Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

What is slowing Virtual Reality?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 3, 2022

I’ve been playing around in Virtual Reality for several years now, and it’s not gotten old for me yet. I’m a little too busy to call myself a hardcore player, but I have fun slicing up blocks with lightsabers, exploring truly immersive dungeons, and flying in my F-16. All good stuff. At this point, in spite of the major speed bump caused by the pandemic, just about everyone interested in it has at least tried it out, so the mind-blowing first-time experience has given way to the realities of the medium.

Virtual Reality is still in its adolescent phase, and unfortunately it has hit that stage right in the middle of multiple (related) global crises, with the pandemic, supply chain problems, and the U.S. economy getting clobbered. All of these are pretty much hampering all innovation and industry right now, and probably will for the next couple of years, which means I’m not expecting any major breakthroughs in the next couple of years. Still, there are new product being announced, and a refinement and some serious incremental refinements coming every year. We still have companies throwing a lot of money at the marketing and “infrastructure” of VR, too, so there are plenty of interesting things happening.

So when will we hit the widespread adoption and wildly optimistic predictions of analysts gave us back in 2015? Probably not for a while, but the numbers do indicate that we are slow-burning our way there… or at least to decent, healthy growth levels. It’s a little trite, but the industry was expecting the next iPhone and instead got one of the first “brick” 1980s-era mobile phone. A lot has progressed, but we still have some of the same problems that we had in 2015 preventing widespread adoption of Virtual Reality. All of them are being addressed, some better than others.

Cost

This is the easy one, but not as big a barrier as some suggest. With the Quest 2 being sold for less than the price of a console, cost isn’t universally a prohibiting factor. Of course, the Quest 2 comes with some strings attached, but the low cost of entry and its reduced friction (more on that in a bit) are primary reasons that it is dominating the VR space. I think part of the problem with cost is that the tech is changing so rapidly there’s a perception that jumping on as an early adopter means you’ll have to spend that same amount every 2-3 years to keep up. And… well, yeah, that’s kind of a problem still. The tech isn’t mature, and it is daunting to fork over $1000+ for a top-tier experience that you fear will be obsolete in two years.

Whatever the case, I think cost remains a factor, but not a very large one. It’s relatively affordable, but still a little pricey for those unsure of whether or not they’ll really use it.

Quality

Visual quality has increased substantially since the early days of the Oculus Rift and original Vive. You generally pay for the highest quality, of course, but the visual quality of gaming on the Quest 2 is still mostly better than you would have seen on the original Rift running on GTX 970. The lenses are better. The “screen door effect” is almost a thing of the past. New Micro-OLED displays are coming in some of the next crop of headsets. Many headsets are designed to go well above 90 frames per second. Video cards and processing is much better than before. We’re now talking about remote-streaming content from cloud-based visual processors in VR. We’re now arguing over how close we can get to human-eye resolution, and how soon.

In other areas, like hardware form-factor and quality of controls, things are moving more slowly, but things are still pretty good, from controller form-factor to headset comfort. I think from a quality standpoint, we’re there. There’s plenty of room for improvement, but we’re not where we were six years ago where people were barfing over cardboard headsets with awful smartphone-based displays.

There are always going to be people for whom VR will never be “good enough,” but  at this point they are either outliers, or they are limited by cost.

Friction

Here’s a big one. Friction – how much effort it takes to jump into VR. Even for the Quest 2, you must make sure your headset and controls are fully charged, make sure you play-space is cleared of obstacles, redraw your play-space if you aren’t staying in exactly the same area you used it last time, and deal with some occasional glitches like controllers not tracking completely right. For PC-based VR, it can be even worse, with additional concerns for cables or wireless battery considerations, outside base stations (no longer universal, but still necessary for many systems and for the best-quality tracking), running the proper VR software, control mapping, different feature sets (with body-tracking or hand-tracking devices, eye-tracking, even facial expression tracking), and the usual headaches that PC gamers are all too familiar with. These can be good problems to have, but they do add friction.

