The Hype Dissected: What VR Really Means For Gaming

COVER STORY: What drives the hype behind VR? We talked to people at every level of the industry to find out.

Article by Kat Bailey, .

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This article was originally posted in April. With the PlayStation VR out today, we're reposting it for your reading pleasure.

This is the state of VR in 2016: large hardware developers will be asking consumers to spend between $400 and $800 for headsets that are barely a step removed from the prototype phase. And early adopters will pay the price of admission because they are believers in the potential of VR as much as the actual technology.

This is not unusual for new technology. Smartphones, media formats, and videogame consoles have all had phases where early adopters have been willing to shell out hundreds of dollars for awkward, unfinished technology. But what's different this time is the breathless hype. There are investors, developers, and industry insiders calling VR the biggest technological leap since the smartphone. Technology research firm SuperData is predicting $3.6 billion in revenue from VR for 2016 alone.

"The Deep," one of the PlayStation VR's earliest demos.

And yet, I can't think of many instances where I've encountered a technology as divisive as VR. No one ever doubted that smartphones would "make it," mostly because the benefits of being able to go online anywhere were obvious. With VR, you have media personalities like Bill Maher saying, Can we stop trying to make [virtual reality] a thing?"

The benefits of VR remain nebulous and hard to grasp, and even its biggest boosters admit that the tech has a long way to go before it reaches anything resembling its full potential. But that hasn't stopped VR from being the biggest tech story in 2016; and with the Rift and HTC Vive now on the market, the hype train isn't likely to slow down anytime soon.

For now, gaming is the biggest driver of VR, and will continue to be for the near future. But even among gamers - the most enthusiastic of early adopters in most cases - the potential of VR gaming has been a point of heated debate; and not just among fans, but developers as well. Here's where it stands.

That's a Shark

I first put on a VR headset in 2014, shortly after Sony announced what would become the PlayStation VR. I wrote at the time, "While I didn't truly feel what I would call 'fear' — I was very much aware that I was in a simulation — I felt a level of immersion that I've never experienced in a game before. Until now, the distance between myself and the screen has always created a natural sense of removal from the action. With [PlayStation VR], that sense of removal is mostly gone. I knew it wasn't real, but the lizard portion of my brain was still screaming, "That’s a shark!" It was definitely a unique experience."

For a lot of early adopters, that first experience is enough to make them true believers. It's intense enough that they become convinced that we're on a verge of an entirely new interactive paradigm. Tom Sanocki is typical of a VR convert within the industry. Sanocki's career has taken him from an 11-year career at Pixar, through a stint at Bungie working on Destiny, and into a new position as founder and CEO of Limitless - one of the many startups that have sprung up around VR.

I met Sanocki at GDC, where he was demoing an animated VR short called Gary the Gull - a brief demo in which you interact with hyperactive seagull by shaking and nodding your head. When I asked him what possibilities VR hold, he half-jokingly responded, "Well, it's clearly going to take over the world."

I say "half-jokingly" because this is a pretty common refrain for VR enthusiasts: virtual reality and augmented reality are inevitable, they say. It's only a matter of time before the technology matures enough that it's adopted by mass audiences.

"Once you have people together, you're going to find all kinds of great things to do, and just experiencing great entertainment where you're in the middle of the action. Yeah, that’s what we’ve always wanted," he told me excitedly. "It's why kids play cops and robbers and kids play house. You want to be in the middle of that. Watching it is great, but being part of it really feels special."

Like many VR evangelists, Sanocki loves to compare the tech to the last technological revolution - smartphones. "Yeah, [VR] is like a brick cell phone, it’s a little awkward, but you know, there’s a lot of magic to it, and I can experience that magic. And it’s a little weird the first time, but I’ll get used to it, and it will take just a little while for that to get better or we get used to it, because we get used to a lot of things if it’s worthwhile. We forget that driving a car is actually a pretty foreign thing. A steering wheel and the clutch and all that, it’s not really that interesting, it’s not a great UI, it’s not a great experience, but, the magic of getting from point A to point B by yourself, I’ll deal with that. I’ll take driving lessons, I’ll put all this effort into it, I'll risk the chance of getting hit because of that magic. We'll see what the future holds, but we’re off to a really great start, because I don’t know of any other technology that has had such great momentum in its first year, before it launches to consumers, and has had support from so many major companies, both from the content end and the hardware end."

