Media & Entertainment

What Games Are: Virtual Reality, We Hardly Knew You

Comment

Tadhg Kelly

Contributor

Tadhg is a video game designer, producer, creative director, columnist and consultant. He has held roles at various video game development, technology and publishing companies. Since the early 90s, Tadhg has worked on all sorts of game projects, from boardgames and live action roleplaying games through to multi-million dollar PC projects. He has served as lead designer, senior producer and a number of other roles at several companies including BSkyB, Lionhead and Climax.

He was a cofounder of the social gaming startup Simple Lifeforms before moving on to becoming a consultant in the game design space through founding noted industry blog What Games Are (www.whatgamesare.com). A recent immigrant to the United States, Tadhg has most recently worked at Jawfish Games, OUYA and for some other studios on a consulting basis.

Tadhg is currently consulting out of Seattle for a variety of companies under the banner of Tadhg Kelly Game Design, as well as writing a book named Raw Game Design to be published next year by Focal Press and a weekly gaming column for TechCrunch. You can reach him at tadhgk@gmail.com.

More posts from Tadhg Kelly

Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a veteran game designer and creator of leading game design blog What Games Are. He manages developer relations at OUYA. You can follow him on Twitter here.

It might be white hot news that Facebook dropped two-bils on buying in, or that Valve’s Michael Abrash has joined Oculus as chief scientist, but I suspect that this generation of virtual reality is already dead. Dead like 3DTV is dead. Dead like Blu-Ray is dead. Dead like Kinect is dead. Which, on the face of it, is a pretty bold claim to make given we haven’t seen much in the way of the consumer version of VR yet, but bear with me.

Reasons, I Have Them

My first reason for thinking this is the dependency on PC. I wrote about this before, but the summary version is essentially that nobody outside of the geek and gamer fraternity is all that interested in owning PCs any more. Tablets are so much more convenient. The graphics industry may continue to scream ahead with bonkers-spec cards, but it’s doing so in a declining market (down 9.8% in 2013, expected to be down 6.1% in 2014 says IDC).

My second (related) reason is that the use cases of technology are continuing to segment. Maybe 5 years ago your home computer was where everything digital happened, but then stuff started to separate. Your phone got much better at email and calendars and things like that. Your TV and its Netflix became viable as stand-alone media units. Your tablet became your venue of casual computing and gaming. And your PC? That became your “work computer”. Who wants to sit at their work computer with a unit strapped to their faces?

My third reason is that reasons 1 and 2 are talking about mainstream users. In actual fact there are a lot of gamers out there still buying gaming PCs and playing stuff on Steam, and they consistently maintain that they are perfectly happy doing so. You might characterize that as a separation between a committed core and an uninterested casual outer layer, or alternatively between one sector that refuses to move with the times versus another that does. However you split it, it pretty much pegs VR as only being able to address the market of the faithful.

Speaking of the faithful, my fourth reason is “nobody trusts Facebook”. The volume and tone of the reaction on Reddit and some other places is all you really need to know here. When masses of users talk of feeling betrayed, when Notch cancels Minecraft for your system and so on, you have a real problem. It is not a matter of saying there are a few petulant children out there who need to get over it so we can all get access to Neal Stephenson’s metaverse (which betrays a big disconnect between how the Valley thinks and how games people think, but that’s for another day). It’s about ground-level goodwill versus the perception of having sold out.

And from there my fifth reason is that Facebook is probably not the right partner. It’s good that a big cheese like Zuckerberg is able to lay out the cash in order to try and promote the future. This is a thing that big tech companies like to do, whether it’s Google with cars, Microsoft with computing tables or Amazon with drone delivery. Research and development are important and should be shepherded because we never know where the next multi-billion dollar industry will spring from. But there is the question of whether the culture of the owner jives with that of the researchers, or whether it all goes a bit eBay-buying-Skype-for-reasons or Xerox PARC in the 70s.

The Big Reason

However those are all arguably business problems. Maybe Oculus figures out how to bring a version of their product to market that uses smaller glasses and plugs into tablets. Maybe the fears about Facebook prove unfounded. Maybe the faithful get over their fear of Zuck and realize that Oculus is likely not all about bringing ads and FarmVille to your eyes. If Sony has taught us anything in the last 18 months it’s that rehabilitations are indeed possible, with time.

