Just imagine putting on a headset and seeing a computer game not as a flat screen but a three-dimensional image right there in front of you. And when you move your head, you can look around this imaginary world just how you would in real life.
You don’t have to dream this up. It’s real. A company called eMagin released the Z800 3DVisor in 2005 for $1,000. And there were others before the Z800, like Virtuality and VPL. These companies had expensive, not quite effective virtual reality equipment.
It is easy to forget when using Oculus Rift prototypes that this is not the first attempt at creating VR for the masses. Oculus is working to build a high-quality product, to create an ecosystem of games, and to make a VR industry that will survive this time. But it may all fall apart once again. Let’s take a look at how that could happen.
While gaming may be a huge industry, reaping over $15 billion last year in the U.S. alone according to the NPD Group, it’s going to take more than that to turn VR into the world-changing technology many believe it will be. The content must go beyond games. If VR does not find uses in other industries, it will remain an enthusiast’s gaming rig.
“The most interesting industry for widespread adoption is film,” says Oculus VP of product, Nate Mitchell. “What is a VR trailer? What does a Pixar short look like in VR? That’s something we’ve been investigating. And it’s something that we are seeing a lot of people in the film industry get excited about.”
At the Oculus Connect conference, one panel featured Maleficent director Robert Stromberg, Saschka Unseld from Pixar, and John Gaeta of Lucasfilm discussing Hollywood’s interest in VR. And in demos for the latest Oculus prototype VR headset, there was a moment that could have been ripped out of Jurassic Park, with the player in a museum and a gigantic T-rex coming toward them.
“There’s a reason we picked the demos we did, part of that is to show people where we think this is going,” Mitchell tells Co.Labs. “It’s not all going to be games. It’s going to be film and storytelling, and health and education and travel. You have to show people and open their eyes for them to really get it.”
While Oculus has said that the consumer headset will only cost between $200 and $400 when it is released, using it will require a computer with some serious horsepower, which would likely cost over $1,000. But by partnering with Samsung to create the Gear VR, a more affordable unit that uses the Galaxy Note 4 cell phone for the screen and processing power, the company has fixed this problem already.
“Most of the Gear VR system is the phone, and you have to buy this anyway. And once you have this, the VR is a minor expense on top of it. As opposed to having to buy a high-end PC,” says Max Cohen, VP of Mobile at Oculus VR.
For people getting the phone already, to spend the extra $200 or so for the headset shell with its additional tracking sensors is not a ridiculous proposition. And a mobile VR unit would be easy to share, to show friends what virtual reality is like, although the graphics will be simpler. But the cell-phone market is considerably larger than that of gaming PCs.
Cohen says, “I wouldn’t say one is better than the other, they are just very different products. The overall market size will most likely be larger for mobile than PC, just based on history.”
Despite selling millions of Kinect cameras for the Xbox 360, and including an updated Kinect with its new console Xbox One at launch, Microsoft later released an Xbox One without the Kinect. This was to lower the price of the console by $100 to $399 to match Sony’s PlayStation 4, which had been outselling Xbox One about 2:1. But it was also likely because few developers were making games for the Kinect because these motion-control games do not seem to be selling–Microsoft’s recent Kinect Sports Rivals has only sold about 200,000 copies, according to VGChartz. Despite the futurism of the technology, it failed to grab the attention of players or the content makers that would provide such experiences for said audience.
The same could happen to VR. People may find the technology just a flashy, shortened version of 3-D films or television shows.
“I’m a third of the way around the world away from my family. And every night I am having a Skype call with my wife and my 18-month-old son. But with VR, we have the potential to create that experience where we feel like we are genuinely in the same place at the same time,” says Richard Smith, the technical director at CCP Games. “Everyone these days has friends or relatives that don’t live in the same city as them and would benefit from being able to have a conversation no matter where we are. I like the idea of being able to play board games with friends that aren’t able to be in the same room and get that sense that we are all together.”
CCP Games created the online multiplayer game Eve Online, as well as the VR game Eve: Valkyrie. Smith sees VR extending even further. “Messages could be more meaningful for people. How do you make that work so it doesn’t feel intrusive to people? This could be one of the last trips to a conference I have to make. No more jet lag, no more expensive airfare. We could enjoy these conferences from the comfort of our own desks at home, and yet feel like we are having that shared experience.”
