The Next Big Thing
First, there was the IoT, then came wearables, and I can’t remember if virtual reality or self-driving cars came next, but I’m sad to say, none of these will pan out to be worthwhile technology investments (not actual investment advice). All of Silicon Valley’s latest technology flavors of the month have the same undeniable allure of base-metal alchemy. They all revolve around sound theories, like using energy to turn lead into gold, but the amount of energy it takes to make it happen isn’t worth the effort. I recently read an article on CNBC.com that alluded to the fact that industry outsiders are starting to pick on the fact the VR is struggling, and they’ve already counted Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus as a miss for Mark Zuckerberg.
I’m sure Oculus isn’t the only VR headset having a problem living up to the hype because most of us have already set our expectations of the technology somewhere in the upper stratosphere. Since the early 90’s, movies like Lawnmower Man have wowed audiences with the possibilities of a virtual world. If that title is a little bit too obscure for you, we won’t forgo mentioning The Matrix, and if you’re feeling really geeky, you’ll respect my name drop of Sword Art Online. If you’ve seen any of the previously mentioned virtual reality-based movies, you might recognize there is a common element in all of them – “the rig.”
The “rig” is a pretty generic term for the contraptions the characters in these flicks strap themselves into while diving into the virtual world. The reason the rig is so crucial in these movies is that they provide a way for these characters to immerse themselves in those worlds without requiring physical movement, something that doesn’t exist today. The ability to effectively enable virtual movement without requiring physical effort is missing a key component to today’s headset based AR/VR units that will limit their commercial success. If you’ve ever used an Xbox Kinect you probably know where this conversation is headed.
For me, the Kinect was as close as any game manufacturer has actually come to producing a fully interactive experience [some us figured out you could still play Wii on the couch], and it opened my eyes to the fallacy that virtual reality represents to the general public. Virtual reality, as it perceived today, is not the next evolutionary step from where Nintendo’s Wii and the Xbox Kinect left us. Those systems were designed to have the appeal of adding physical movement to a traditionally sedentary activity, and if we’re honest, the marketing undertone of “get your potentially obese kid off the couch” was designed to get more parents on board with gaming. Ultimately, what those systems taught us was that we don’t want our virtual experience to require physical movement [not what they intended].
Signs of Exhaustion
The first hint our new found love for immersion may not work out was when game developers had to start labeling how much physical exertion each Kinect game required. I’ve always been in reasonably good shape, but after an hour and a half of Kinect Adventures, I was ready to hit the showers. At the same time, I starting hearing rumors on the internet of people passing out while gaming, and don’t quote me, but I’m pretty sure at least one person died playing the Wii. Either way, we were all reminded why we wanted our virtual worlds to remain separate from our real ones. A lot of the activities we participate in while gaming, are things we are unable to do in real life, so if they start requiring physical movements, you’ll find a lot of us pressing the off button.
A secondary effect of all our newly immersive consoles was an increase in the amount of floor space gaming consumed. Until the Kinect arrived, there was no need to move the coffee table, notify my downstairs neighbors of potential noise, and put on slip-resistant footwear, but now all of those things had to happen before I put the disc in the console. A single player game on Kinect required approximately six feet of space to play, so for apartment dwellers, two-player gaming was mainly out of the question. If this was the kind of space required for the limited in-game movements these games offered, how much space is necessary to reproduce an entire virtual world?
One-to-one, say it with me, one-to-one. This ratio is the heart-breaking reality of why the current iterations of VR will never be a success. As of right now, virtual reality has a 1:1 movement ratio, requiring users to move one foot in the real world for every foot they would like to move in the virtual one. This situation compounds every negative aspect of virtual gaming I spoke about in the previous section. Imagine playing a first-person shooter in VR… How much running and jumping does the average avatar do in a single match? Are you planning on doing that in the real world too?
Some newer accessories to VR headsets have illustrated that developers are somewhat aware of the massive problem they are facing, but with each new addition, we get further away from the VR experience we’ve seen in the movies. Oculus and Samsung have both introduced controllers to help alleviate the problem, and I’ve also seen a few custom solutions floating around the internet, but these new accessories introduce a harsh reality that VR/AR may simply be traditional gaming with an expensive peripheral.
The moment a controller is added to the VR experience, gamers become conscious they’re just playing a regular video game while wearing a headset, and the gaming experience returns to people sitting on the couches with controllers in their hands. Until virtual reality develops the ability to “plug you in,” just like they do in The Matrix, I’m afraid the technology will continue to devolve, and I can already see Silicon Valley trying to lower expectations by marketing the experience as “augmented” instead of “virtual.” Without being able to fix the 1:1 problem, I hate to say it, but VR is not the next big thing.