I remember my first real taste of Virtual Reality (VR) with vivid details. Since I'm a child of the Nintendo Generation, you could make the natural leap and think that I am going to talk about the Virtual Boy, but if you did that, I hope you were wearing a parachute because it's a long way down. While this technically was the first time that I had ever gotten my hands on "VR", you couldn't stand looking into the HMD for any reasonable amount of time. If any of you have ever had the opportunity (and I use the term loosely here) to experience a Virtual Boy first hand, your rods and cones are probably doing everything they can to escape your eyes just like mine did.
Imagine staring at this for more than 60 seconds. Suffice to say the experience was...unpleasant.
Interesting to note that the controller was almost a hybrid of the N64 and Gamecube controllers.
Now that the obligatory technicality is out of the way, let me regale you with the story of my first real VR experience. I was around 13-14 years old and there used to be this place in downtown Charleston, SC at 446 King St. It was upstairs and the setup was very much like a LAN party would be. Away from the LAN setup was a kind of enclosure that was standing there. I wish I could recall the name of it, but alas in my old age the memory banks aren't quite what they used to be.
Back to the VR setup. The game I played was Quake. If you're familiar with this genre and this era, that should tell you all you need to know. For those who aren't, suffice to say that Quake was an intellectual successor to Doom and required many similar skills to play. Twitch reactions and platforming (running and jumping) a la Mario Bros. + 3D+ death and carnage and you've got the gist of it. I stepped into the setup, which was the aforementioned enclosure. There was round bar that was about waist height all the way around you and you stood in the middle, waiting in the dark as the HMD took a few minutes to load. While waiting, the fellow working there handed me what I still refer to as the "hockey puck" controller and gave be a very brief synopsis of what the controls did. Moving the puck forward moved me forward in the game. Pulling back went backwards, left and right rotated you and the 3 buttons were shoot, jump, and switch weapon. At this point, you are probably realizing that it only goes down hill from here and you would be right. Moving your head did nothing essentially, the HMD displayed the same fixed camera, despite your head's orientation. This was quite disorienting...
Worse yet was actually trying to play the game. Movement was incredibly cumbersome and inaccurate. It also didn't help that the level they had you start in basically had you under fire from the rip, and you had to make 3 jumps between platforms before even being in range to fire your crappy pistol at the demon/monster/hellspawn shooting you in the face. A mis-timed jump led to imminent death and after about the 30th failed first jump, I was done. This experience had left me dirty on VR the past 19 years. Could the experience have been better? Perhaps. I'm not sure what games were supposedly developed with this system in mind, if any. I get the feeling that no one was actively developing specifically for VR at the time.
The main thing I took away from the 2 previously mentioned experience was that VR was bad and a waste of time. I kept the mindset up until a few months ago, call it "healthy skepticism". After hearing about the development of the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift off and on, my curiousity was slightly peaked. Still the skeptic however, I began to make mental notes about their development and started seeking out information from the front lines. Is this more of the same or has someone finally gotten this right? Now at the same time, Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear are also released. To me, I can see the distinction immediately.
The Financial Divide: Google cardboard is cheap, albeit effective in easily bringing the idea of VR in the home to the masses. Most everyone has the device they need to power it in their pocket as they read this and on that level it is very effective. Samsung Gear is a very upscaled version of more of the same and somewhat limited in the devices that are compatible with the system. Google had the foresight make efforts to avoid limiting their potential customer base. The Oculus Rift was interesting, but was marred in a bit of controversy once FaceBook decided that they wanted in on the early stages of VR. However, the HMD did not use a phone to power it, no you needed to provide your own gaming rig (and a good one) to make this happen. Also, there was a greater financial leap to the tune of $599 for the HMD only. This system released without controllers... That leaves us with the HTC Vive. Integrated STEAM support, proprietary controllers, and the hefty price tag of $799 for everything you need (gaming rig not included), you can begin to see why early adoption has been limited.
The Quality Gap: Both the Google Cardboard and the Samsung Gear VR will tell you that they are legitimate VR experiences. This is both true and false. While they do technically provide a VR experience, it is often a middle of the road one. Latency, lag, screen tearing, lack of control, etc. have all lead to negative experiences for first time VR users. This is problematic, since a few bad experiences can affect anyone's perception of the value that VR can bring to not only gaming, but literally all other aspects of life. The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, while still having issues are much more capable of providing the rich and amazing experience that people need to have for their very first step into the virtual world of their choosing.
I mention these two aspects so you can understand why there hasn't been this massive onslaught of VR everything. Even with low end bundles HTC is offering, it's still $1499 to get "everything" you need to begin you VR experience in your own home. Suffice to say that is tough pill to swallow, even if you have an awesome experience. From that perspective, I can see why Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR is much more appealing to the budget of the average user. Despite these limitations, a few of us have seen the true capabilities of what a quality VR experience can provide and it is worth your time. Developers have been creating very cool and amazing experiences for many different industries and more resources are being allocated to development every day.
You may have noticed my perspective has shifted on VR since my earlier experiences and you would be correct. My stand point now is that we have advanced our technology to the point that it is not only feasible as a way to entertain, but as a new platform on it's own. VR has application in literally every business that currently exists. AR may be even more applicable to some than VR, but the principle is the same. Alter the world around you in a meaningful way.
In our next piece, we'll go a little more in-depth on some of the awesome ways VR is being applied to the world. If you are interested on what my company's approach to VR is, you can check us our here.
Thank you for reading!