Next Big Thing
It feels like for the majority of my life, “Consumer Virtual Reality” has been roughly five years away…. or at least that is what the pundits are consistently saying. Granted I have been hearing this for the last three decades of my life. The 90s were really the era of this being the big thing, thanks to the popularity of movies like Lawnmower Man and the weekly reminder of just how amazing the Holodeck could be on Star Trek the Next Generation. The problem has been however that what we are actually capable of delivering, versus what we are expecting… has been a pretty huge gulf to cross. The first time I touched anything I would consider virtual reality, were the extremely expensive Virtuality arcade machines from the roughly 1991. You can see a screenshot of the type of graphics it delivered above. Sure it felt cool to be wandering around a fully immersive 3D world, but the amount of disconnect between your actions and the half dozen polygons that represented your hand… was pretty massive. The funny thing about this game is that apparently it was built on the Amiga 3000 as a hardware platform, which I guess only serves to show you just how advanced that system really was.
I guess for me Virtual Reality has been this failed promise for so long that I have doubted that it would actually really arrive. I threw in a few other examples in the collage above like Sega Holosseum from 1991 that chose to go down the smoke and mirrors route of creating the approximation of holograms, rather than trying to wrap you in a virtual landscape. In many ways it worked better, and playing the game felt like the 3D Chessboard from Star Wars. Then we had the famous Nintendo false step of the Virtual Boy from 1995, that came with the least ergonomic way of playing the game. I think the suggested method was to sit it on a kitchen counter or something…. and lean over to use it. However for MOST of the people I knew that had one they would end up laying on the couch and letting the console rest on their face. There were a bunch of negative effects of seeing the equivalent of gameboy quality graphics in red and black…. and the few times I used it I wound up with a nasty headache. Around 2003 I remember a good friend of mine having 3D glasses that hooked to the PC and provided 1024×768 screens for each eye, but this ended up working the hell out of the video card… and the framerates suffered. So basically… there have been a lot of technologies that have arrived telling me that Virtual Reality is here…. only to not really be the case.
Arrived at a Cost
It was roughly around this time last year that I got to play with the Oculus Rift for the first time. At Pax South I was scheduled to do a media demo of Elite Dangerous, and the marketing guy asked if I had ever used a Rift, and upon hearing that I had not shuttled me towards one of the two machines that had them. Granted there were around ten machines in total in the booth, and only two of them were hooked up and capable of using the Rift which immediately made me a bit suspicious. Firstly… I suck horribly at space shooters…. and they loaded up a dog fighting scenario for me to play where I was put up against a computer ship. The demo ended when either I killed the ship… or it killed me. Needless to say my demo probably took twice the amount of time needed as the other players, but it was really somewhat amazing the first moment when I realized that while chasing this ship…. I could look up through the top of the canopy to trace its movement. There was still the strange uncanny valley as I watched a set of hands move in the cockpit that were not my own. The computer was furiously trying to guess what my hand movements might look like based on the controls I was pressing on the real world HOTAS setup. After I destroyed the ship I asked the Marketing folks some questions, one of which was what sort of hardware they were running this demo on. Not surprisingly they had it running on an Nvidia Titan X which is still currently a roughly $1200 video card…. so I started to temper my expectations.
Yesterday the prices were released for the first generation of the Oculus Rift released for public consumer consumption. Granted at this point there have been several development kit models available for those daring enough to brave the potential issues of dealing with beta hardware. I guess in my mind the price point that seemed reasonable was around $300, because that is what the Samsung Gear unit retails for… and what the supposed price point of the Sony PS4 VR unit will be. I was not insanely shocked however when the pre-order price ended up at roughly double that amount $599. If that $600 price tag were a turn key solution that you simply plugged into the HDMI out on your existing PC, then I guess in truth that would probably be well worth it. However for the bulk of us… we are likely running hardware that is significantly less snazzy than their requirements. The minimum requirements listed are a Nvidia GTX 970 which is essentially a $350 video card. However I would not expect full performance in games like Elite Dangerous on anything lower end than a 980 ti… which pushes you into the roughly $650-700 price range on a video card. So before you have touched the rest of your computer set up at all… you are out $1300 in just the Rift and a high end video card. As much as I love this pipe dream, it is simply too expensive of one for me to even indulge the thought of.
Reality Sets In
The problem I have is that I have a $200 video card, not a $600 video card… and it is unlikely short of winning the lottery that I will ever be able to bring myself to spend that sort of money. I am sure as time goes on, people will get better at writing VR game experiences, and additionally the cost of the hardware itself will come down by the time it reaches the third or fourth generation of the Rift. For the time being, Nvidia gave some numbers that said rendering a game for a VR headset requires roughly seven times the amount of resources. So essentially I have ruled out the Oculus Rift as something I will ever be able to afford. I know my friend Scopique has been playing with some android VR options that supposedly allow you to create ghetto VR for the PC, and I am anxious to see how well these work out for him. Personally I think my first likely footsteps into this is in the form of the Playstation VR, and I linked in a video above to show off that unit and a few of the games. I already have the necessary hardware, namely in the form of a Playstation 4, and if the headset itself ends up being around $300 or even a little more… that becomes within the realm of possibility. Given that I managed to get my PS4 for only $200, that would make the total outlay for the system in the $500-600 price range which seems reasonable.
Essentially I am going to be happy as hell for anyone who manages to pony up the money to get a Oculus Rift. I’ve been watching another friend Qelric do videos every now and then showing off her beta hardware. I hope she can somehow end up getting one of the production units, so I can continue to live vicariously through her experiences. The problem is… that pricetag… is pretty damned steep regardless. The other big problem I have with the Rift so far is that I am not really seeing the killer apps other than Elite Dangerous. Most of the games she has played with feel more like “tech demos” rather than fully fleshed out rich gaming experiences that would sell a unit. RIGS on the other hand on the PSVR seems like exactly the sort of fun multiplayer hardware pushing experience that will get someone to add a headset to their Christmas list. I think the Oculus Rift right now is a true “enthusiast” experience, but isn’t quite “consumer virtual reality” just yet, and it is going to take manufacturers building games for the platform to finally make it worth the purchase price. In the time between however… I am going to continue being interesting in every bit of news I can find. From what I am hearing the units are apparently sold out through May 2016 delivery, so it seems like plenty of folks are willing to plunk down for purchase, and I am anxious to see the sort of experiences especially the youtubers and streamers showcase using the magic box.