Sunday, December 11, 2016

You're Getting VR Wrong (And Not The Way You Think You Are)

Sunday, December 11, 2016 1

The central imagery for VR is people wearing the headset. They're In There, they're experiencing new worlds, you the viewer are left pining for whatever special experience they're having, or trying to interpolate the experience of what is clumsily superimposed behind them on a green screen.

"Presence," as we're calling it, after having already used up "immersion," is absolutely real, and is foremost to the appeal of VR, but it is not ultimately what VR is best at. Stay with me for a minute here.

The trouble people have had with VR is that they're being delivered two extraordinary pieces of tech together as a suite. The first and seemingly most important is the head mounted display (HMD), which hijacks enough sensory apparatus to fool our brains into thinking, at least on some level, We Are There, This Is Real (albeit ghostly and insubstantial).
This is what almost all introductory VR experiences focus on, and almost all VR experiences are introductory at the moment.
And like most launch window software, they've got it wrong.

Being In There is great, but with enough exposure a human will acclimate to anything extraordinary. Think of the men having lunch on a girder of a skyscraper in progress high above New York and so on. I believe that's a big part of why VR is stalling out in terms of install base at the moment. Mere spectacle isn't good enough, it will never be enough.
If spectacle plus some headaches and discomfort were enough, we'd all be watching terrible movies on our 3D televisions and loving it. But we're not, terrible movies on flat screens are just fine, thank you.

No, the second and more important part of the revolutionary tech suite bundled together as "VR" is motion control. Real motion control.
Though I'm sure it was a necessary stepping stone, as an industry we cried revolutionary product wolf with motion controls with the Wii and Kinect despite not having it at all.
The Wiimote was never going to cut it because the precision was not there, barely enough for a crude parody of known sports. But it gave us a glimpse of the ubiquitous ease of entry that would come later.
The Kinect was never going to cut it because other than the input lag, you know you look like an idiot waving around in your living room, rather than slouched with a controller looking catatonic as usual. That, at least, your family is used to seeing.

The key point is that in VR you are still going to look like an idiot waving around but you're not going to care, because now you're In There, you can't see the fallen world you inhabit the rest of your waking hours. We've finally got enough accuracy and speed to put your hands in the game, for real, and the results are incredible.
I put my septuagenarian father into the Vive to shoot basketballs like he's done all his life in Nvidia's VR Funhouse and he didn't even blink, he just tried to shoot basketballs. Think of that compared to any experience of handing a non-player a controller, much less strapping something to their head.

That's the trick. We think we are going to have something amazing that is just going to explode the brains of the non-believers and plebians, but that isn't what will get them, or get you for that matter. It's finally being able to use this miraculous head and hands as direct input.
The fact that the environment tracks with our head and we can see it and we feel more or less immersed is important, but secondary to being able to act in that world like we expect to, and on that score the Vive was correct to go completely all-in on roomscale experiences, despite how opulent it seems to some at this point.

So far I sound like most other VR evangelists but I want to point out now that there is no possible near future, no matter who is president, that is going to make my father run and spend the thousands of dollars to get a Vive and the computer to run it.
Your parents, and most of your siblings, and most of your friends aren't going to either. They're going to be amazed by the demo you give them, and probably talk about it a lot, maybe even tell all their peers about it, but they're not going to be the least bit interested in getting back in there themselves. That was a unique one-off. A trip to the amusement park. A thing to talk about on social media. Not a decision point, or whatever the marketing people call it.

We can talk all we want about how this shouldn't be, and ways to fight it, and constantly swallow the lump in our throats about a clear inferiority complex that continues to plague game players and developers, but that's a lot to get into today. It's Sunday, take it easy.

What I want to get out there is VR is absolutely real, and incredible, but it's being wasted right now. We're showing Mom a tiny moon in Tilt Brush that seems to be floating in the room with her. She reacts predictably while we film it on our phones. I've done it too. Filming first timers in VR is as much fun as it is useless in selling more VR sets.

Strain to remember all those forgettable launch titles for every new console generation. A worse version of that is all that is available to play for VR right now. Maybe not quite that dire--for PSVR and soon PC, there's Thumper; for Vive there's Onward. But that's about it.

We need games. Real games that are fun to play once the novelty of VR has long worn off. Games that can't be played with prior control schemes.

The people that are going to pay thousands of dollars for VR right now are the ones that want to crawl inside their videogames, not everyone else who has a vague contempt and suspicion for what we play. They can come too if they like, but I don't think they're going to pony up any cash any time soon beyond the mobile VR market. Which is not going to lead to much beyond an incredible amount of VR pornography. Chiefly because mobile VR currently has no facility for precise motion control, the real star of VR.

Videogames, beyond some hotseat multiplayer and the like, has tended to be a one-slackened-face-to-one-screen solitary affair. Why are we bending over backwards to sell VR as something even more social than regular games? Because we want to prove all of our favorite cyberpunk media wrong? I don't buy it. Strapping something over your eyes is necessarily going to be isolating, but not that much more so than gaming has ever been.

I've got another hundred pages I want to write about how the big companies have been peddling a fundamentally wrongly targeted campaign for VR and have been paying the price for it, or how teleport locomotion was never the right call, but I don't want to bore you, I want to get back to working on a game for VR that couldn't be played in anything but VR.

 See you In There.

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