Virtual Reality in video games have been around for quite some time. One of the earliest examples was the Power Glove, a Mattel accessory to the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) back in 1989 that was met with very little success and only two games that supported it. Since then, the video industry has had a slew of virtual reality kits, ranging from the infamously disastrous Virtual Boy to a variety of popular arcade games to the world-wide acclaimed Wii Motion and Kinect Sensor. If the past is any indicator, both in terms of how these different VR systems worked and how they were received, virtual reality in gaming has mostly been a gimmick, unable to drastically change the way we game. But recently, a little independently funded VR kit has begun to change that perception with the hype of a gaming and technological revolution: the Oculus Rift. This promise of a new evolution in gaming, one filled with virtual reality as a mainstay, has got me thinking about whether or not virtual reality is really here to stay. Or is it another passing fad that, like its predecessors, is doomed to fall into ridicule and be taken out of circulation? My money’s on the latter.
There are three things, I believe, that are necessary to make virtual reality simulation a central, feasible component of video gaming: ease of usability, technology capable of interacting flawlessly with human movement and practicality. The first requirement, ease of usability, basically means that the virtual reality peripheral, whether it’s something that is attached to your body or is reading your movements from afar, does not impede your ability to play the game or is too difficult to operate. Most VR kits have this covered; many, such as the Wii remote/sensor and the Kinect, employ a simple point-and-click interface that is fairly casual. However, as more working parts and features are added — let’s say for example you wanted to add the ability to control character movement with one of these systems — then it becomes complicated and ineffective. Trying add real-life complexity to the means adding more and more moving parts and elaborate setups, making the VR kit difficult to employ or disorienting to the user. This is why most Kinect games don’t allow you to manually move your character, instead opting for an “on-rails” approach; the Kinect requires you to be stationary as you interact with it. If you wanted to include physical, forward movement, you’d have to purchase something like this for your entertainment space…
The second requirement — having technology capable of interacting flawlessly with human movement — ties in very closely with the first condition. This is where the Wii motion controls and the Kinect fall short. VR kits need to be able to keep a 1-to-1 movement precision to be able to be effective, otherwise the necessary reactions made by the gamer will be rendered ineffective and the game will become frustrating and broken. Technology has not yet reached the point were a device is able to flawlessly track a human’s movements and convert it into the digital space without some sort of error or lag. But with the rapid improvements in technological growth and innovation, this is a condition we could meet within the next twenty years. The Oculus Rift is definitely a giant step in the direction for this breakthrough in making virtual reality a possible, central gameplay mechanic.
Nonetheless, it’s in the third condition — the ability to make the VR kit practical in a gaming situation — where most virtual reality attempts fail. By using the term “practical”, I mean to say that the virtual reality device is able to contribute and coincide with a game’s core mechanics without being a hindrance to the gamer’s experience. What generally falls into this category are things that are labeled as “gimmicks”, or impractical to the gaming experience. As the gaming industry is now and where it stands in correlation to the previous two conditions, VR is considered to be gimmicky and superfluous to the overall gaming experience. Even the Oculus Rift, which I must say is a fantastic piece of technology, has a very small chance in my opinion to become a key component in a game’s central design. It’s an accessory; something that heightens the experience of PC gaming, but doesn’t necessarily contribute to it. It is impractical to the game and like so many things that fall into the category, it becomes secondary in the minds’ of the consumer.
Now, this article is not saying that we’ll never achieve that evolutionary step towards virtual reality or that these different VR kits are not a major breakthroughs in gaming and in other fields. The Oculus may very well spawn a slew of projects and, coupled with the amazing ocular device, might fulfill the three requirements outlined in this article. Yet until these three conditions are satisfied, I don’t believe the majority of the gaming industry (consumers, developers and producers) will develop games central to the virtual reality experience. We’re gamers; sometimes we like to just kick back on the couch, grab a controller and relax after a hard day’s work without the fuss of motion controls and being covered in wires.
Written and edited by Tim Atwood
Chief Editor at The Pixel Pen Review