social. I think it’s kind of ironic that one of the biggest investors in VR — and in fact the greatest chance for VR to reach wide adoption — is a social media company, since putting on a VR headset is about as anti-social as you can get. Sony had the right approach with their initial PSVR push, emphasizing it as the center of a social experience, but I think it ultimately came across as gimmicky and limited, like Wii Sports. Sometimes you want to shut the rest of the world out — I was surprised to see so many people touting the Oculus Go as perfect for media consumption, since I can’t imagine anything I’d want to do less than watch a movie with my sweaty face stuck against a computer screen. But I think the real key to longevity and wider adoption with VR will be a way to have that sense of immersion and isolation but still have a lifeline to the outside.
- Ease of use and convenience are always preferable to “better” technology. Back in 2016, I was 100% on Team Vive, because it had the better tracking technology, and better technology meant better immersion, right? I’ve done an almost complete reversal on that. In practice, an easier experience beats a “better” experience every single time. I think the PSVR tracking is throw-the-controllers-across-the-room-in-frustration abysmal, and the display is disappointingly fuzzy and pixelated, but it still ended up getting more overall use than the HTC Vive, simply because it was more comfortable and easier to jump into. And I suspect I played more with the Oculus Quest in the first week after I owned it, than I’d spent over the entire past year with the Vive. I wouldn’t have thought it would be a huge difference being able to set up a play space in seconds as opposed to minutes, but just that one change made VR something I looked forward to again, instead of feeling like a burden. All the videos about haptic gloves or force feedback vests or two-way treadmills to guarantee a more immersive experience seem not just silly now, but almost counter-productive in how much they miss the point.
- At the moment, the best headset is the Oculus Quest. It’s still a mobile processor, so it sacrifices a lot of the graphical flourishes that can make even “smaller” VR experiences cool. But being able to just pick the thing up and be playing a game within a minute is more significant than any other development. I have to say that Facebook/Oculus’s efforts to make it easier to jump in and more social when you are in, are just more appealing to me than anything else happening in VR.
Facebook has been holding its Oculus Connect event this week, and in my opinion the biggest announcement by far was that the Oculus Quest —their wireless, standalone headset with a mobile processor — would soon be able to connect to a PC via a USB-C cable. That would essentially turn it into an Oculus Rift S, their wired, PC-based headset.
Full disclosure: I have to say that I was instrumental in bringing this change that made the Oculus Rift S functionally obsolete, since about a month ago, I bought an Oculus Rift S. I never expected Facebook to add a feature to one of its hardware platforms that would invalidate another of its hardware platforms, but then I’ve never really understood Facebook’s business model. And honestly, I’m kind of happy that I don’t.
But the end result is that if the technology works as described, it’ll be the best of both worlds for the Oculus Quest. You’ll still be able to have the just-pick-up-the-headset-and-start-playing experience for a lot of games. But on the occasions where you want to play a larger-scale game like No Man’s Sky, or if you’re just playing Moss and are sad at how bad the downgraded water looks when it’s so evocative on the PSVR, you can sacrifice mobility and ease of setup for higher fidelity and a bigger library.
And the other announcements — in particular, hand recognition so that there are some experiences that won’t require controllers at all; and the “Horizon” social platform that may finally make VR feel less isolating, if they get it right — are encouraging to me. I feel like the way towards wide adoption isn’t going to come from taking the most advanced technology and gradually making it more accessible, but from taking the most accessible technology and gradually making it more advanced.
And while I’m predicting the future (almost certainly incorrectly, since I think I was completely off in my predictions just three years ago): I think all the efforts that see AR and VR as competing or even different-but-complementary technologies are missing the point. I believe that the future isn’t going to look like VR or AR as they’re pitched today — putting on a headset that blinds you and has you start swinging wildly at imaginary monsters only you can see, or just projecting an existing type of mobile game onto a real-world table or showing a Pokemon on your living room table — but is going to be more like the immersive AR shown in the movie Her. People will need to be able to treat it as a continuum that goes from private to social, where they can shut out as much or as little of the outside world as they choose to at any given moment. And whether that’s an isolating dystopian future, or a magical one-world-united future, depends less on the technology itself and more on how we decide to use it.