Virtual reality head-mounted displays – a concept as endemic to the genre of science fiction as space travel, and one that’s been around since as far back as Stanley G. Weinbaum’s 1935 short story, ‘Pymalion’s Spectacles”. A concept that, now materialised, is pure fiction no more.
Whilst the holy grail of the immersive experience, in which the user inhabits a virtual self that can fully interact with the virtual environment whilst receiving stimuli to all of the five senses, still remains out of reach of current capabilities, it would be hasty to dismiss the advances made in the three years since Palmer Luckey’s virtual reality head-mounted display (HMD), Oculus Rift, caught the attention of the media in 2012 when the company secured $2.5 million USD on crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, nearly 10 times the sum of its original goal.
Increasing the spectrum of entertainment medium engagement
Now reaching breakneck speed, the momentum at which VR hardware and compatible software is currently being developed for the consumer market is reflected in the abundance of companies, spanning a variety of entertainment mediums, that have formed partnerships with Oculus, keen to explore how VR technology can be applied to their users’ experiences.
In the realm of cinematic arts, Netflix, Lionsgate, and Twentieth Century Fox have already gotten onboard, the latter of which sees the release of its latest blockbuster, Ridley Scott’s ‘The Martian’, accompanied by a 15-minute VR experience developed by two-time Oscar-winning production design Robert Stromberg.
Certainly, “experiences” lend themselves well to the platform and the variety of those already on offer is compelling; the serenity of gazing down on the earth from an unobstructed view in the International Space Station’s cupola – sure! What about taking a virtual seat at democratic debates during the coming USA elections – please, take a seat. Got a bit of programming know-how under your belt – why not use VR to propose marriage to your loved one? (Yes, really.)
Virtual reality & video gaming – a highly anticipated pairing
With several years to develop for the soon-to-be-released technology, there are any number of weird Oculus experiences you can have. Yet, perhaps the most anticipated foray into the world of VR for consumers is that of VR video gaming.I myself was fortunate enough to experience the Oculus Rift in action at the Eurogamer Expo back in 2013; a kayaking simulation that left me impressed but more than a little motion sick, a common problem for users across the platform that scientists and engineers are working hard to solve.
However, the lasting impression of Oculus’ Rift that any trade show attendee left with was that of the potential of the device, which garnered it much attention and huge desirability in the gaming world – this initial excitement only intensified with the device exhibited alongside peripheral hardware such as Virtuix’s Omni gaming treadmill, a circular treadmill which when combined with a VR HMD can provide the, albeit rather awkward, experience of physically moving within your virtual world.Take a dude kitted out with a HMD, walking on the Omni treadmill and playing in VR, and pair that with fan favourites Team Fortress 2 and Skyrim, as the Virtuix Omni demoed at many events, and you’ve got the dream combo that left gamers chomping at the bit to get their hands on the gear.
Undoubtedly, many gamers have a great deal of hope for the integration of VR in pioneering gaming experiences, and with industry figurehead John Carmack, co-founder of id Software and lead programmer on iconic franchises such as Doom, Quake, and WoIfenstein, publicly stating his support of the technology it’s hard to resist speculating about the possible uses of the tech in the games arena.
After all, Carmack was invested enough in his belief that VR development must play an integral part in the future of gaming that in November 2013 he departed from id Software to become Chief Technology Officer for Oculus Rift, barely a year after he gave great press exposure to Luckey’s Oculus Rift prototype at the 2012 Electronic Entertainment Expo ahead of the Kickstarter campaign.
Increasing in hardware specs throughout its lengthy development, and in consumer cost, the Oculus Rift needs serious hardware to fulfil the demands of such resource-intensive gaming. But, it is one of many VR devices soon coming to the consumer market.
Whist current-gen consoles and high-end desktop computers are obvious candidates for VR investment, there are a growing number of HMDs at lower price points and with a slightly different focus: mobile gaming.
Virtual reality for the casual gamer
As the smartphone became a staple of our 21st Century lives, the mobile App market climbed to tremendous heights, and devs are not known for missing a beat when it comes to staying ‘on trend’. Whilst mobile tech giants like Samsung have worked with Oculus on their Gear VR HMD, ready to roll out this Autumn and exclusively compatible with their latest range of super powerful smartphones, DIY and multi-format headsets, such as Google Cardboard, that will work with most modern smartphones are also coming to market.
Another promising multi-format HMD on offer is Merge VR, which will be sold by British video games retail company GAMEsold by British video games retail company GAME for around £50.
The Merge VR headset comes with a dual thumbstick controller that features a 9-axis motion-sensor, can be used in a variety of orientations, and can be paired with your smartphone via bluetooth; smooth motion detection and a controller that allows for simultaneous input give plenty for Android and iOS developers to play with.
Indeed, it will be interesting to see the way compatible controllers are integrated into virtual reality HMDs and their software as it will have an effect on the type of games being developed for the platform; there will need to be much more on offer than shooters that rely solely on the tedious action of pressing the buttons on the side of your HMD to vanquish your enemies if the platform is to flourish and become as mainstream as desired, and many have pointed to the need for a landmark title to ‘sell the system’ to consumers.
Still, with renowned titles like Minecraft and Temple Run coming to VR, and Apple Design Award-winning creative agency Ustwo set to release Land’s End, an interactive storytelling VR game that looks well crafted for the platform, it seems that across the board the bar for ‘VR experience’ has been set appropriately high.