VR Isn’t Ready

Recently I’ve heard a lot of hubabaloo about VR, especially with regards to games. This wave of hype has been going on for while, but it has personally intensified for me because one of my professors this semester is running a VR startup. I’m also working on a VR-compatible game, so VR talk has become more relevant to me.

Array of current VR headsets

Array of current VR headsets

First off, I believe VR is still 10 years away from its prime-time. The tech is just not advanced to a viable level right now, and some fundamental issues of user experience have yet to be solved.

For example, my professor gave an example of why VR is such an immersive mode of interaction: the first time people put on the headset and jump into a virtual world, they reach out and try to touch objects. He trumpeted this as being evidence of a kinetic experience (i.e. it pushed them to “feel” things beyond what they immediately see). While is this kind of true, I see it far more as evidence of a fundamental shortcoming. The moment a user tries to interact with the world and fails, they are jerked out of the fantasy and immersion is broken. This is true in all games; if a user believes they can interact with the world in a certain way but the world doesn’t respond correctly, the user is made painfully and immediately aware that they are in a game, a simulation.

Control VR isn't enough.

Control VR isn’t enough.

This brings me to the first huge issue: the input problem. VR output is relatively advanced, what with Oculus and Gear VR and Morpheus. But we’ve seen little to no development effort targeted at ways for the user to interact with the world. Sure we have Control VR and such projects, but I think these haven’t caught on because they are so complicated to setup. Oculus made huge strides by turning the HMD into a relatively streamlined plug-and-play experience with a minimal mess of cables. We have yet to see how Oculus’s custom controllers affect the space, but I have a feeling they aren’t doing enough to bridge the haptic gap. We won’t see VR takeoff until users are no longer frustrated by the effort to give input to the game by these unintuitive means. As long as users are constantly reminded they are in a simulation, VR is no better than a big TV and a comfy couch.

Speaking of big TVs: the output tech isn’t good enough. The 1080p of the DK2 is nowhere near high enough to be immersive. Trust me: I’ve gotten to try out a DK2 extensively in the past few months at zero personal cost. My opinion is informed and unbiased. Trying to pick out details in the world is like peering through a blurry screen door. As long as I’m tempted to pop off the headset and peek at the monitor to figure out what I’m looking at, VR isn’t going to take off. Even the 2160×1200 of the consumer Oculus won’t be enough. When we get 3K or 4K resolutions in our HMDs, VR will be a viable alternative to monitor gaming. Of course, this tech is likely 5-10 years away for our average consumer.

These never caught on.

These never caught on.

This all isn’t to say that current VR efforts are for naught. These early adopter experiments are definitely useful for figuring out design paradigms and refining the tech, However, it would be foolish to operate under the assumption that VR is posed to take the gaming world by storm. VR is not the new mobile. VR is the new Kinect. And like the Wii and Kinect, VR is not a catch-all interaction mode; most gaming will always favor a static, laid-back experience. You can’t force people to give up lazy couch-potato gaming.

Of course, outside of gaming it may not be a niche interaction mode. In applications where immersion is not the goal and users expect to have to train in the operation of unnatural, intuitive controls, VR may very well thrive. Medicine, industrial operation, design, and engineering are obvious applications. It might even be useful for education purposes. But temper your expectations for gaming.

A Problem with Films

The eponymous film industry has been approaching a point of conflict with technology. Especially in recent years, more films have started used framerates that are significantly greater than the traditional 24 fps. This is caused by the increasingly movement from film-based camera to tape (or digital) cameras. However beneficial this switch might be, the public hasn’t received it very well so far. For example, Peter Jackson decided to film The Hobbit at 48 fps, but so far people have found the screened clips unpleasant.

The problem is that faster frame rates tend to take away the “cinematic” aesthetic that separates feature films from home videos and cheap television. Unfortunately, there is no way to fix this; our minds and eyes associate 24 fps with movies. This is a stigma that won’t go away anytime soon as long as movie continue to use obtusely slow frame rates. There will, by necessity, be a period in which all movies look “cheap”. Once the transition is made, however,

The same thing occurred with 3D films. At first people were averse to the concept, because it violated their concept of what the “movie experience” was like. However, more and more films took to the technique, and eventually the majority of moviegoers became comfortable with the feeling. I experienced this recently, when I saw Prometheus and decided to watch it in 2D. Mere minutes in to the film, I already have a faint feeling in the back of my head that something wasn’t right; my eyes have become trained to expect 3D sensations when I sit down in a movie theater.

Historically, this trend of initial rejection has been true for all new advances in film. Color film, synced sound, computer generated graphics, etc. Take, for instance, this excerpt of an article I snagged from IGN. It voices the feelings that movie audiences will be experiencing at some point in the next 10 years. However, I think this is a positive switch.

“I didn’t go into CinemaCon expecting to write anything less than great things about The Hobbit, but the very aesthetic chosen by Peter Jackson has made me very nervous about this film. It just looked … cheap, like a videotaped or live TV version of Lord of the Rings and not the epic return to Tolkien that we have all so long been waiting for.”

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