For the past few months I’ve been playing with the Oculus Rift headset, trying out a whole bunch of games and apps that represent a large spread of the current entertainment in Virtual Reality (VR). A few of these pieces of entertainment are phenomenal and really exhibit the best parts of VR, most others are nothing more than a cash-grab tactic. However, the real questions that myself and many others are asking like “is VR a fad?” and “is VR worth it?” are extremely important to be asking right now. I do believe VR is worth it and that it will be around for a long while, but unless you enjoy being an early adopter of technology I would recommend waiting to invest heavily in your own setup.
There are two separate aspects of VR, games and entertainment, though sometimes the line is blurred on which is which. The actual games for VR are fairly narrow in scope, usually involving shooting guns or a bow and arrow from a fixed point with a few games involving puzzles and interaction. My favorite VR shooter to date has to be Robo Recall, and boy does it showcase what VR can be. Robo Recall makes you feel like the coolest kid in school by giving you every opportunity it can to let you do something jaw-dropping. At its heart Robo Recall is a wave-based shooter, relying on the player moving around and shooting a certain number of enemies until the area is clear. Once the goal has been reached the player moves to the next area and the next until they finally complete the level. Robo Recall is set up to feel like a sort of game-show/competition type of thing, with an announcer, score board, and attaching points and combos to every action you do. Oculus Rift comes with the ability to move your hands in virtual space (as does the HTC Vive) with the Touch controllers; this allows you to interact with the virtual world that you are seeing and perform complex actions based on which buttons you press or even how you hold the controller. In Robo Recall, you can grab bullets out of mid air, grab the attacking robots and throw them back at other robots, and reload your weapon by bouncing it off of an attacking enemy- usually all at the same time. In any given situation you will be juggling all of these actions in a ballet dance of metal and lasers, and look pretty ridiculous to anyone watching. However, the best thing about this game, like all the others, is something that is incommunicable to someone who has never tried VR. Every enemy, boss, gun, building, bullet FEELS like it is right in front of you and you can actually see the scale of distance of places in a way that is impossible to a game relegated to a flat screen.
On the app side of things, a few programs blew me away with how great and intuitive they are. Kingspray Graffiti and Medium are some of the best programs to try if you have even a passing interest in art or 3D modeling. Kingspray Graffiti is essentially what it says in the title, a program that simulates being a graffiti artist without the tension of, you know, going to jail. What makes this program great is that the spray painting feels really accurate and it gives you the freedom to paint whole walls with art, save them, and then start over as many times as you want. While I am not the greatest artist by any stretch of the imagination, I had an incredibly fun time painting swirling colors and bulky letters on the walls of some building from the comfort of my own home. On the same note, Medium is a sculpting program that lets you work with a very rudimentary (but scale-able) version of clay and create anything you can imagine. Medium is a really interesting piece of software to use, however it is significantly more complex than Kingspray with a steeper learning curve. You can mold, shape, grow, cut, and flatten your piece of clay into nearly anything you want and can imagine. Even more, the recent buyout of Oculus by Facebook means that Medium is perfectly compatible with Facebook, allowing you to post your 3D objects to your Facebook feed in a special type of interactive post (which you can sort of see in action here). This interactivity with the digital world is really where VR soars, there is a special type of connection that happens in a game or app when you can physically be in that space and move around and manipulate objects that you see. A last piece of software that really highlights the interactivity of VR is a program called VR Chat. Now for some of you, as soon as you read that name a few images probably flashed through your mind, namely this wonder of a meme called Ugandan Knuckles that recently cropped up on the likes of Youtube, Reddit, Tumblr, and Twitch. The cool thing about this program is that is basically designed for the socially awkward to be able to interact with other people without actually having to see them face to face. As an extreme introvert, I really don’t enjoy talking to people I don’t know. If I had the option I would avoid people a good majority of the time, but with VR Chat I actually want to engage in conversation with random strangers, laugh, and have a good time.
