Roundtable: Does virtual reality have a commercially viable future?

Friday, 14 March 2014 11:57 GMT By Dave Cook

Oculus firmly believes that VR will be integral to the evolution of gaming, but it’s clear that consumers still need some convincing. Dave Cook speaks with several VR developers to see if the tech has a viable commercial future.

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“It’s all down to the immersion. Playing a game properly in VR is such a huge step beyond playing it on a 2D monitor or TV” – Patrick O’Luanaigh, nDreams

People have historically felt intimidated by things they don’t understand. We often fail to grasp the value of new technology or services unless they offer something that will directly benefit us, and while that’s perhaps a little self-centred, it isn’t entirely incorrect.

Disruptive, unproven concepts – if they are commercially available at all – are often expensive, and until we as consumers are convinced our money is well-spent, they will always be viewed with an air of scepticism. You need a reason to invest good money in innovations like VR, and while it’s clear Oculus and other companies feel the concept has a viable future in your home, we’re yet to see the full potential of such technology as a consumer product.

Just how will this radical, wearable technology impact the gaming and where can it sit amid the home environment? When pricing VR technology in stores, how much is too much? And can issues surrounding motion sickness ever be fully eradicated?

These are all unanswered questions that Oculus, Valve and – if these rumours are to be believed – Sony are trying to answer. It’s clear that the solutions will not simply present themselves any time soon, but the wheels are in motion as you read this. It’s easy to laugh and draw comparisons to the Virtual Reality fad of the early ’90s, but companies have learned from that saga, and are hell-bent on convincing the market that this, whether you want to believe it or not, is the future.

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Is VR just a fad?

UK-based game developer nDreams has dabbled in a variety of VR devices for some time now, and has produced several internal prototypes. “I’ve had the good fortune to have used a number of different VR headsets (and to have visited Oculus in Irvine, which was mind-blowing), and I am totally convinced that VR is an area which will grow hugely over the next few years,” says founder and creative director Patrick O’Luanaigh.

“It’s all down to the immersion – great VR puts you into another world. It takes that feeling of immersion to a totally new level and allows players to forget completely about the real world. Playing a game properly in VR is such a huge step beyond playing it on a 2D monitor or TV.

“VR is very demanding hardware-wise. Virtual reality will force a step up of the hardware performances, pushing the market forward” – Flavio Parenti, Untold Games

“For me, the difference between a fad and a revolution is whether the new thing really is an improvement on the old thing. And I believe VR will be a revolution. It’s not going to impact mobile gaming, because it’s not something you’ll do on the move for a few minutes at a time, but it will change how people game when they’re sat down in their lounge, office or bedroom.”

I first used an Oculus Rift device at a game jam in Dundee, Scotland. The game in question saw me moving a dog around an open world park, utilising an Xbox 360 control pad and headset display. I could make the canine run by bobbing my head up and down, tilt it slightly to urinate on passers-by and gaze around the colourful world by my own head movements alone. We take a pad’s right stick for granted as it’s almost always used for camera control. Once you pop on a VR headset that’s no longer the case. It’s both disorientating, overwhelming and exciting at first try.

“Once you experience cutting-edge VR, the kind of which Valve is prototyping at the moment, you know in your gut that it’s too much an awesome experience to be dismissed as a fad,” says Bossa Studios’ founder Henrique Olifiers.

“The kind of emotions and feelings a developer can evoke in the player with this tech is beyond anything else out there, it’s science fiction stuff. So we’re clear – this is not what you can currently experience with the first generation of Oculus Rift. It’s something else entirely.

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“That said, I don’t believe we will see it used everywhere any time soon,” he adds. “I don’t think VR is a type of tech like an iPhone that everyone will just ‘get it’ and embrace right away. It’s new tech that will be niche to early adopters for some considerable time. Then, at some point, a developer will come up with the killer game for VR and it will be Wolfenstein and Doom all over again, with mainstream trying it out and falling in love with it. That would be my guess.”

“Some say that Oculus Rift was planned at the beginning to be publicly sold for $300. It is in my opinion a fair price because it is affordable” – Christophe Longuepee, Streum On Studio

Like Olifiers, Italian actor and film-maker Flavio Parenti agrees that VR is no fad as well as being a demand on current hardware. His studio Untold Games is currently working on Loading Human, a first-person adventure game that sees players exploring convincing worlds using motion and head tracking.

He suggests that interest in VR from gamers is high, and if it’s well managed by the industry then the technology could indeed prove profitable. It might not be within the means of console, game or hardware developers just yet, however.

“VR is very demanding hardware-wise,” Parenti warns. “Rendering stereoscopic 3D requires approximately twice the raw power of today’s game. This means that virtual reality will force a step up of the hardware performances, pushing the market forward. Virtual Reality will start as a niche, but it will very soon become a new entertainment media standard for many thing other that video games.”

It’s clear that creators believe VR to be – if not instrumental – then additive to the game medium, but it’s entirely understandable why scepticism comes from the players themselves. Oculus Rift is not a commercial product yet, and for those lucky enough to have tried the device or some equivalent at consumer expos or trade shows, one small demo isn’t enough to give a fair view of the technology’s long-tail prospects.

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