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How Virtual and Augmented Reality Will (Probably) Change Gaming

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Virtual reality was always going to be fighting an uphill battle. It was, on the face of it, a smart move to use the power of existing hardware to run the first crop of viable headsets, but it also runs into an issue that has plagued nearly every optional gaming peripheral ever: Will there be a user base? Why would a developer target an ultra-niche group of people who bought the extra thing when it could maximize its audience by releasing a game that works for everyone? And if it wanted to make a game that works for both, what compromises will be made to either experience?

But, without the content, why would anyone buy the thing in the first place? It’s a conundrum that has killed any number of potentially fascinating peripherals and it was, perhaps, the biggest question that surrounded the launches of the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR. While sales numbers of the PC-based hardware haven’t set the world ablaze, new reports show that Sony has sold more than 915,000 PlayStation VR units (which is crazy).

Sony PlayStation VR Headset

While virtual reality is defined by its ability to take you to an entirely different world, augmented reality (now more commonly referred to as “mixed” reality) augments the one in which you’re living. With Microsoft’s Hololens, a self-contained computer rather than one powered by a separate device, you can watch an actual wall deform in real time and begin to spew out spiders. And as you walk around, that hole in the wall stays locked in. It is, as far as your brain is concerned, there.

Microsoft Hololens

On the phone side, Google has incorporated VR into the latest version of its obscenely popular Android operating system and released its first “Daydream” headset and accompanying one-handed controller. Phones like the Axon 7 and Moto Z have support built in. Samsung continues to do its own thing with the Gear VR, the latest iteration of which includes a similar controller, meaning you won’t need to keep tapping the side of your head every time you want to interact with what you’re seeing. Other headsets, like the Zeiss VR One and Spieltek VR-M2, may not have the same technical capabilities, but have much broader compatibility.

Zeiss VR One Plus Virtual Reality Smartphone Headset

Let’s Talk About Interaction

I think all of us can agree that being “transported” to a new world is objectively cool, but it’s only one part of the equation. Depending on how you think about it, it may be the less important part. What is truly crucial to any kind of not-actual-reality experience is the way in which you can interact with what you’re seeing.

This was arguably Oculus’s biggest mistake when the company launched the Rift, last March. The headset itself is well made, pleasantly balanced; it’s not a terrible thing to have on your head for extended periods of time. But, in the box was just an Xbox One controller. Look, I like the Xbox One controller quite a bit, and some games work better with a controller. You don’t always need to reach out and touch things.

Oculus Rift Accessories

But not even having the option? Nah, man. While Sony was able to utilize the Move controllers, first released in 2010, the other two started from scratch; only the Vive was able to answer the call by launch day. The Vive released with a pair of bulky controllers—one for each hand—that would be tracked independently in much the same way that the headset was. The Rift, like the PlayStation VR, is tracked by a camera that sees the lights embedded into the headset. In the case of PSVR, they’re real lights, meaning the headset shines bright blue when it’s in use. On the Rift, they’re infrared, and the camera has a filter that makes it much more sensitive to IR light.

Vive Controller

The Vive does something different. Rather than use a camera, it comes with two IR-emitting base stations, which are placed at opposite corners of your space. The headset and its controllers do not have IR LEDs—rather, many IR LED photo sensors. The base stations flash LEDs and send out laser beams in a sweeping motion. The headset tracks the location and movement of the lasers and light to calculate its own location. This technology, referred to as “Lighthouse,” is pretty much genius, and it gives a wide variety of tracking options that the other systems can’t match. To improve its room-scale tracking, the Oculus Rift allowed for multi-camera support, but it requires three cameras for a similar experience to the Vive’s two sensors, and it can’t track as many simultaneous items as Lighthouse.

Vive Base Station

No, but Let’s Really Talk About Interaction

Oculus not only caught up with the interactivity at the end of 2016; it leapfrogged its competition. Oculus’s Touch Controllers are more comfortable and functional than the competition. The crucial difference? The ability to track your fingers... sort of. It’s more of an “On/Off” kind of thing, rather than real finger tracking, but it does add an extra level to the feeling of Presence that these companies are trying to capture.

