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Virtual Reality Is Still Not Ready for Prime Time

The true believers say virtual reality will change computing forever. But there's still reason to be wary of the hype.

Courtesy Jessica Ward

From the moment I stepped foot inside the Los Angeles Convention Center for last week’s gaming trade show, E3, I was determined to get through as many virtual reality demos as humanly possible without vomiting. Some of them were even pretty good!

But 24 demos later, I am reminded of an episode of “The Simpsons” from 1993. In “Marge vs. the Monorail,” Lisa imagines what her hometown of Springfield can do with an unexpected windfall of $3 million.

“Children, it’s time for your history lesson,” Lisa’s teacher says in a dream sequence. “Put on your virtual reality helmets.”

“Hello, Lisa!” Genghis Khan says when Lisa dons her helmet. “I’m Genghis Khan. You’ll go where I go, defile what I defile, eat who I eat! Mm?”

I mention this gag not just because it’s from the best episode of “The Simpsons” ever — which it is — but also because the absurdity of the premise remains relevant today, 22 years later. Virtual reality evangelists are still promising a glorious future where VR brings as dramatic and important changes to our lives as the mobile phone. Some of their prognostications may yet prove true. But just as then, there’s reason to be wary of the hype around the latest swing at immersive technology.

Where’s the Beef?

Many things have changed since the belly flop of consumer VR devices in the ’90s, such as the Virtual Boy. The technology needed to deliver a compelling VR experience has gotten dramatically cheaper and better. And the mobile revolution has made computing more social and personal than ever, both things that VR’s true believers want to tap into and accelerate.

“The problem before (in the ’90s) is that the hardware and graphics weren’t good enough to support what we all dreamed it could do,” said David Votypka, the senior creative director at Ubisoft-owned Red Storm Entertainment. “And now, when you see somebody put on a headset, they’re just like, ‘Wow!’ That sense of presence is being achieved. That’s step one.”

Step two — getting beyond that initial “wow” — won’t be as easy. While there were several cool VR demos at the show last week, most of them were just that: Fancy displays of what the technology can do and little more.

“We can immerse the players, and now the question is, what are we going to do with that?” Votypka asked. “The way we answer that determines whether VR becomes its own growing, breathing, living gaming sector, or whether it’ll just be a cool way to play games we already know.”

Maybe entirely new game genres will be invented. Maybe Facebook-owned Oculus VR will get its way and finally bring to life the “metaverse,” the virtual world parallel to our own dreamed up by the science fiction writer Neal Stephenson in 1992. Maybe we will never watch a movie the same way again.

But in order to get to any of these things, virtual reality needs to start somewhere more modest. And right now, it’s going to be reliant on a small but passionate audience to spread the gospel and figure out what works.

Now You’re Playing With Power

While the price of computing horsepower has come down dramatically, the processing demands of VR will keep it out of reach for most consumers for now. That makes video game players and developers obvious initial candidates of VR. Oculus co-founder Palmer Luckey said that only game developers have the technological savvy at present to create believable 3-D virtual worlds, even though the dream is that one day VR will be open to far more than just games.

“You just don’t have the horsepower to make it happen on a device, much less a cheap enough and comfortable enough device that a normal consumer is going to want to have,” Luckey said. “It’s not going to reach hundreds of millions of people in the next three years.”

An optimistic target for the high-end virtual reality market might be 10 million headsets in 2016, which is what Augmented World Expo CEO Ori Inbar recently ventured for sales of VR and AR glasses to “early adopters.” On the VR side, those early adopters are largely PC gamers who have historically been shown to have the inclination and disposable income to shell out for whatever new hardware makes their gaming experience that much more immersive.

But even courting these power users, which Facebook will be doing with the Oculus Rift and HTC will be doing with its Vive, will be tough. Millions of current machines that are considered “gaming PCs” today won’t be good enough to meet Oculus’ minimum specs for the Rift.

The PC crowd will adopt better hardware, sure, and their input will push the technology forward, in time. And if the recent history of PC gaming is any indication, they’ll do it again and again. But if the goal is to reach more than just an early adopter niche, companies and developers need to be thinking about when and how to make VR accessible to people who are content with their iPads and won’t want to plunk down the cash for an old-fashioned desktop.

The people who make the guts of those desktops, however, could win big.

