The Four Horsemen Of VR

peppersghostAs Wikipedia handily notes, regarding the Horsemen mentioned in the title,  “in most accounts, the four [Horsemen Of The Apocalypse] are seen as symbolizing Conquest, War, Famine & Death”. And none of these things are particularly nice, to be honest. (The only Death I’m a fan of is the one in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, and mainly because he’s terrible at Twister.)

But I wanted to use the idea of gradually advancing, uh, harbingers for virtual reality, now that I’ve tried four or five VR systems with games, movies, and apps. We can then apply them to a sliding scale of immersiveness within VR right now – and discuss why it’s vital to understand the differences, when it comes to mainstream adoption.

And it turns out the four steps that take us inexorably towards the Apocalypse are quite a handy metaphor for just that! So let’s go ahead and see which technology lies with each ‘ride’, and uh, exactly what the heck I’m talking about:

Conquest – Google Cardboard

To get excited about VR in the slightest, people have to try it. And the cheapest way to try it – by far – right now is Google Cardboard. Just strap your smartphone into the cardboard, magnet and lens combo, and go to town! For a basic ‘conquest’ (see what I did there?) of a consumer’s brain, Cardboard (which they were giving away en masse at GDC 2015) is an interesting start.

You can try apps using Cardboard even if you don’t have an Android device, in fact – I’d recommend the Volvo Reality app for iOS as a good demo app, if you don’t have an Android to grab the Cardboard app. And it works. Basically.

But the whole thing feels a little bit like a parlor trick/funhouse mirror thing. The lens is a bit fish-eye-ish, and although the main effect (looking around and having the 3D landscape scroll around with you) is there, it feels almost like a Pepper’s Ghost effect. Slightly real, but overwhelmingly unreal.

It’s a 5-minute play-with option that sells people on the idea, but doesn’t let you interact for minutes or hours. But – so cheap! Yet I don’t know that it really makes anyone say ‘I must do more of this’ – or even, perhaps, explore any more VR, if that’s what they now think ‘VR’ is.

War – Samsung GearVR

By the time we get to the second Horseman, the stakes have upped quite a bit. The Samsung Gear VR (disclosure: Samsung lent us a unit at Gamasutra to check out) uses Oculus Rift’s head-tracking tech, and is completely standalone after you plug a Galaxy Note 4 Android smartphone into it.

(It’s so portable, you can even take it to the bar with you, which I may have done in Chinatown during GDC. The bartender liked it and loves Phil Collins – a double threat!)

Now you really are at ‘war’ with your own senses. Games are borderline playable using the touchpad on the side of the visor to scroll and shoot. I say borderline because the Geordi La Forge-style ‘hold finger to side of visor’ move is really rather awkward, and the interface seems better suited to UI selection than game-playing. Obviously, you can grab an Android controller, which makes the experience better, but it’s the ol’ peripheral issue rearing its ugly head again – you already bought the Gear VR, now you have to buy a controller as well?

A lot of the games in the Gear VR store work without a controller, and the Samsung website phrases it like this: “Some high-quality gaming apps may require the use of an Android game controller, sold separately, to offer control capabilities in addition to the Gear VR’s integrated touchpad and tracking sensors.” The default experience is touchpad, and for games, it’s currently billed as marginal.

So, the big wins? The 3D effect is palpable and visceral. And some of the best demos still come from non-interactive elements like 360-degree music concerts (even if you hate Coldplay, the band’s VR demo song is pretty spectacular!) One of the things that blew me away the most was watching the 3D trailer for The Hobbit in a ‘virtual screening room’ in VR – it felt just as good as being in a massive, quiet movie theater.

So that’s what I mean with being ‘at war’ – we’re getting perilously close to something that you might want to use for a long time. But again, this is only part way down the spiral, and if you tried just a Gear VR, you might get a very different opinion of what VR is – and could be – than if you got visited by the third or fourth horseman. (And let’s not forget, Gear VR V2 is shipping this holiday, and is presumably much improved, especially on battery usage and heat issues, which are still rife.)

Famine – Oculus Rift

Then we get to an interesting space – the Oculus Rift VR headset itself, currently only working when you connect it up to a PC. So, non-portable, but a heck of a lot more visually sophisticated than either of the portable solutions. Obviously, the big question here is how and when the Oculus will ship, whether you’ll need separate hardware, and what controllers might end up shipping with it.

But during GDC, we demonstrated Classroom Aquatic to a lot of our parent company’s staff, and it’s obvious the games are more fully fledged, the tech is more impressive/higher-res, and the promise – well, it’s sky high. Games like Adr1ft give a hint towards some of the complexity and reward at play here.