The Headsets: HTC Vive

$799, April 5
Developed in partnership with HTC, the Vive is Valve's entry in the VR race. The Vive supports many of the same games as the Oculus Rift, but its "Lighthouse" tracker differs from the Rift in that it's a light-based system that allows you to physically move around a room. The Vive is the most expensive of the VR headsets, but it benefits from including motion controllers in the package, unlike the Rift.

Not surprisingly, gamers are among the most fervent VR boosters. A few years back, when I was working on a story about a fan remake of Trespasser - the bizarre but ambitious videogame spinoff of Jurassic Park - its creator talked about how he was building it around VR. At the time, it sounded kind of insane to build it around such high-end tech; now it feels forward-thinking. In press circles, Polygon's Ben Kuchera is a well-known VR evangelist.

On the face of it, VR fulfills the desire to actually climb into a game and be a part of a fantasy world. Where we once built outsized simulators and shot bad guys with plastic guns, we can now don a headset and become totally immersed. The power of being able to turn your head and track ships as they fly past, or lean into a turn when driving, or actually wield a lightsaber is undeniable.

VR's natural gaming applications has dominated most of the narrative so far. Both the Occulus Rift and the HTC Vive are being treated as new gaming consoles by the media, and Sony has deliberately attached their VR headset to the PlayStation. But with so many possibilities, it's hard to say what form VR gaming will actually take.

"Games are the trojan horse of VR," a developer casually told me the other day when I asked him for his thoughts on the Vive and the Rift. He's as excited as anyone about VR - he thinks that they'll "have a mucher greater impact on society than smartphones ever did" - but his thoughts on games are illuminating. And indeed, VR games still have a lot of hurdles to overcome.

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Comments 15

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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #1 VotesForCows 2 years ago
    I remain sceptical that the contrast between fully immersive visuals and the contradictory data from your other senses will ever be comfortable for more than a few minutes. That goes double for how you manipulate or interact with the visual environment. But we'll see!

    Edit: Great article by the way!Edited April 2016 by VotesForCows
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  • Avatar for MetManMas #2 MetManMas 2 years ago
    "VR and especially AR will have a huge impact on digital content and entertainment in the long-term as, in a couple generations from now, nobody will interact with a screen anymore."

    I serioulsly think this statement is Wackyland-grade wishful thinking.

    I'm sure VR will have its fans, but at best I only ever see it coexisting with other technologies. Even if some wizard comes along and uses his magic wand to make it so nobody has motion sickness or headaches with the device, it still doesn't change that at the end of the day, there are more comfortable ways to play games or watch movies or browse the Internet than strapping some expensive piece of junk to your face and sealing yourself off from the world.

    VR isn't even in the same league as mobile phones. Touchscreen phones were successful because they could have multiple functions (video player, Internet browser, camera, music player, gaming device, and I'm sure phones in there somewhere) while having the touchscreen itself do most of the heavy lifting that would've required buttons on other devices.

    All VR really has going for it game-wise right now is immersion.
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  • Avatar for INSOMANiAC #3 INSOMANiAC 2 years ago
    I think GearVr will, and has played a massive role, it was an inspired move by Oculus and Samsung. I work in a phone shop and every single person I've shown the GearVR to has bought one, or bought the s& or edge on the back of it.
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  • Avatar for Mikki-Saturn #4 Mikki-Saturn 2 years ago
    I get motion sickness from some FPS games. They've gotten a lot better over the years - but early games like Doom or even the N64 Turok are rough. I can only play them in small doses. I think for me, VR where you actually walk around, holding props, etc is basically the only option. I certainly won't be buying a $500 headset just to play for 15 minutes at a time.

    For these reasons (and others) I'm actually slightly more interested in AR - I feel like I can imagine some cool applications and I assume with AR motion sickness would not be much of an issue. Either way I'm in sit-back-and-wait mode for now. We'll see what happens.
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  • Avatar for manny_c44 #5 manny_c44 2 years ago
    Even just reading some of these descriptions gave me mild nausea...'anticipation nausea' if you will.
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  • Avatar for sfalletta #6 sfalletta 2 years ago
    Great article.

    I'm sure VR will be successful but I don't see it as a product for me, or at least for me as a gamer. I am married with chi...dogs so that gives me about 2 hour a night of down time at home during the week. I do not want to go into a cocoon and ignore the people I enjoy the most to play a game. My life makes the VR price point unjustifiable now. I can see that changing when the price drops since I won't be annoyed over a $200 VR headset collecting dust for a week or 2 as opposed to a $700 one. Truthfully, my excitement for VR is in the academic field. I am working on my graduate degree in history and I can see VR changing the way online/distance learning can be. That is a very exciting future.Edited April 2016 by sfalletta
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  • Avatar for marathedemon #7 marathedemon 2 years ago
    No one involved in VR is acknowledging that VR is a really really hard sell to a gaming community which is rapidly incorporating people from every walk of life, and that it expects people to completely change their media consumption behavior. Smart phones are a thing, and if people aren't going to ignore them when they really should, like while driving, they sure aren't going to want to ignore them while playing a game.

