BY SAMUEL GUGLIELMO
One of the most important aspects of video games is immersion, feeling like you’re actually part of the experience. This can be done with good worldbuilding, graphics, or storytelling. One new method is putting you in the experience: virtual reality. Will this be a huge change to the landscape of gaming, or is this idea dead on arrival?
The first sign of virtual reality came from Stanley G. Weinbaum in his 1935 science-fiction short story “Pygmalion’s Spectacles”. Despite being written in the 1930s, it would provide a surprisingly accurate insight into the future of virtual reality tech. In the 1950s Morton Heilig wrote about how he wanted to make an “experience theatre” where one could use all their senses to experience a movie. By the 1960s Heilig built five Sensoramas, which were big devices that would play a short film while someone sat with their head inside the device. It had stereo sound, stereoscopic 3D, and would expel aromas and blow air at points throughout the films. While an impressive device, Heilig was never able to get funding to build more of them.
The first true VR came in 1968 with a device that was named “The Sword of Damocles” due to its rather frightening appearance. Created by scientists Ivan Sutherland and Bob Sproull, this head mounted device provided a simple wire-frame room with a cube in it for a user to explore, though it was restricted in use as the device was so heavy it had to be mounted to the ceiling. While an interesting proof of concept, it was challenging to do much with it.
During the 1980s and 1990s the first video game companies started to get involved. Atari started a section of their company specifically for VR, but they had to close it down shortly after due to the North American video game crash. Both Sega and Nintendo attempted their own versions of VR. Sega’s version, called Sega VR, never left Japanese arcades. Nintendo released their Virtual Boy console, advertised as a handheld portable VR device. The Virtual Boy was Nintendo’s biggest failure, aborted due to its large clunky size, high price, lack of good games, and the fact that it could only display one color: red.
Nintendo’s total failure scared people away from VR for a while, though the past few years have seen a reemergence in development. In 2010 Palmer Luckey’s company, Oculus VR, developed the first Oculus Rift, an attempt to bring back VR and make it a mainstream concept. It led to the current VR race: the aforementioned Oculus Rift, Valve and HTC’s collaborative attempt called the HTC Vive, and Sony’s PlayStation VR. Each company has their own strategies to make their project succeed and stand out from the crowd.
Oculus, which ran a successful Kickstarter campaign that landed them almost $2.5 million, was acquired by Facebook in 2014. Their strategy seems to be giving financial assistance to developers in return for platform exclusivity. Oculus helps fund the game, then the game only works with the Oculus Rift and only appears in their store. This is giving smaller developers the money they need to make a VR compatible game, but some people feel like this approach is going to split the userbase of VR unnecessarily. There is also some controversy about the price: after Luckey insisted that the Oculus Rift should cost between $350 and $450, a lot of people were blindsided when they announced it would actually be $599. The price is made less extreme when considering the pre-orders will come with an Xbox One Controller and two games: “Lucky’s Tale” and “EVE: Valkyrie”.
With Valve and HTC’s endeavor, the HTC Vive will track someone’s movements, allowing them to walk inside of a small boxed area. This provides a new angle to VR that the other two can’t offer, and the games that work with it will likely find interesting ways to make this work. This requires users to have a much bigger area available to use than the other two and will likely limit use of this feature to enthusiasts. The HTC Vive will also cost $799, much more than the Oculus Rift, but it comes with the games “Job Simulator”, “Fantastic Contraptions” and “Tilt Brush” along with a pair of controllers to make up for that cost.
Finally is Sony, who has one big advantage with the PlayStation VR. Unlike the other two it works with a PlayStation 4, which allows a more casual audience to access VR. The worry is that PlayStation VR will not be able to achieve the levels of graphic fidelity that the other two will, as a PlayStation 4 is just simply not as powerful as a high end PC. On the other hand, Sony has many development studios that can develop games around this, and they have games like “RIGS”, “Gran Turismo Sport”, and “The Modern Zombie Taxi Co.” in the works already. PlayStation VR is also the cheapest of the three, at $399. You do also need a PlayStation Camera to use it, which runs for about $40 on Amazon, but $440 is still $160 cheaper than the next option. There’s also a version that costs $499 and comes bundled with the camera, two PlayStation Move controllers, and the game “PlayStation VR Worlds,” a collection of five smaller games.
But will this be the next big sweeping change in video games? Most likely not, at least at first. While all three headsets have the potential to be big, at the current time the cost is a bit too high for a casual consumer. It’ll likely take years for the VR Headsets to drop enough in price for someone to impulse buy them, and also for the casual user’s computes to be powerful enough to use them (Oculus put out a recommended minimum build that could cost almost $1,000). Yet in a few years, as long as there are enough sales to keep them around long enough, VR should have a healthy niche group and plenty of games supporting it.