No, my big reason is I suspect VR doesn’t really work. And a lot of that is to do with presence. In his blog post outlining why he joined, Michael Abrash embedded a video from the Steam Dev Days talk that he gave last year. In it he explained the power of VR and the attraction of presence, a term that VR people use to describe the sensation of really being in a virtual space. Presence goes beyond immersion, they say, incorporating such sensations as vertigo when standing over the edges of virtual cliffs.

Yet Abrash’s talk then goes on to describe just how fragile presence is. In order to achieve presence VR needs perfect conditions. It needs super-high resolution, super-low latency, super-detailed graphical techniques, super-accurate positional tracking and so on and so forth. In short the basis for its success is yet another technology singularity. Like the multiplayer singularity. Like the Uncanny Valley. Like game streaming.

As an industry we love to get hooked on far-off futures and romanticize about switch-flipping moments when the world changes. Yet the reality is that most of the real changes that ever happen in tech do so by degrees. It’s incredibly rare that a technology springs into existence fully formed (like the Improbability Drive of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and much more common that its roots can clearly be tracked.

If I were to write my laws of technology I think one of them would say something like “Any technology revolution that doesn’t work imperfectly doesn’t work.” I’m essentially saying that if an innovation needs perfect conditions before its benefits can be experienced then it’s junk because perfection is not achievable. Dramatic innovations may sound great in science fiction novels, but what we keep seeing over and over is that the innovations that increment are the ones that succeed. They may aspire toward perfection but they also work in their imperfect form.

Does VR work in its imperfect form? It makes people motion sick and uncomfortable. Under ideal lab conditions with infinite hardware and leet screens maybe, but that’s not where it would actually be used. While believability is a key aspect of the thaumatic quality of games, it always has to work under imperfect conditions. Consoles, PCs, mobile and other platforms are all imperfect. There’s always something holding them back, some better way to improve on what’s been seen and that kind of thing. Yet they work even if we do see the cracks.

VR, on the other hand, asks that there be no cracks. Games already have the power to inspire belief and seem meaningfully real and important, even when we know they are just constructs. That relationship has great power and it inspires us to think of what else they might do. But getting there is not about having the perfect technology or the perfect simulation.

More TechCrunch

Welcome back to TechCrunch’s Week in Review. This week had two major events from OpenAI and Google. OpenAI’s spring update event saw the reveal of its new model, GPT-4o, which…

OpenAI and Google lay out their competing AI visions

Expedia says Rathi Murthy and Sreenivas Rachamadugu, respectively its CTO and senior vice president of core services product & engineering, are no longer employed at the travel booking company. In…

Expedia says two execs dismissed after ‘violation of company policy’

When Jeffrey Wang posted to X asking if anyone wanted to go in on an order of fancy-but-affordable office nap pods, he didn’t expect the post to go viral.

With AI startups booming, nap pods and Silicon Valley hustle culture are back

OpenAI’s Superalignment team, responsible for developing ways to govern and steer “superintelligent” AI systems, was promised 20% of the company’s compute resources, according to a person from that team. But…

OpenAI created a team to control ‘superintelligent’ AI — then let it wither, source says

A new crop of early-stage startups — along with some recent VC investments — illustrates a niche emerging in the autonomous vehicle technology sector. Unlike the companies bringing robotaxis to…

VCs and the military are fueling self-driving startups that don’t need roads

When the founders of Sagetap, Sahil Khanna and Kevin Hughes, started working at early-stage enterprise software startups, they were surprised to find that the companies they worked at were trying…

Deal Dive: Sagetap looks to bring enterprise software sales into the 21st century

Keeping up with an industry as fast-moving as AI is a tall order. So until an AI can do it for you, here’s a handy roundup of recent stories in the world…

This Week in AI: OpenAI moves away from safety

After Apple loosened its App Store guidelines to permit game emulators, the retro game emulator Delta — an app 10 years in the making — hit the top of the…

Adobe comes after indie game emulator Delta for copying its logo

Meta is once again taking on its competitors by developing a feature that borrows concepts from others — in this case, BeReal and Snapchat. The company is developing a feature…

Meta’s latest experiment borrows from BeReal’s and Snapchat’s core ideas

Welcome to Startups Weekly! We’ve been drowning in AI news this week, with Google’s I/O setting the pace. And Elon Musk rages against the machine.