In other words, there’s a lot you have to go through in order to play a VR game — to the point where it can dissuade someone from playing. It’s a easier just to pull a phone out of your pocket and play something there. For VR enthusiasts, we have things set up in advance well enough and have trained ourselves so that it’s not a big deal. But that is not the mindset of the average user. Even console gaming these days has more friction than some people want to deal with.

Meta (Facebook) and HTC have made efforts to reduce that friction and make it more convenient to enter VR. HTC recently released the Vive Flow, easily portable goggles-like devices intended to be the most convenient and mobile VR on the market. I’ve taken my Quest 2 with me on trips so I always have access to VR. The endgame solution for this might be something even more lightweight than the Flow, with magical hand-tracking built-in. I don’t think we’re ever going to get as convenient as the smartphone, or Sword Art Online: Ordinal Scale’s “Augma” device, but that would be the dream. Any other areas where we can simplify the process and make it more robust will be welcome. If we can just get VR to the point where it is no more complicated than playing a console game, then I think we’ll be in good shape. I think we’re close.

Comfort / Locomotion

It hasn’t gone away, although it remains more of a problem for newer VR users. Games catering to players who have gained their “VR legs” are increasingly common. However, VR developers have learned many tricks to minimize it, and higher quality VR has helped in this respect. Locomotion is one of the key problems here, and none of the solutions thus far have proven to be a clear winner. I’m glad to see companies continuing to invest money into solving it, however.

Vulnerability / Safety

Here’s a tougher one. Immersion is the goal, but it comes with its own pitfalls. Going into VR can be a little like those stories of astral projection. You go into a new world and leave your body behind. Or, to bring it back down to earth, it’s like going to sleep. Even in Augmented Reality, you can lose a lot of the perception of what is happening in the real world. This was even an element of one of the middle story arcs for Sword Art Online… where the killers would sneak into the home of VR players known to live alone, and murder them while they were “plugged in.”

Losing contact with the “real world” can be an issue. It can make people feel vulnerable, or at least uncomfortable. It can be dangerous, particularly if other people or animals might invade the space. And sometimes, people just don’t want to look stupid playing VR.

I don’t think this problem will ever go away completely. After all, the whole point of VR is to hijacking your senses to provide an illusionary reality (or to mix illusions into the real world, in the case of AR). VR devices with better safety measures and video passthrough can help here, but otherwise it really comes down to people getting used to it and taking measures to ensure that their play area is safe.

And, well, I think we’re always gonna look stupid reacting to things that aren’t there.

The Killer App

A lot of people are waiting for the “killer app” for VR – the one application that makes owning VR a necessity for everybody.

I’m a little afraid of this concept. There are a lot of people spending a lot of money to do just this… and they want to make sure that they own you when you use it. Your every move, delayed glance, idle bit of chatter with your friend, point of focus can be (and generally will be) monitored, recorded, parsed, analyzed, and sold to someone else. Kinda like using certain social media sites now, right?

I don’t know if there was ever a “killer app” for smart phones, or for personal computers, or for anything else. Maybe there was, and it is largely forgotten today, like WordPerfect or something. Ultimately, there was just enough of what people wanted that it no longer made sense not to have one.

Are we there yet in VR? Not quite. We’ve got some pretty awesome, fun games, and titles like Beat Saber have sold a lot of headsets. I think social interaction potential is a bigger deal in VR, though. Hanging out with friends in a virtual space that feels real to many parts of your brains is a bigger draw in my opinion. Games can be a part of this, naturally, especially if they are more focused on cooperative gameplay and allow plenty of space and tools for social interaction.

Anything Else?

As I said, all of these issues have been and are continuing to be addressed. I don’t know if any of them will ever be entirely “fixed,” but most of them have been improved considerably since VR first hit the consumer market a few years ago. For all my concerns about the company behind it, I have to agree that the Quest 2 has really pushed the envelope and made it much easier for people to enjoy VR, and it shows in their sales numbers. Many other companies are following suit.

I’m still excited to be able to play and work in this space. I think we’re barely scraping the surface of the potential for Virtual Reality, and especially for Augmented Reality. I look forward to see what happens as it continues to grow.


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