I spent my weekend with the wonderful community team from Kingsisle Entertainment (they work on Wizard101 and Pirate101) as they slowly walked up and down the aisles of the SXSW Gaming Expo. It is a free event (a good offset to the astronomical ticket prices that SXSW can often ask) and allows indie or smaller games to hook up with potential players. It also shows off new technologies, trends and even hosted video game museums with hands-on consoles. It was a blast, to say the least.
I met up with some familiar titles (more on that at the bottom) but also got treated to some of the latest technologies.
I am talking, of course, about VR or virtual reality headsets.
Now, if you are around my age you have been hearing about VR for years. And years. And years. This is fine, and to be fair many technologies do take some time to perfect. We still do not have flying cars or robot buddies, but we do get closer to those goals every day. Still, virtual reality has crossed from the sci-fi and into the realm of the silly in many ways. Sure, it seems like a cool idea but to exclaim it as anything but something for hobbyists to play with seems a bit premature. Only a bit, though, but still premature.
Recently I co-hosted on Drax Files radio Hour and both the host and co-host seemed ready to accept virtual reality headsets as a standard access point for playing games. It’s possible that they were only talking about accessing their current favorite virtual world, Second Life, because VR simply would not work in many other situations.
OK, so let’s say you buy a VR headset. Let’s say it is one of the nicer ones and let’s even say that you have several MMOs to play in while wearing the VR headset.
How would you play? The headset is designed to immerse you in the world, meaning that it covers your eyes and possibly your ears (or you just wear a pair of earphones) and as you look around the camera tracks and makes you feel as though you are actually looking around inside a virtual world.
In Second Life, players can use voice chat to talk. Many do not, though, as any Second Life player can tell you. Many players are simply too shy or do not want to their real voices out there.
So let’s say you do not want to voice chat or cannot voice chat. How do you access a keyboard to talk? Do you have to lift the headset up to type, thereby breaking the immersion temporarily?
What happens if you get motion sickness easily, like many people do?
What happens if you have bad vision and have to wear thick glasses, like many, many, people do?
What do you do for controls? Do you use the keyboard like you would during a normal MMO? What happens if you are not the best typist and often need to look down at the keyboard once in a while?
As I watched my friend attempt to navigate through a virtual world during the Gaming Expo, all I could think was “Weren’t we at this level many years ago? The only thing that seems to have changed is the graphics.”
But, like many hardware-based trends, virtual reality fails to consider people with smaller pocketbooks (although VR headsets can be relatively inexpensive and will only drop in price) or people who have certain disabilities or people who get motion sick, or who have bad vision, or who have any number of issues that prevent them from using them.
In other words, like the latest $1,000.00 graphics card or heat sink or massive gaming PC or surround-anything, VR headsets are for hobbyists and for people who want to say they own the latest and greatest. (I am thinking of Peter Dinklage in the movie Elf when he brags that he has a “70 inch plasma screen” in every one of his houses.)
Will VR become a standard one day? Possibly, but as I said on the Draxtor podcast (and have said for years) the more likely scenario is that we will own a tablet- or phone-sized all-in-one device and will simply set it on our counter when we are at home. It will wirelessly sync with our network and screens and will project anywhere we want it to, either on inexpensive, massive screens or in special rooms that have surround-imaging technology that tracks your eyes and adjusts the image to appear truly encompassing. That seems like a more likely scenario, simply because we already have much of this technology in many homes.