No hardware launch is complete without a bunch of dodgy comparisons to older gadgets, and Facebook's Oculus Rift – the first-to-drop of this year's premium virtual reality headsets – has attracted its fair share. The recently unveiled $600 RRP has, of course, sparked something of a riot, but a number of tech writers have pointed to the original iPhone's rise as evidence that a high price isn't the end of the world.
With apologies to my peers, and with the obligatory disclaimer that they probably know things I don't, I'm not sure about this. Yes, the first iPhones also went on sale for shocking sums; yes, they too were decried as luxuries for affluent geeks; and yes, it's plausible that the Rift along with its rivals, the Valve-sponsored HTC Vive and Sony's PlayStation VR (PSVR), will overcome these hurdles and achieve popular acceptance. But even in its earliest form and at that eye-watering price, the iPhone was a gadget with tremendous broad appeal, an all-purpose portable media platform from the creators of iPod and iTunes, that's easy to use and a fashion accessory to boot.
By contrast, this year's forthcoming VR headsets are specialised and unintuitive devices that require you to own a (powerful) PC or a PS4. They also make your face look like the back of a CRT monitor. Not exactly the kind of thing you'd catch Rihanna wearing at a red carpet premiere.
A more logical comparison is the Nintendo 3DS, the cherished glass-less stereoscopic 3D handheld which, I suspect, owes a significant chunk of its huge global sales total to the fact that its 3D effect is completely optional. There's also the already on-sale Samsung Gear VR, though this is strictly speaking a phone app that combines with a separately available head-mount – it doesn't offer anything near the fidelity or fluidity of a "proper" VR headset. But the comparison I'd like to make here is with another non-VR device, Microsoft's motion-sensing Kinect peripheral range, which appears to be at death's door following the Xbox One's catastrophic first year.
This isn't as weird a link as it might seem. For starters, modern-day VR to some degree picks up where Kinect left off, in terms of both execution and vision. The final versions of the Rift, Vive and PSVR – all of which employ similar language to Kinect's marketing materials in proposing to nuke the immersion barrier between user and game world – track body movements and can be used with motion-sensitive controllers for gesture commands. Third-party developers have, in fact, been working with Kinect alongside the Oculus Rift for years. Consider AltSpaceVR, which deploys three Kinect sensors to create fully motion-tracked virtual crash-pads where Rifters hundreds of miles apart can hang out and chew the fat. You can even play Dungeons & Dragons using it.
The mingling of Kinect and latter-day VR's DNA means they share a fundamental problem of user convenience. Both types of device require a degree of seclusion and exert a mild physical toll, even if it's just turning your head. This is worth dwelling on because it goes against the grain for computing at large. Thanks to the rise of the smartphone and tablets, the popular image of a computer has shifted from that of a whirring monolith tucked away in an office to a slick, unobtrusive, endlessly accommodating machine that's at home in every scenario, from the bus to the dining table to the toilet. Isolating yourself in order to don a chunky headset or interact with a sensor feels like stepping back in time, however sophisticated the gadgets themselves may be, and the physical strain can, of course, be a turn-off when you just want to unwind.
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The sci-fi dogfighting game 'EVE: Valkyrie' comes packaged with purchases of the Rift
"Natural user interface" features like motion tracking create huge problems for designers, even before they start worrying about lazy end-users who can't be arsed to clear space for a round of Dance Central. Kinect has been dogged throughout its life by latency and recognition problems, but the issue isn't always the technology – it's that human bodies aren't built to an exact spec, and everybody uses theirs a little differently. As a former Rare Ltd designer told me last summer, the most generic and basic of inputs can be a real headache to execute when the vagaries of body language are involved – one person's "raise hand to select" might be another person's "place hand above head", and coming up with a variation that makes sense to everybody is a long, arduous process.
VR game creators face comparable interfacial difficulties that may render certain kinds of game off-limits. It's hard, for example, to spin and aim a gun with the speed of the average Call of Duty player when your neck is quite literally on the line, though Epic's Matrix-y lightgun sim Bullet Train does a sterling job of selling a fantasy in which VR duellists warp from target to target, shotguns roaring in their ghostly blue hands. There's also the lingering problem of "VR sickness", which can arise for a minority of players when the simulation differs too sharply with what your inner ear thinks your body is doing. This has facilitated the rise of cockpit-based action games like Eve: Valkyrie, in which the immediate environment is stationary relative to the viewer; on-foot shooters seem to be off the menu, unless you're prepared to conduct gunfights at a pace your stomach can endure.
'Bullet Train' demo
All this may sound quite doom and gloom, but those shared hang-ups notwithstanding, VR has a much better shot at becoming an established platform than Kinect did – a number of the industry's major players are backing it, and the tech seems finally to be a match for VR's promise following the misfires of the '80s and '90s. What the Rift, Vive and PSVR now need are gaming genres that call on their strengths while sidestepping their weaknesses.
Kinect quite never managed to set itself apart in this fashion – its portfolio is split between solid but uninspired controller-free riffs on the Nintendo Wii's sports, music and fitness apps, and desperate-feeling attempts to crowbar motion controls into games that are fine without. A portion of the VR scene runs the risk of heading the same way – there are, for my money, too many games on the boil that rely on the novelty value of "true" 3D depth to paper over the tedium of yet another shooter or action experience, and the fact that so many VR games can also be played on a screen suggests that developers are preparing for the worst. But a handful of titles are aiming higher.
Related, on Motherboard: Virtual Reality Could Provide Healthy Escape for Homesick Astronauts
Crytek's The Climb could be something special, for instance. A game about scaling exotic cliff-faces by looking towards handholds, then clamping down a controller button to hang on, it combines giddy photorealistic views with a gentle playing rhythm and enough in the way of tactical thinking (about choice of routes) to get your cortex humming. In other words, it's a sight for sore eyes that actually, genuinely feels like it might entertain the third or fourth time you try it, unlike many of the earlier Oculus titles.
'The Climb', teaser trailer
First-person sport simulation could also be an area in which VR games lead the pack – peering through the bars of an ice hockey keeper's helmet in VR Sports Challenge creates an intimacy the likes of FIFA or Madden have never offered. And of course, there are the VR horror games, which already enjoy a fervent following. Horror games are a natural fit for VR because it can be unnervingly claustrophobic at the best of times; they also tend to be slower-paced, so the problem of physical exertion isn't as acute. Whether you can bear staying plugged in for longer than a few minutes is another question – sit still right the way through Capcom's Kitchen tech demo and you might come away swearing to never touch a headset again.
Whether the latest reincarnation of VR takes off or plunges back into irrelevance, 2016 is a fascinating year to be a games enthusiast. Between Facebook, Valve and Sony, there's enough momentum behind this emerging sector to guarantee at least a few VR titles that are truly essential. Kinect may be an object lesson about the dangers of overhype, but its links with present-day virtual reality tech are also proof that even a failed device can make a positive impact, providing other creators and inventors take heed. With any luck, VR will not only flourish in its own right, but also help unearth the true potential of gesture-based gaming, even as Kinect continues its long, lonely march to the grave.
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