The real short-term beneficiaries of making VR better and more demanding will be GPU manufacturers like AMD and Nvidia. Properly marketed VR may convince a substantial number of power users to upgrade their hardware; AMD CEO Lisa Su said she sees virtual reality as the “largest growth driver” in PC gaming.

“That’s not necessarily this quarter or next quarter, but that’s the next two, three, four, five years, where you can see tremendous need for that graphics horsepower,” Su said. “And when you think about the frame rates and the resolution you want in each eye, it’s really just the beginning.”

Su added that AMD plans to work with vendors to offer “VR-ready” PCs.

But unless the content is so amazing as to create an entirely new segment of consumers who never would have bought a gaming PC, which seems unlikely at present, that’s not a long-term path to mainstream success.

Who’s the Nerd in the Goggles?

The strongest player in high-end VR out of the gate may be Sony. Its Project Morpheus headset connects to the more than 20 million PlayStation 4s already in the market. If Sony can line up the right software deals and get the hardware out on time, in the first half of 2016, that could be a huge advantage.

Judging by the company’s terse presentation of Morpheus at E3, however, it is already facing its first big challenge. “The marketing issue is that image of the person with the goggles on, and everyone sitting around him that doesn’t have goggles on,” Ubisoft SVP of sales and marketing Tony Key said. “It’s an image we should never use to sell VR.”

It seems that riffing off the idea of “alienation” may not be the best idea for selling something that looks completely alien.

Other game industry executives I spoke with at E3 had some more advice for Sony:

  1. Cut the hardware cost to the bone, even if it means losing money on unit sales, which is what Microsoft and Sony already do with their Xbox and PlayStation consoles.
  2. Offer those users a complete experience that requires a minimum of fiddling to go from “off” to “playing a VR game.” Adoption will be driven by word of mouth, but if starting up looks burdensome, then that will deter several casual consumers.
  3. Don’t encourage “ported over” games that have already appeared on non-VR platforms. VR companies will have to convince users that they’re getting something new, which is harder to do if the game marketing looks pretty much the same.

Votypka and Key strongly agreed on that last point, saying they expect Ubisoft and other developers to discover entirely new game genres and other software categories, over time.

“We’ll always have that early-adopter market that’s going to come in and try everything,” Key said. “But the cool things about VR, which nobody knows yet, will start to show themselves. When one or two of these genres takes on a life of its own, it’ll be like a freight train for the industry, plowing toward, ‘We figured something out! Boom!’”

What About the Rest of Us?

While gamers await the “boom” to come in game design, most people will likely get their first taste of VR from their phones.

As is traditional, mobile gaming was largely absent from E3. But the Samsung Gear VR (co-developed with Oculus), is set for an official consumer launch later this year, and Google has already thrown its hat into the ring with Google Cardboard, encouraging the creation of VR software for Android and iOS that can run on a smartphone in a low-cost holder.

Some VR developers and enthusiasts fear, however, that a cheaper but imperfect introduction to VR will deter potential users. Someone who gets nauseated playing a VR application on an underpowered smartphone in a Cardboard holder will likely be turned off entirely.

“In order for people to like VR, they have to have a good experience, and Google Cardboard … it’s hard to ensure that if they buy our game, they’ll have a good one,” said Minority Media creative director Vander Caballero.

The Gear VR, at least, is more tightly controlled, since it only works with a handful of high-end Samsung phones. And whether developers like it or not, Cardboard and Gear are all but certain to be most people’s first encounters with virtual reality. A $25 cardboard phone holder is a lot easier to buy and pass around than a Morpheus, which is expected to cost “several hundred dollars,” or an Oculus Rift, the first generation of which will require a minimum $1,500 investment for anyone who doesn’t already have a powerful gaming PC.

Luckey went so far as to compare today’s early VR devices to Palm Pilots and Treos, two pioneer products that are likely unknown to today’s younger smartphone owners.

“The iPhone moment is going to take longer, and it’s probably not going to be such a huge, radical jump, it’s going to be more gradual,” Oculus’s Luckey said. “The Rift is not ‘the iPhone of VR.’ Nothing out there is ‘the iPhone of VR.'”

He’s right about that, and Oculus has time on the clock — the day Facebook announced its acquisition of the company, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said “it might take five to 10 years.” But if virtual reality is ever to expand beyond a group of nerds with high disposable incomes, an iPhone of VR will need to happen. Until we can have a high-quality experience at a reasonable price with a minimum of fuss and distinctive, compelling software, well… here’s that “Simpsons” video:

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