Ask a Dork: Oculus Rift and Project Morpheus
With the recent news and announcements surrounding the Oculus Rift and Project Morpheus, what are your thoughts on the future of VR? Also, how do you feel that the push for this technology this time around will be different than previous attempts?
My thoughts on the future of VR were the same as they were in the early nineties: a novel ideal with no clear route to mass commercialization and clear interactivity issues. You see, the Oculus Rift isn’t a new concept at all. In fact, it has been attempted several times before by companies of all shapes and sizes to no avail. Public awareness of VR devices dates back to the mid-to-late 1980s, when even Nintendo and Sega were mulling over the profitability of VR, but the technology itself has a long and complicated history dating back to the early 1960s. The core problem of this technology, as I’ve previously alluded to, is immersion set-backs due to lack of appropriate input devices. Oh, and that whole “getting it off store shelves and into people’s homes” thing.
The only thing that Oculus Rift and Project Morpheus offer, though Facebook and Sony would never admit it, is improved graphics. Some would say nigh-realistic graphics, but I’ll err on the side of caution on that PR slang. You see, it doesn’t matter that the world you view through these devices feels real to you. You can look around, enjoy the scenery, and escape your normal trappings. That’s all well and good. The PROBLEM is when you take your first step.
You see, they don’t build controllers for you to physically walk on while using the VR device in order to emulate the feeling of exploration. They also don’t allow you to view things through the device in anything other than a limited first-person perspective. So, right away we have a problem with your sense of immersion. No controller you hold while looking through these devices is going to jive with what you’re seeing because you’re always going to know you’re holding a controller instead of moving in a way that fits the proper context. Furthermore, the first-person perspective means that every game will ultimately feel like a limited perspective FPS. These are harsh realities of the technology, but we should accept them for what they are.
Let’s say you’re okay with the fact that the platform has no controllers that gel with the experience it is ambitiously attempting to offer. Where are you going to buy one of these sets? Do you think they’re just going to be at your local GameStop for a couple hundred dollars? Maybe. But do me a favour and think about who buys video game systems en-mass for a second. The people who made the Wii and Xbox 360 a success weren’t niche gamers. They weren’t early technology adaptors or hardcore gamers. They were parents, university students, and casual consumers. Just because you, a major fan of technology and video gaming, have an interest in Oculus Rift or Project Morpheus doesn’t mean that others like you will be enough to make this product profitable. That’s a huge issue for any product’s success.
Accessibility in the market is make or break. If general consumers can’t easily understand and purchase your product, it simply will never get off the ground. The first generation of Steam Machines is a perfect example of this principal; the devices were complicated, terribly expensive, and weren’t available in multiple locations. It only stands to reason that Valve is now treating the first gen of Steam Machines as “an experiment” rather than as “a success.” Let’s put gamer elitism aside and just accept that fact that without loving grandmas, supportive parents, and ignorant consumers the video games industry just wouldn’t exist.
Hold on though, I hear you say, Facebook and Sony are big companies who are bankrolling these devices with oodles of cash. Clearly they have to do better than previous attempts at VR commercialisation. To that I say: this is unlikely. You see, Facebook is really good at making short-sighted acquisitions for lots of money. They aren’t exactly savants in the gaming space. If your retort to that is something along the lines of, “but they’ll leave Oculus alone to do their own thing” I have to wholeheartedly disagree with you. Have you ever heard of a company that doesn’t care at all about what it subsidiaries do with their money or how successful their products are? No. Those companies go out of business. Facebook is going to give money to Oculus so long as the product has potential. As soon as the organization becomes a cost centre, Facebook will have to cut jobs in order to appease investors. THAT’S HOW THE FREE MARKET WORKS IN NORTH AMERICA. Also, Sony has a long history of poor follow-through on new ideas (PlayStation Move, 3D HDTVs, UMD, MiniDisk, Betamax, The Sony/BMG Rootkit, etc.). I’ll be legitimately surprized if Sony is able to support Project Morpheus over a long period of time.
So, to conclude, I don’t think the technology has grown over leaps and bounds. I don’t believe the hype. I don’t think these products will be able to commercialize themselves to mass audiences. I don’t see this being anything more than an industry fad like 3D, music peripherals, or boasting about how many bits your console has. If VR devices are actually popular in two years, I’ll make a public apology for doubting the technology’s potential. Until then, I’ll sit here on my soapbox and continue to cast doubt.