Startups Weekly: It’s the dawning of the age of AI — plus,  Musk is raging against the machine

IndieBio’s Bay Area incubator is about to debut its 15th cohort of biotech startups. We took special note of a few, which were making some major, bordering on ludicrous, claims…

IndieBio’s SF incubator lineup is making some wild biotech promises

YouTube TV has announced that its multiview feature for watching four streams at once is now available on Android phones and tablets. The Android launch comes two months after YouTube…

YouTube TV’s ‘multiview’ feature is now available on Android phones and tablets

Featured Article

Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

CSC ServiceWorks provides laundry machines to thousands of residential homes and universities, but the company ignored requests to fix a security bug.

1 day ago
Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is just around the corner, and the buzz is palpable. But what if we told you there’s a chance for you to not just attend, but also…

Harness the TechCrunch Effect: Host a Side Event at Disrupt 2024

Decks are all about telling a compelling story and Goodcarbon does a good job on that front. But there’s important information missing too.

Pitch Deck Teardown: Goodcarbon’s $5.5M seed deck

Slack is making it difficult for its customers if they want the company to stop using its data for model training.

Slack under attack over sneaky AI training policy

A Texas-based company that provides health insurance and benefit plans disclosed a data breach affecting almost 2.5 million people, some of whom had their Social Security number stolen. WebTPA said…

Healthcare company WebTPA discloses breach affecting 2.5 million people

Featured Article

Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Microsoft won’t be facing antitrust scrutiny in the U.K. over its recent investment into French AI startup Mistral AI.

2 days ago
Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Ember has partnered with HSBC in the U.K. so that the bank’s business customers can access Ember’s services from their online accounts.

Embedded finance is still trendy as accounting automation startup Ember partners with HSBC UK

Kudos uses AI to figure out consumer spending habits so it can then provide more personalized financial advice, like maximizing rewards and utilizing credit effectively.

Kudos lands $10M for an AI smart wallet that picks the best credit card for purchases

The EU’s warning comes after Microsoft failed to respond to a legally binding request for information that focused on its generative AI tools.

EU warns Microsoft it could be fined billions over missing GenAI risk info

The prospects for troubled banking-as-a-service startup Synapse have gone from bad to worse this week after a United States Trustee filed an emergency motion on Wednesday.  The trustee is asking…

A US Trustee wants troubled fintech Synapse to be liquidated via Chapter 7 bankruptcy, cites ‘gross mismanagement’

U.K.-based Seraphim Space is spinning up its 13th accelerator program, with nine participating companies working on a range of tech from propulsion to in-space manufacturing and space situational awareness. The…

Seraphim’s latest space accelerator welcomes nine companies

OpenAI has reached a deal with Reddit to use the social news site’s data for training AI models. In a blog post on OpenAI’s press relations site, the company said…

OpenAI inks deal to train AI on Reddit data

X users will now be able to discover posts from new Communities that are trending directly from an Explore tab within the section.

X pushes more users to Communities

For Mark Zuckerberg’s 40th birthday, his wife got him a photoshoot. Zuckerberg gives the camera a sly smile as he sits amid a carefully crafted re-creation of his childhood bedroom.…

Mark Zuckerberg’s makeover: Midlife crisis or carefully crafted rebrand?

Strava announced a slew of features, including AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, a new ‘family’ subscription plan, dark mode and more.

Strava taps AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, unveils ‘family’ plan, dark mode and more

We all fall down sometimes. Astronauts are no exception. You need to be in peak physical condition for space travel, but bulky space suits and lower gravity levels can be…

Astronauts fall over. Robotic limbs can help them back up.

Microsoft will launch its custom Cobalt 100 chips to customers as a public preview at its Build conference next week, TechCrunch has learned. In an analyst briefing ahead of Build,…

Microsoft’s custom Cobalt chips will come to Azure next week

What a wild week for transportation news! It was a smorgasbord of news that seemed to touch every sector and theme in transportation.

Tesla keeps cutting jobs and the feds probe Waymo