VR may be stalling as a consumer toy, but it’s too much fun to write off yet
People believe if they don a VR helmet they’ll start throwing up like the girl from The Exorcist
There are few things that are more sad than yesterday’s next big thing, and tech has a million of them. There are gadget remnants that are like the Abba of tech, once massive, now seen as a slightly camp joke. VHS, cassette tapes, Palm Pilots.
Then there are the things that seemed like they could be huge, but then, down the line, you could see why they weren’t. The Jamie T, Example and Flock of Seagulls of tech, if you will: the Wii U, MiniDisc, cloud gaming…
And then there’s stuff that is like the comedy entrant on X Factor. The Wagner or Honey G of tech. We all know it’s essentially crap, but it’s diverting, and we’ll go along with it for a while, because we know it will soon vanish down the dumper. Like Google Glass, CD-ROM, Bluetooth earpieces, and most things that are crowdfunded.
Where does VR fit into this tech-pop analogy pantheon, though?
Well, which is it?!
Although home VR can’t be said to have belly-flopped entirely, it’s hard to make a case for it as a runaway success.
Of course, professional uses for VR will likely continue to thrive, in everything from marketing to film-making (creating virtual sets rather than making VR movies, though) to medicine to estate agency.
Mobile VR will probably continue to chug along nicely as well, but comparing that to a headset like Oculus Rift, HTC Vive or PSVR is like comparing a Kia to a Land Rover. Yes, they both do the same thing, but to such differing standards of feel and performance that in fact they’re almost completely differing experiences.
VR, of course, has already failed once. As a slightly more ‘mature’ observer of the tech scene, it was quite weird for me seeing Oculus Rift et al being talked up as something new. I mean, haven’t people seen the smash hit movie Lawnmower Man, in which Pierce Brosnan is menaced by a man with learning difficulties, who has become a dangerous monster due to VR? That came out in 1992.
The problems VR has faced this time are much the same as the ones it failed to overcome the first time around. The headsets are bulky and expensive, quality software is in short supply and a sizeable chunk of the population really believes that if they don a VR helmet they will start throwing up like the girl in The Exorcist, and then go blind.
The new wave of VR has then added further barriers to ownership. Because the tech now allows you to walk around in virtual space, you need a lot of actual space, plus a growing number of cameras arrayed around you.
That is a sad state of affairs, as there are now, finally, some absolutely stunning VR games coming out that everyone should experience.
Lone Echo puts you in zero gravity, outside a massive space ship. You have to haul your way through the void, and it is an almost overwhelming sensory experience. Playing it for the first time, I kept feeling like I was falling over despite standing still. It delivers on VR’s promise of putting you in a world that you could never experience for real.
Less ambitious and/or nauseainducing, Killing Floor has pretty much cracked making VR work in a first-person shooter through its simplified movement controls, and by keeping the combat strictly close quarters and relentless. It’s the most fun I’ve had this year.
Resident Evil 7 is another cracker. RE is the first really big franchise to successfully leap to VR, amping up the deranged, creepy atmosphere of the game’s latest instalment to 11.
Yet, because of the expense, bulk and setup complications that are inherent to VR, none of these games are likely to get the mass audience they really deserve.
Realistically, how can a VR headset ever be anything other than bulky and spendy? The optical and processing demands will keep the price high. The screens will always have to be a certain distance from your eyes in order for us to be able to focus on them, and external stimuli have to be blocked out. So headsets can never really shrink.
So I guess we’ll have to wait for the Lawnmower Man era to pass, and the arrival of The Matrix epoch of VR. Although whether humans will ever be quite ready to jack their central nervous systems into their laptops to explore virtual worlds remains to be seen.