    On top of that some of these developers sound straight up deluded. McCauley arguing that the high price point is a good thing? VR is basically a game console, name one example from history where the super overpriced option won out in the end (you can't).

    After reading this article I get a sense that the developers involved still view gaming as a niche hobby, and don't take into account the average consumer at all. Maybe if they were apple, and had inexplicable luck moving from a niche market to a general audience then they would be succesful, but seeing the way they go about this thing, I see VR doing a slow crash and burn.

    Great, really insightful article! You are one of the best Kat!
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  • Avatar for manny_c44 #8 manny_c44 2 years ago
    @marathedemon Yeah but maybe for now VR really is only a niche hobby in the same vein that DOS gaming was. Lots of equipment, people really into tinkering. For now all of the money might be in the niche, that's the market.
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  • Avatar for tysonsdream98 #9 tysonsdream98 2 years ago
  • Avatar for tysonsdream98 #10 tysonsdream98 2 years ago
    Deleted April 2016 by tysonsdream98
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  • Avatar for SuperShinobi #11 SuperShinobi 2 years ago
    I have a PSVR on pre-order and I'm absolutely going to get a Vive also at some point. I think I've had a VR headset on pre-order mentally since the '90s. Now can someone please make a realistic VR Golf game for the Vive with a motion-tracked replica golf club as a controller and a Wipeout-style futuristic racer for PSVR?
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  • Avatar for tysonsdream98 #12 tysonsdream98 2 years ago
    Deleted April 2016 by tysonsdream98
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  • Avatar for tysonsdream98 #13 tysonsdream98 2 years ago
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  • Avatar for docexe #14 docexe 2 years ago
    Nice article. I think VR (and for that matter, AR technologies as well) will eventually become huge, although not in this decade and probably not to the degree that some of the interviewees are forecasting (e.g. “in a couple of generations people won’t even look at screens”? Well, they used to say the same about people not using paper anymore because of computers, yet here we are...)

    Now, while I think headsets like the Oculus and Vive will remain as niche products for the foreseeable future, a point mentioned by the article that got my attention is the possibility of VR reaching a more mainstream audience through arcades and game centers. Considering what Lucasfilm showed at GDC with the Star Wars VR demo (and which I don’t doubt will eventually be incorporated at one or many of Disney’s theme parks), the possibilities there are very interesting.
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  • Avatar for l4wd0g #15 l4wd0g 2 years ago
    I guess I need to try it. But after watching the Giant Bomb live streams I'm just not feeling it.

    The Oculus looked like it's just using your head for camera control and the Vive looked like Wii games compilation. I know that's a bit reductive, but it just wasn't $600+ (and a new graphics card) exciting.

    Fiscally I have to wonder if publishers, putting as much money as they are into VR, is going to pay off for them.
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  • Avatar for Whinybabyclub #16 Whinybabyclub 2 years ago
    General consensus seems to be that the internet, as usual, is overhyping this to an insane degree. Not a single gamer I've talked to in the past year with the financial means to purchase VR has expressed interest. The price needs to come down, the spaghetti coming out the back needs to get cut, and they need actual games and not tech demos. I'll check back on the VR scene in 2020, provided it doesn't fizzle out like it did in the 90's, or like 3D does every decade.
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  • Avatar for link6616 #17 link6616 2 years ago
    @marathedemon I think frankly the smartphone comment is maybe the biggest hinderance VR has to deal with for a while.

    Maybe in a few years we'll be less addicted, but for now, since we can't stop people playing pokemon go and driving, we can't expect people to sit for hours in an experience that actively prohibits phone usage...

    However, I think VR while it won't be a huge huge market, I think it'll be a big niche. I am confident we will get to a point where everyone has a friend who does VR like everyone knows a guy who plays magic the gathering.

    Which frankly is still a really good place to be.

    Although I am still way more up for AR than VR frankly.
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  • Avatar for mattcom26 #18 mattcom26 2 years ago
    "Risk getting hit by a car"... I guess in VR terms that's tripping over your coffee table.
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