Oculus' Touch Controllers

All three of these control systems work to make “VR” feel a bit more “R,” giving you the ability to reach out and touch the world. You can pick up a coffee pot or cut off a statue’s arm. You can pick up a gun and aim it independently of where you’re looking. Depending on the game, maybe you can pick up two guns and do that. These actions feel, honestly, kind of amazing, and all three of the headsets’ controllers allow you to do them, though you’ll need some clear some space to take advantage. This opens a mind-boggling number of options for content creators, and it’s the most exciting thing about VR, in general.

The little controllers for the smartphone solutions aren’t even sort of on the same level. They have touch-pad and button accelerometers, so there’s some basic control, even motion control... but it’s not much. Something is better than nothing, but to really make something of this sort viable in a portable form factor, you’ll need something that can track itself without the use of external sensors. Which brings us to the Hololens.

Microsoft’s vision of the future is not Virtual Reality but Augmented—or, perhaps, Mixed—reality. Instead of covering your face with a screen that blocks your vision, you have full view of the world around you. But it’s a better kind of world. Perhaps on one wall you’ve docked an enormous television screen; maybe you have a Minecraft world sitting over on your coffee table. These things aren’t really “there,” of course, but you can see them if you’re looking at them, and they persist even if you don’t. Walk over to the other side of the room, and they will be right where you left them. And they do look real to you. They block out the wall and the table. You can interact with them. They seem like they are real, physical things.

Plus, the whole thing is self-contained, with all of the computational power and sensors embedded to make the experience functional. Currently, the field of view is rather limited, giving the slightly bizarre effect of looking through an augmented window in the center of your vision, but that’s the sort of thing that will improve over time. Its impact on games is, for the moment, less significant than it will be on other industries, but the idea of looking at your wall, having it cave in and seeing monsters come out for you to shoot is pretty awesome, and one that will ultimately cause a massive shift in the way digital experiences are designed.

The Very Expensive Elephant in the Room

The biggest impediment to mass adoption of VR, by consumers and creators, is cost. The PlayStation VR wins here handily, with a lower headset cost and lower system cost. If you have a PlayStation 4 or PlayStation 4 Pro, you can use a PlayStation VR. You won’t have to fiddle with complex settings or worry about compatibility issues; it’s just going to work.

On the PC, there’s less of a guarantee. While the system requirements are not unreasonable and prices continue to come down, a VR-capable desktop is going to cost, at minimum, about the same as a PS4 Pro and PSVR headset together. (And a VR-capable laptop is going to cost a whole lot more than that.) When you factor in the cost of the PC-based headsets, it’s not cheap. (This is likely why the combined sales of the Rift and Vive are dwarfed by the PlayStation VR’s.) The Hololens is an even pricier option. Given that it’s an ultra-high-tech, self-contained unit, that makes sense... but it’s still out of reach for most people.

These headsets are on the verge of fundamentally altering video games as we know them. As hardware improves, in terms of what powers the headsets and what’s in the headsets themselves, the experiences will become cleaner and more immersive, which will make more people want them, which will make more companies want to develop for them, which will create that beautiful cycle we’re seeking. But better hardware can only do so much if the cost of entry is too high. In the coming years, as power increases and prices drop, we will see a new industry. VR and AR aren’t going to replace everything yet, but they’re also not going to go away. Maybe it’ll take a while to see serious adoption—sales of PC units would suggest as much—but the above expectations of the success of PlayStation VR may mean the opposite.

What’s clear is that consumers are excited to see the future of interactive experiences. That’s a good thing for everybody.

1 Comments

I have the Oculus Rift and Oculus Touch, acquired a couple of weeks ago, to go with a desktop computer I bought from B&H, a CyberpowerPC equipped with the NVidia GTX-1080 video card.

I think the VR platform is a fantastic experience, and there are already a large number of programs and games for the Rift/Touch combination. With the goggles you see everything in 3D, and the field of view is so large you feel like you're there. You can move around within game environments by physically moving in front of the sensors, and there is always a 360 degree view within a scene. It feels like you're there.

One of my favorite things to do is to have a friend try the Oculus setup -- they always describe it as "incredible" or "fantastic" or say "I'm blown away" and all of them want it for themselves. 

I highly recommend it.

The price for the Oculus Rift and Oculus Touch were both reduced by Oculus only about a month ago by 25 percent. 

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