Yet we’re almost in the Uncanny Valley of VR here – almost there, but feeling super weird. More complex games may play well for those who can deal with gripping an Xbox 360 controller and not seeing it, but for the mainstream – who will need wooing – they will need an intuitive way to control Oculus. Which is presumably what a lot of Mark Zuckerberg’s money is going into right now…

In addition, the Oculus DK2 Positional IR camera is pretty amazing tech, and takes things to a whole other level in terms of accuracy and ‘leaning’-based gameplay. It’s perhaps not that natural/intuitive to the regular player who doesn’t have full mobility, but can do some things based on positional tracking.

Finally, you run into installed base issues around games like Adr1ft, which seems quite VR-focused, but will naturally have to ship for non-VR platforms, due to its size/complexity and the need for ROI. So we may start getting into that inbetween space we did with Kinect where there are games that ‘sorta’ work with both, and you can’t tune exclusively for one. And with hardware timing as it is (uncertain!), more of these titles may start appearing.

(Just to be clear, VR tech seems – to me – to be far more exciting than Kinect, but some of the problems around control and installed base are very similar.)

Death – Valve/HTC Vive

Full disclosure: I’ve already said that the Valve demo I got of their HTC collaboration on SteamVR tech was the most impressive tech demo I’ve seen in the past 5 (10?) years. So it’s natural that the final horseman would be this – the Vive.

(BTW, I’ve been told by my colleagues that I’m ‘not allowed’ to quote excerpts from the Book Of Revelations with Gabe Newell and Doug Lombardi’s names inserted. Whatever, guys.)

But why is this a big deal? Well, firstly, it’s technology that incorporates all of the previous features I’ve mentioned, plus much more exact and longer-range positional tracking, and handheld controllers you can ‘see’ rendered in VR that feel unbelievably good. If you get demo-ed (or buy!) this first for VR, you’ll be a believer.

And secondly, I tried a few more demos than Kris Graft did when he wrote up the tech at GDC, and it’s obvious that all of the demos were designed or modified significantly specifically for the big advantages of SteamVR. These are the 15ft x 15ft room you can walk around in while in the VR space – with a clever ‘holodeck grid’ method of showing when you might run into a wall – and those aforementioned controllers.

For example, in the TiltBrush demo we got (interestingly, creators Skillman & Hackett just got snapped up by Google, so we’ll see what happens there!), one of the two VR controllers opened up a palette ‘hovering’ above it, and you could use a pointer emanating from the other controller to pick a palette for the 3D lines you intend to draw.

If done right – and in the Job Simulator and Portal universe demos shown at GDC, it was done right – it could mean a major shift in reality as we know it, for those who want to spend a lot of time with a visor on their face. But there’s some big, big issues around this highest end of VR right now.

The largest, of course, is that you need a 15 x 15ft room to use SteamVR as demonstrated. Given all the issues gamers had finding 6ft of space away from their TV for the Kinect (there was even a peripheral from Nyko that existed just to shrink space!), you can see that being a major stumbling block. And then there’s a cost – the PC and all the peripherals must top $1000 at launch – probably closer to $1500-$2000.

These aren’t insurmountable. Costs have come down before over time. And maybe there’s a way to deal with the space issues, whether it be a ‘walk on the spot’ machine or entertainment centers you visit to play.

But how many people are going to be visited by this fourth Horseman when they are asked whether they dig VR, whether they buy in? And how many will be happy – or unhappy – with less? And how many will know what the difference is, because they met with Conquest, or War?

Which Harbinger will most people see, and so which version of VR will people accept or reject? Palmer Luckey is 100% right when he says that “I think really bad VR is the only thing that can kill off VR.” But does the right level of VR for mainstream acceptance demand entire rooms fenced off just for virtual reality? I don’t know. All I know is that it’s going to be an interesting couple of years.

[THE FIFTH HORSEMAN? A couple of people have asked me why I didn’t really talk about Sony’s Project Morpheus in this piece. Good question! Firstly, I’ve had less chance to try it – demos have been a bit more limited. And secondly, it seems a little bit earlier in terms of opening up to third-party developers – although I guess that’s also true for Vive!

I do think that if Sony gets it right, it could hit the sweet spot between, uh, #3 and #4 on the Horsemen meter. And sure, I’ll make it ‘The Fifth Horseman’ to make up for my lack of research! There’s promise there – especially since so many people already own the console, and the tech is rapidly advancing. But Valve’s demo seems ahead of Morpheus in terms of buzz right now. We’ll see!]


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