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…Okay, that was cool

I remain deeply skeptical about VR overall – the whole “a solution in search of a problem” situation – but… I must admit this looked pretty cool:

It’s the game Budget Cuts, and Tycho wrote some more stuff about it already. Seeing it be played in that video though, especially starting around 7:05? I can start to grok how interesting it could be, even when you’re playing alone with other people in the room. Which would still be pretty weird, especially if you’re flopping around, diving to the ground and such.

Then again, I feel weird playing regular computer games with someone else in the room already.

In any case, at least the Vive has thus far addressed my earliest concern of, you know, being able to take a drink with the headset on: Tron mode. Which is almost cool enough on its own.

VR At Any Price

The Oculus Rift will be retailing for $599. Like what.

I am not necessarily the sort of person who will say that VR, conceptually, is a fad – I’ve seen too many sci-fi movies to say otherwise. But! I also truly believe that VR is a solution in search of a problem in ways similar to that of the Kinect. VR is a part of the future, not the future.

First, there are the practical issues: the headset on your face. Do any of the models work well with glasses? I’d be surprised, considering that buying goddamn comfortable headphones that don’t grind your frames into your ears remains a struggle to this day. Even if they were comfortable, I’d still be near-blind with my peripheral vision in VR space. Can I take a drink with the headset on? Is there a transparency mode to allow me to check my phone, or look at my keyboard?

Do I really want to be standing/squatting for more than an hour anyway?

Then comes the software issues. How many first-person games are you playing right now? I’m not seeing (har har) much of a point in VR 3rd-person games, so the majority of MMOs are right out. Nevermind the fact that you’ll clearly be needing to play all these games with controllers instead of keyboards/mice. Hope you like teamspeak in your games, because that’s how you will be communicating.

“Have you even used VR before?!”

Yep. Not EVE Valkyrie or anything, but once back in the late 90s at Epcot and again last year in Japan. In the latter case, the friend I was with was blown away, but the whole time the skiing demo was playing I couldn’t help but realize that I didn’t exactly want to be standing up and gyrating my neck every which way. I am a gamer – it does not take a 360 degree virtual view to immerse me. I still get a rush of vertigo falling down large distances in Minecraft with a simple 22″ display three feet away from my face.

Like I said earlier, no doubt the technology will improve, and perhaps something like Sword Art Online/Ready Player One/Matrix/etc/etc/etc will be enough to have us all abandon meatspace gaming (and perhaps meatspace altogether). But in the scheme of things, I personally believe that something like Augmented Reality is going to be worlds more relevant to the future of gaming and life in general than VR. It has most of the advantages and none of the distinct disadvantages.

Well, I suppose we haven’t seen a price tag yet for AR.

VR is Overrated

Not really. Well… maybe. I mostly wanted to keep the title convention going.

I was discussing with a friend the other day about whether I think the Oculus Rift and VR in general is going to be the next big thing. Before I present my thoughts on the matter, let me preface with two items. First, I have not ever worn an Oculus Rift. I was an iPod and smartphone holdout through some extremely prime college years up until the moment I wasn’t, at which point I was slightly embarrassed for how needlessly I went without a piece of technology that otherwise made my life better. So, having not ever used this latest generation of VR headgear, it’s always possible that it will be wildly better (or worse) than I imagine. I did go to the Epcot Center back in the late 90s, which had some very primitive VR machines, and it went okay.

Second, Nintendo released this in 1995:

Nearly 19 years ago, folks. Nineteen years.

Nearly 19 years ago, folks. Nineteen years. [img source]

Yeah, sure, it wasn’t really VR as we know it; at most, it could probably be called a predecessor to the 3DS. Still, just file this away for now.

The answer I gave to my friend was: “Yes… eventually, in the remote future.”

I have a few issues with VR conceptually. First, what problem is it trying to solve? Maybe it doesn’t need to solve anything. Maybe it is simply another tool in increasing immersion. The issues I have with that are the non-monetary costs involved. I am talking about having to wear headgear that shuts out the outside world. For the moment, I will assume that it’s weight is negligible, that it will be comfortable for long play sessions even for those who wear glasses (such as myself), that there will be no issues with fogging up glasses, and so on. But… does the Oculus not preclude the use of keyboards? Perhaps the most obvious usage of VR would be in MMOs, but I’m not entirely convinced that going into 100% proximity voice or Vent/etc channels to interact is a step the community is willing to make. To say nothing about the more mundane concerns like, I dunno, reaching for your drink.

Second, what is it really adding to the gameplay experience? There have been a lot of FPS demos out there heralding the ability to glance side-to-side, or even full-scale treadmill-esque setups that would simulate you actually running around. That sort of thing makes for some comical Youtube videos, but in practice? I’m not convinced that limiting my PlanetSide 2 abilities to my physical endurance is a positive outside of exercise scenarios. And what real good is peripheral vision in an FPS when I would still be required to turn my character (with a controller!) in that direction to shoot the enemy?

