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Despite Tech Advances, Virtual Reality Is Still an Uphill Battle

Once the hype around Oculus and Morpheus subsides, the fact remains: VR comes with a lot of baggage.

I thought I knew what I was getting into when I put the headset on. I had tried the Oculus Rift at least ten times prior with no issues whatsoever. One demo-er had even told me that I had a “higher than average” tolerance to virtual reality, since an earlier prototype of the headset made many people feel nauseous.

Not me, I was assured. I felt safe.

Within five minutes, I had to tear the Rift off and cut this demo meeting short. Ultimately, I didn’t throw up, but I sure felt like it.

The reason? A game that, while technically functional in virtual reality, was not at all optimized for the Oculus Rift. The camera didn’t move the way I expected it to and rapidly cut from one angle to another. It was a wholly unpleasant experience, a stark contrast to my many other more pleasant dives into the latest wave of VR content.

Older attempts at consumer VR headsets — most notoriously in the late ’80s and early ’90s — were too expensive, their displays were too dark and blurry, and their games just didn’t click. Oculus came along at a time when virtual reality finally seemed economically and technologically feasible; the first two issues have been mostly solved.

But the now Facebook-owned company and its new Sony-backed competitor Project Morpheus carry with them a lot of that old baggage. On top of the “you look silly” factor, the nascent world of consumer-focused virtual reality risks alienating users before it can find a foothold.

Here’s the issue in a nutshell: When you play a badly designed game on a more established platform, you say “this game is bad.” If your first virtual reality game is a bad one, you say, “virtual reality is bad.” As with other tech, the hardware will sell the software, but the software is uniquely powerful enough to strip the hardware of its credibility.

“How many games are there in the App Store? It’s majority crap,” Gartner analyst Brian Blau said in an interview with Re/code, noting that better games tend to rise to the top. “Lots of developers will be coding crappy VR experiences. I’m concerned about that.”

To remedy this, Blau praised Sony’s indications that it will curate the content available for Morpheus, to filter out the crap and “onboard” users in a positive way. But when I spoke to Oculus co-founder Palmer Luckey at GDC, he was hesitant to endorse content curation or a strict review process on the Rift’s games store.

“We don’t want to act as kingmakers,” Luckey said. “And we don’t want to slight the indie developers.”

Oculus would likely only intervene to keep a game out of the store if it was technologically incompatible with VR, he said. Many of the Rift’s developers come from PC gaming, a laissez-faire and indie-friendly platform. To keep developers happy and keep a review process out of the equation, Oculus will need to find inoffensive ways to maintain a good — and less nauseating — user experience or risk alienating consumers too early on.

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