The ability to interact with the world opens up a huge amount of possibilities especially when multiplayer is concerned. A focus of most of the current VR games lies in multiplayer and being able to virtually hang out with your friends. With the steep price tag of VR however (roughly $400 dollars for an Oculus Rift and nearly $700 for an HTC Vive not including the computer to run it all), you will probably not have a large amount of friends to hang out with in VR. In the coming future however, Oculus has announced it will be releasing a VR headset that doesn’t require a computer of any kind and it will be at a similar price tag to the original Oculus Rift with less processing power. These developments will allow the greater public to gain access to this technology without sacrificing an arm and a leg to get the hardware and bring it further into society. It does get frustrating, being an introverted and solitary gamer, that a great majority of VR games are multiplayer only. While this is a great aspect to some, those of us who are not thrilled by interacting with random strangers aren’t going to have a great time. While there is nothing inherently wrong with multiplayer, it does show that companies and publishers aren’t quite ready to invest heavily into the platform. Multiplayer is an easy substitute for coding AI and a single-player experience; as it takes a whole bunch of effort, time, and ultimately money to craft those extra systems. This ties into the biggest reason for not being able to whole-heartedly recommending VR in it’s current state- the market just isn’t ready to invest into the platform.
With all of the great things about VR, it does tend to falter when it comes to pricing and premiums. The games that you can buy for Oculus Rift and HTC Vive normally last around 2 or 3 hours total and cost upwards of 40 to 60 dollars each; the price of a full 40-50 hour non-VR game on PC or console. The VR premium can be seen almost everywhere, because the technology is so new and the player-base is so small the creators of these games have to be sure they can recoup their time and effort poured into these games. Ironically, the effort to make money also drives sales away because a player can’t be asked to drop 60 dollars on something that will last a few hours and has no guarantee to even be functional, versus a game on console or PC that has a guarantee to at least be playable but isn’t in VR. While some games like Fallout 4 VR and Payday 2 VR are worth the high price tag, I have played through more than one game and fully experienced them before the 1 to 2 hour play limit to get a refund. Until the technology becomes widely adopted and more commercial, the premium for VR will be extremely high with very little return to the consumer.
On the whole, Virtual Reality is a really awesome thing to experience and is absolutely unique. Once you put on the headset and get used to some of the quirks of having a screen attached to your face, you can do some pretty incredible things that you could never do in real life. However, in the money-driven society in which we live the technology has not quite gotten far enough into consumer usage to be looked at seriously. Out of the friends I have across Steam, Playstation, and Facebook; I am fairly certain only 1 or 2 have an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive headset. As I stated above, if you enjoy being on the cutting edge of technology and aren’t worried about having to invest in multiple versions of the headset before it finally gets perfected (as of writing, the HTC Vive just announced a higher resolution headset that improves greatly on the current generation) then by all means pick one up and enjoy it . But, be aware that the current market is thin and VR is a very niche community. I would hazard to guess that the things that will pull VR out of the obscure technological depths will be the addition of a wireless-compatible headset (a third party has already created this for the HTC Vive and will soon release the Oculus Rift version); and the ability to add physical motion to the headset, such as the omni-directional treadmill that has been displayed before. These products are already in production but they are extremely expensive and bring the running total of a VR headset easily into the thousands. The addition of a wireless headset would allow for a greater freedom of movement without the constant tugging that comes with a wired headset. More than that, an affordable omni-directional treadmill would most likely solve the issues of motion sickness that arise from being physically stationary but moving your character around in virtual space. Once these technologies become cheaper and more accessible, virtual reality will soar to heights we as a society have only imagined in Science Fiction and will most likely dominate entertainment mediums across the board from video games to movies and even to art. Once processing power becomes greater and with the inevitable miniaturization of components and price reductions to the headset; VR technology will evolve to the point that the current generations of virtual reality will look rudimentary at best. With new technologies like the “Knuckles” controller that allows you to physically grip virtual objects and the previous technology mentioned above, we are witnessing the new horizon of digital interaction and creation. Be wary of investing now, as new versions of the headset which are more crisp and clearer with inevitably be released, but absolutely keep a keen eye on what Virtual Reality is doing and how it will change how we experience entertainment.