One thing I was actually looking forward to was the ability to essentially never have to purchase a TV again. “Is a 40″ TV big enough for my apartment, or should I upgrade to 50″?” I’m already at the point where I believe that I would be better off with a projector, but what amounts to an infinite-screen TV is very tempting. At least it was, up until the moment I realized that VR is an extremely personal experience. If you have someone over, you both can’t share the same headset, so that “frugal” TV-replacement purchase suddenly balloons up with another Oculus purchase or Oculus + the TV you were going to buy anyway. Plus, you have the same issues as with the computer (e.g. find your drink) with an added bonus of precluding things like mid-movie make-outs… at least not without taking off the headgear.

Don’t get me wrong though, VR definitely has some potential. As the maker of Omni (the treadmill thing) mentioned, it can/will be used to train military units, it could help in physical therapy, I can see it being utilized for “traveling,” seeing museums, national parks, house shopping, etc, etc, etc. I’m not entirely sure what Facebook will be using it for, but maybe they think (VR) chatrooms will make a comeback. But for right now? I don’t know what I was use it for. I feel the exact same way about augmented reality tech like Google Glass as well – other than the fantastic advertising opportunities, what use would it have? Each time I’ve read a Zubon post about Ingress, I become further convinced that I am at risk of slipping into “old man” territory, railing against the incomprehensible “Nintendos” of the younger generation.

So… yeah. VR is probably the future, at some point. Not sure if it’ll ever be my future though.

Lowercase Rift

The news of the week is Facebook buying out the Oculus Rift, which is perhaps the least impressive technology to see other people use. I’ll be honest: I poured out a sip of bourbon in memoriam to independent development and the noble goal that was Kickstarter, which increasingly seems to be an nightmare engine fueled by hubris and wanton optimism.

Actually, none of that last sentence is true. Well, other than the Kickstarter bit.

I did release a heavy sigh at the news, but in the scheme of things it might not be so bad. There are a couple ways of looking at it. For example, this penultimate paragraph from Penny Arcade represents a rather inspiring take:

Before yesterday, The Oculus Rift was technofetish gear.  It ceased to be so in an instant.  If you want to know how you get to the future described in books, any of the futures, it happens when technology has broad social meaning.  I’m not going to tell you it’s not fucking weird.  I’m as surprised as anybody.  I don’t like the idea of a fully three dimensional banner ad anymore than you do.  But do you want to live in a society where telepresence and virtual reality are…  normalized?  This is how that happens.  I used the shitty, old Rift, and I thought I was underwater.  Think of every corner they had to cut because they were trying to make this thing in the finite realm of men.  Now imagine the corners restored, and the corner cutting machine in ruins.

Perhaps you’re not an optimist. In which case, actually consider the alternate realities:

> Just promise me there will be no specific Facebook tech tie-ins.

I promise.

Why would we want to sell to someone like MS or Apple? So they can tear the company apart and use the pieces to build out their own vision of virtual reality, one that fits whatever current strategy they have? Not a chance.

Now, as the scathing Reddit posts below that point out, had Microsoft bought out the Rift he could have just swapped the names around: “Sell to someone like Facebook or Apple?” It really seems to be no difference… except for two things. One, I don’t want Microsoft or Apple to have sole control over the Rift. Apple’s version would likely not be PC compatible and Microsoft would likely bundle it into every Xbtwo purchase. It might “just” be a monitor on your face (the size of a small book) right now, but shit man, it’s 2014 and I still can’t take screenshots of PS3 games without hundred-dollar hardware to trick the DRM or whatever. And two? Sony has VR, Google has pseudo-VR, and now even goddamn Facebook has VR. It’s only a matter of time before the ghost of Steve Jobs releases the iEyes and whoever is running Microsoft releases a more expensive, lower resolution version that requires a constant internet connection.

Competition, people – it’s a good thing.

Having said all that, I don’t really have a dog in this fight. In fact, I barely care about VR at all. Don’t get me wrong, it’s cool conceptually. The frugal side of my nature is excited at the prospect of basically one $300 headset replacing all the monitors and TVs in my house. But that’s when pesky reality starts popping up. I already wear glasses and it’s hard enough finding earphones I can comfortably wear for more than an hour.

But the VR problems are deeper and more systemic to me, in much the same way as console MMOs. For example, can you see the keyboard with these goggles on? Some people can type without looking, but essentially pulling yourself out of whatever just to remember where the ‘B’ key is will be annoying. Controllers don’t really get around this issue, especially considering how much more limiting the lack of buttons will be (imagine trying to play WoW with an Xbox controller). Then I wonder: do I really want to be craning my neck around for 2+ hours? And to what end? Unless you go full nerd, the practical application will be the equivalent of the Lean key in most games; you are still aiming with your mouse/gamepad, not your face.

I’m sure the immersion is all there and maybe that’s enough. From where I’m sitting though, all I’m hearing is “touchscreen monitor,” like I want to be playing games in (more literal) zombie posture all day. No thanks. For me, the Oculus and other headsets are basically conceptual means of being able to play games fully reclined on a Lay-Z Boy or laying down. Actually, nevermind, no access to keyboard/mouse that way. So, err… yeah.