Virtual reality of decades past was expensive, and did not work particularly well either. Screens were blurry, movement was erratic, and some people would get nauseous. People who remember those days may be turned off by the whole idea of VR coming back. But the enthusiasm of early adopters who may persuade them to try the Oculus Rift could win them over. Execs at Oculus promise they will not release a product that makes people uncomfortable.
“If you try something, even for a few minutes, and you came out feeling horrible, you are not going to want to do it again, you are not going to be excited to run to a store and buy it,” says Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe. “I am the most sensitive at the company. I don’t want to be shipping something I can’t use.”
Even the less advanced experience of the Gear VR feels better than the choppy games of the older VR units you could buy for the home or that were found in various arcades and amusement parks.
What if the problem extended beyond just comfort? What if it was a health issue? All those who attended the Oculus Connect conference had to sign liability forms and declare there was no health risk. Can VR be a danger to your body?
VR is so powerful because it tricks your brain into thinking it is in an actual place. If you move too quickly, you do get a bit of motion sickness. If you stand at a virtual ledge, you can feel a degree of vertigo. And if something suddenly lunges at you, your heart races.
“People want escapism, but they don’t necessarily want to be scared. I am very anti-jump scare in VR,” says Denny Unger, founder of Cloudhead Games and creator of VR game The Gallery: Six Elements.”VR has such an amazing influence on our physiology; we are very close to our first death in VR. Someone is going to push it too far and someone who has some kind of physical issue is going to die. It’s going to happen.”
It does seems inevitable that a health scare or an actual death will happen and it will spread through the media like wildfire. Such bad exposure could turn the public away from virtual reality. Oculus currently curates the section of its website where developers share the VR demos and games they are working on, not giving official exposure to software with inappropriate content. And it would not be a stretch to see Oculus include longer descriptions, like ESRB ratings, to let people know what they are getting into–labels for things like “high speed that may induce nausea” or “jump scares that may shock people.”
“If no one is doing it officially, you should just take that on yourself. Give people some kind of warning about what they are going to experience,” says Unger. “There should be some kind of rating system. I don’t think it should stymie development and I don’t think it should limit how game developers create their games, but there should be transparency.”
There is always the possibility that Oculus Rift doesn’t take off because another company’s product does. Sony is working on its Project Morpheus virtual reality headset for PlayStation 4. And they probably aren’t the only company working on a competing VR headset given the buzz that Oculus is receiving. Could these splinter the market to such a point that no one succeeds?
Many games are being made to target multiple platforms. Cloudhead Games is making The Gallery for Oculus Rift and Morpheus. Likewise, CCP is designing Valkyrie for both. Epic Games, early fans of Oculus and supplier of several Rift demos, is also looking at multiple VR platforms for its Unreal Engine 4 technology.
“As long as all the VR headsets are high-quality experiences, I think it is a great thing. Because you have more avenues to get VR. Some people who don’t have a high-end PC will have a PlayStation to try the Morpheus or some people will be willing to try Gear VR,” says Nick Whiting, lead programmer of VR at Epic.
A competitor that comes out of nowhere could be a problem if they get wide exposure, and deliver a bad experience. “The worry is that someone is going to come out with a really bad VR setup and they are going to beat everyone else to market. So people start trying it and you poison the well,” says Whiting.
But he also admits this scenario is unlikely. “There is enough high-quality stuff out there now that it’s really hard to try a bad one without trying a good one. Oculus has shipped over a hundred thousand development kits. That’s a pretty good population,” says Whiting. “So hopefully when people see the other ones they will be like, ‘This isn’t good. I’ve tried better. I am going to put this one down and still stick with VR.'”
Just as HD-DVDs lost to Blu-rays, new technologies which improve existing markets can still fail (just look at 3-D television sets). But with Facebook backing up Oculus’s move to make virtual reality more than a niche, perhaps next year VR gets real–1990s or 2000s be damned.
Update: Denny Unger, president of Cloudhead Games, has contacted Fast Company with additional thoughts on the subject of a possible death occurring because of virtual reality. “To design better games in VR, developers should be aware of the positive and negative potential physiological and psychological health consequences,” says Unger. “You can induce profoundly positive experiences as well as negative ones. A pre-existing condition could make VR dangerous for some people.”