I just spent a week at the Game Developer's Conference (GDC) and was amazed by the technologies on display. Updated gaming engines (from Unity and Unreal), new consoles (from Nvidia), and a lot of Microsoft/Xbox. Games have never looked more realistic and lifelike. But if there was one thing that stuck out, it was the VR headsets. Although Oculus Rift was the first to bring its to market, others have quickly followed suit. Valve now has their own headset (manufactured by HTC), Sony has their version, Samsung is showing off one, and Microsoft's is in the works. And of course, we can't count out Google with their developer-friendly "cardboard" project. There's no doubt that the buzz and hype is at an all time high around virtual reality. Of course, this isn't the first time we've seen this. Thanks to Nintendo and others, the technology made waves back in the 90s but never really caught on with consumers.
But it looks like we might repeat the mistakes of the past with respect to virtual reality. The issue, at least according to Adi Robertson at the Verge, is that we are hyping VR right now at it's most rudimentary state. Although the technology seems promising, a lack of controllers and content to make it truly immersive (according to Adi, Oculus has removed all interactivity from their demos) prevent the technology from taking off. A standard game controller plus a VR headset does not an immersive experience make. Players want to hold weapons and engage with the virtual environment just as they would in the physical world. Just being able to see in 3-D and not feel like you are a part of it is just virtual, not reality. Think about it. Even with a headset on, how do you capture body movement? When I play a first-person shooter, I am jumping and leaping around, crouching down, and doing all sorts of total body movements with the character. A 3-D headset with a single controller (even if it is integrated with a weapon of some kind) can't translate that gaming experience to physical gameplay. To be immersive, virtual reality needs to enable the same game experience I would have if I wasn't playing it through a VR-headset. Will that require a specialized suit and a bevy of cameras to track body motion and translate them into the game (this was on display at GDC)? Or is the ideal solution already in our living rooms with Microsoft Xbox Kinect? Could that technology, combined with the Hololens, for example, provide the body-movement tracking to physically put us into the game?
Ultimately, that is the biggest issue. There is no synchronicity between all of the technologies needed to enable a truly immersive virtual reality experience. VR headsets are only one element. Controllers, full-body mechanics, and content are also critical. But these three elements aren't coming together quickly enough to meet the hype. Despite the proliferation of VR headsets at GDC, I think it's obvious that we are at a very, very early stage of virtual reality in gaming. At this point, the technology is nothing short of a novelty with no clear path of really applying it to the game experience.
The promise of virtual reality for gaming is there but the execution is probably a decade away. No, VR is not the next wave of gaming. It's more like a very long-term evolution.