There are two ways we can define Virtual Reality (VR) right now. One is the realistic, scientific description of the various means and methods that power the technology. But this tech is all about slipping into new worlds; do we really want to talk about the science behind it? The other is to paint a picture in your mind of what this enticing new platform could have in store for videogames and beyond in the next few years. I’ll go with that.
I call it new, but really the very concept of VR has been a long time coming. The idea of putting on a headset and being born again into a fully-realised 3D world in which you can live out heroic fantasies or experience a completely different life has been dreamt of long before videogames approached photorealism. It’s been used for military applications among other things for years now but we can trace it back to early science-fiction films and books.
In terms of videogames, the immediate implications are obvious. Imagine any number of visceral first-person shooters from the past generation of consoles. Think about how your grip tightened and eyes widened as you scrambled away from the helicopter crash in the original Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s landmark ghillie suit missions. Now picture actually being there. What about the many, many thousands of footsteps you took to go beyond City 17 and back in Half-Life 2? What if you took all those steps yourself?
‘Ambitious’ doesn’t quite seem to do it credit, but we’re on the road to it right now. We’ve seen Oculus Rift applied to Team Fortress 2 in a way that practically puts you on the battlefield. That’s going to be just the tip of the iceberg when mainstream support kicks in. We could see the superhero genre turned upside down, puzzle games with head scratchers that weren’t possible before or even racing titles from a whole now perspective.
But this tech has the chance to go far beyond enhancing our entertainment. We’re already using it to train soldiers and pilots, what about surgeons and teachers? We can give them the chance to practise complicated operations or take history lessons back in time. Internet messaging could be revolutionised as we stop typing in chat boxes and leaving Vines and start meeting face-to-face whilst still miles away. Then we get into the whole Demolition Man area, but we’ll leave that for another time.
That’s not to say that there aren’t challenges on the road ahead. There are hundreds of ways that Oculus and other headsets can enrich first-person titles, but that counts for a just a slither of the type of experiences out there. What about third-person shooters, action and platform titles or turn-based RPGs? Reports are that VR doesn’t fare so well when the player doesn’t assume the character’s own perspective; are these genre’s simply going to have to sit it out? What about when the tech moves beyond the confines of the controller? How will videogames begin to differentiate themselves when they all consist of the same actions? What will there be to make one sword title different to another?
The threats extend beyond creative road blocks. The Oculus Rift made strides in combating simulator motion sickness at the Consumer Electronics Show CES last month thanks to reduced latency on an OLED screen and positional depth trackers, but we still don’t know what the effects of long-term use could be. Surely using any headset often will take a toll on the user’s eyes? It might sound crazy to mention now, but there’s also the very real possibility of such experiences affecting users psychologically.
And then there are the inevitable moral panics about how far we take this technology before we’re really just teaching children how to use weapons and use conflict to resolve struggles. As a hobby, videogaming in its current form is subject to constant media attacks – what happens when we start putting guns in people’s hands? These are questions that we’ll only be able to answer as the platform grows and we can only hope the right people are coming up with the right solutions.
What is VR? Right now it’s potential. As we continue to look from the outside in, we’re seeing more and more encouraging signs that the Oculus Rift and its rivals are the real deal. But before we get carried away we have to see a positive reception from the mainstream. That’s something we won’t be able to gauge until the end of this year at the earliest.
It might seem preposterous, but as we look around the tech industry and see technology like Google Glass and Samsung’s foldable displays, you begin to realise that we really are arriving in the kind of future we imagined before the turn of the millennium. The chance to step into whole new worlds and interact with them like never before is now a reality and VRFocus will be here to report on every tiny detail as we move forward. We’re a flying car away from Back to the Future Part II.