Virtual Reality and the Future of Videogames

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It’s official; we’re living in the future. In Back to the Future Part II, Marty McFly and Doc Brown piloted their tricked-out DeLorean time machine from the year 1985 to the distant future; the year 2015. While the film didn’t get everything right about the tech of our time, its depiction of virtual reality gaming might not be too far off the mark.

On Wednesday, Microsoft announced their ‘HoloLens’ device during a Windows 10 keynote at their headquarters in Redmond, Washington, and it looks promising. Unlike the Oculus Rift and other virtual reality devices, the HoloLens creates augmented reality through the creation of holographic illusions – virtual objects – for users to interact with in their real-world surroundings. It’s all very sci-fi and the prospect of immersing yourself in a virtual world is exciting, but haven’t we seen this before?

In 1995, Nintendo gave virtual reality a try with the Virtual Boy headset and after roughly one year it was quickly and quietly taken off the market due to low sales figures. Its failures were myriad and complex but, in short, several design oversights led to hardware that was uncomfortable and impractical to use for any length of time. The jarring red monochromatic graphics that the Virtual Boy presented also caused problems for users. It was harsh on the eyes and many complained of headaches and eye strain. The final nail in the Virtual Boy’s coffin was the lack of worthwhile games that utilised the hardware effectively. With a couple of exceptions – I still think that Mario Tennis looks pretty cool today – the Virtual Boy’s line-up failed to deliver on its promise of heightened immersion; of feeling as though you have actually stepped in to a virtual world.

Given the financial failure of Nintendo’s headset, it’s not particularly surprising that we didn’t hear much about virtual reality in the years that followed. It looks as if that’s all beginning to change however. Virtual reality re-entered the headlines in 2012 when a company called Oculus VR hit Kickstarter to raise funds for the development of their Oculus Rift headset. Almost three years later, it still isn’t readily available to consumers but it shows a great deal of promise. The Oculus has been generally well-received by the press and is often praised for its immersive 3D effect and relative comfort. Additionally, the Oculus promises to utilise original games as well as popular hits and, crucially, many developers seem to have taken to the device. A recent tech demo let players sample last year’s Alien: Isolation and it proved to be an immersive, if terrifying, experience for those that tried it. Having been bought by Facebook for $2 billion last year, Oculus VR also has some pretty heavy financial backing.

Not to be outdone, Sony started showing off their own virtual reality tech at GDC 2014. Sony’s headset – Project Morpheus – also shows promise and first impressions have been largely positive. With global sales of the PlayStation 4 reportedly reaching over 18 million units as of January, there is certainly a large install base for Project Morpheus and many gamers are keen to find out more.

The high level of graphical fidelity that games can offer now and the smart tech behind these new devices means that if they are marketed well and appropriately priced we could well be on the verge of a VR renaissance. Given the failures of the past and the fickle nature of consumers, however, I remain sceptical of – but hopeful for – the future of virtual reality gaming.