What Games Are: Virtual Reality, We Hardly Knew You

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.