When a new technology emerges, it can go one of two ways: either it will claim a place in the halls of gaming greatness, or it will be doomed to fade into history. We’ve seen it time and time again. HD-DVD vs Blu-ray, motion controllers vs standard inputs, and so on. Now we’re in an age where your TV can have 4K resolution, and if you’re really feeling lucky you can also have a virtual reality headset.
Virtual reality is nothing new, but this is the first time we’ve seen it hit a mainstream stride. In fact, the concept of VR has been around since the 1980’s when the term was first coined. Quite a fad to have lasted this long, but that does that mean that this attempt will be the one that sticks? Will the steady advancements in VR finally win over the masses? Join me as we discuss the future of gaming.
A Brief History of Virtual Reality
According to the Virtual Reality Society, virtual reality was a term that came into the public eye in 1987 when a scientist named Jaron Lanier coined the term. The concept became the focus of science fiction and other forms of film and literature as time went on.
We all remember Nintendo’s foray into this realm with the Virtual Boy in 1995. After numerous headaches (quite literal ones), this attempt flopped. Since then, virtual reality has still appeared in all kinds of fictional work, but beyond some amusement park rides, it didn’t seem like something that would ever come home.
I remember my first experience with VR at the popular Disney Quest attraction. Looking back, I realize how crude this technology was, but man was it awesome. It was pretty uncomfortable, though, as the headset was huge and the only sizing option was a massive crank on the back of the device that squeezed your head like it was in a vice.
Jump forward to 2016 and virtual reality has finally come to fruition. You have the higher-tiers like the HTC Vive that, combined with the cost of a capable PC, will cost you one of your kidneys, and then you have the slightly less expensive Oculus Rift.
Sony came out with PlayStation VR in October of 2016 and brought the most affordable option to the masses. It works with your PS4 and even better with a PS4 Pro. While still expensive, it brings real VR to your living room. Yes, the screen isn’t 4K, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
At this point, VR is still very young in terms of a mainstream option. Meanwhile you have wildcards like augmented reality and Microsoft’s HoloLens. Not only that, but now Microsoft is bringing Windows 10 VR headsets out from a variety of partners.
While it certainly seems like major publishers like Sony and Microsoft are all embracing VR, along with the mobile options from Google and Samsung, is this a clear sign that VR is here to stay?
The answer, as always, is complicated. VR still isn’t as popular as common forms of gaming and entertainment, but it has come a long way in the past few years. Now that we’re all caught up, it’s time for the big questions. Will VR become the standard for gaming, or will it fade away as 4K televisions take center stage?
Virtual Reality vs 4K Or “Immersion vs Clarity”
The game industry has often used the terms “atmosphere” and “immersion” like they were going out of style, but it’s a fair point. After all, games have the power to pull us into them like no other medium can. We keep amping up the standards for graphics and resolution in the hope that these things will enhance that immersion factor, but no matter how large your television is, there’s still one problem:
When you turn away from that screen, the immersion is broken.
Think about it. You could be into a game like never before, but no matter how deep you are in the experience, the second you stand up, turn, or look away from the screen, you’re out. What if instead, you could turn away and see something besides your living room?
That’s the promise that VR offers. The ability to take in the surroundings of the game world like you would in the real one. When you turn your head, you see more of the game. Every direction yields more immersion.
It sounds nice, but VR is truly one of those things that doesn’t click until you’ve tried it. I try to explain this to people, but it was impossible to comprehend something like this until I tried it. At first, I was think it would be like a 3D movie, but all around you. While that’s a good start, it doesn’t really capture the feeling of being inside a VR headset.
Let me put it this way:
We’ve all seen the Batmobile. It’s a sweet looking car, and probably pretty big, but you’ve never seen it in person. You don’t know how big it is, despite having seen in a thousand times. Then you play Batman: Arkham VR and suddenly you find yourself standing beside this majestic vehicle.
You look to your right where it sits and you see the how the tires come up to your waist. Furthermore, you look up into the sky and you see the towering skyscrapers of Gotham City looming over you. You’re there. The scale, the size of everything, it’s all true-to-life.
When someone stands in front of you, they look you in the eye. They are as tall as they should be. It’s such an insane feeling when you experience it for the first time. You feel like you can reach out and touch the world in front of you.
What’s the most crazy, is that graphics and resolution here don’t matter. If the frame rate is up to par and the tracking is working properly, your brain will get tricked into thinking it’s real. A perfect example is the game Windlands. This title has very simple graphics akin to title like The Witness.
Despite this, when you’re swinging through its environments and frantically trying to prevent a long and terrifying fall, those trees might as well be real. Those heights certainly feel real, and you can almost swear you feel wind rushing past your face.
Now, let’s turn back to televisions for a moment. There’s certainly something to be said about the quality of an image in terms of the overall experience. A sharp 4K image does wonders for transporting you into the world, but you’re not really there.
That’s the crux of the whole argument. If we, as gamers, want to be fully immersed in the worlds of the games we love, no amount of resolution is going to match the power of being able to stand within that world and take in the sights for yourself.
Of course, it’s not all cut and dry. Games are also social experiences, and while Sony has a great idea going with the Social Screen, VR is not a social experience by definition. It’s an isolated one, even if you’re playing online with friends.
What they see and what you see are completely different things, and this disconnect is what keeps virtual reality from utterly demolishing traditional screens. It’s also a matter of comfort. The PlayStation VR headset is wonderfully comfortable, but several issues come with having a screen strapped to your face:
- General motion sickness
Now, these symptoms aren’t universal, but they are prevalent depending on the person in question. Combine this with the fact that you can’t marathon VR like you do a traditional game, and you can see why the winner isn’t completely clear.
That being said, I feel like 4K represents a plateau that is fast approaching. At some point, we’re not going to be able to squeeze any more pixels onto a screen. At some point it will become photorealistic, and then what?
I’m not saying that we’re anywhere near that threshold, but what I am saying is that the evolution of screens is a limited one. There is a peak, and once we reach it, we’ll need a new technological mountain to climb.
I believe VR is that mountain. In its current form, VR cannot (nor should it) replace televisions. They both offer a lot to gamers, and there’s no reason why they can't co-exist. What I do think, is that more attention should be placed on enhancing the VR experience and possibly making it something we can do with our significant others.
Shared VR experiences would be incredible. I know that this kind of image probably makes you feel like we’re heading towards a Matrix-like scenario, but to me it’s no different than sitting in front of a television for hours on end.
Clarity and resolution are important, but not as important as immersion or atmosphere. If the opposite were true, then indie games with low-budget graphics would never stand a chance. And yet, games with simple art styles like Journey or retro-styled games like Undertale are praised for their incredible impact.
The strengths of gaming lie in the way it affect us and helps us place ourselves in that world. Why shouldn’t we play to those strengths? Virtual reality capitalizes on these things, and that’s why it deserves a place in the future.
What are your thoughts? Should VR fade away, or does it have long-term potential? Let us know in the comments!