Mar 19 2014, 1:56pm CDT | by Forbes
There’s something so fantastically science-fiction about the concept of virtual reality. It’s the closest thing we have to jetpacks and hover-boards, those futuristic technologies we watched on TV as kids, and read about in books. And with virtual reality, we’ll be able to finally drive in flying cars and take trips to the moon.
Because VR is so steeped in science-fiction, I can’t help but also recall the dire warnings: People lost in alternate worlds, virtual reality junkies , incapable or unwilling to unplug.
Many of these fears are likely overblown, of course. Just like D&D does not create satanists and Dark Souls isn’t causing people to kill , neither will the Oculus Rift, nor Sony’s recently announced Project Morpheus, transform people into homicidal maniacs a la The Lawnmower Man.
But there is a risk with VR, I think, of fostering an even more anti-social gaming experience than the one we already struggle with.
Perhaps anti-social isn’t even the right word—unsocial, detached, isolated. When we play games on the TV or our PC or phone, we’re often playing in proximity to others, and for better or worse the experience is often shared. VR encourages a new kind of selfishness.
By “social” I don’t mean so-called social gaming or online, multiplayer gaming. Almost without question, many of the future VR titles we see will have multiplayer components. VR encourages this, allowing people to share immersive digital worlds with one another via the internet in an entirely new way.
But playing games with real flesh and blood people is healthy; playing games with friends or family is social in a more tangible way than with online “friends.”
Plugging into a VR headset and disappearing for a while sounds like fun, but it also sounds like an invitation to tune out the world and people around you even more.
One really cool, really crucial feature of Sony’s Project Morpheus is the ability to mirror the VR screen onto your TV, allowing other people to play alongside you without having anything strapped to their faces.
Not only does this make VR gaming a potentially more social living-room experience, it also opens the door to asymmetric gameplay.
Sony senior software engineer Anton Mikhailov told Gamasutra that, in Gamasutra’s summation , “developers could build a local multiplayer game where one player, wearing the headset, plays the hero while her friends control the monsters by watching the screen.”
This is not unlike the potential for asymmetric gameplay with something like the Wii U’s second-screen. Unfortunately, that’s a cool idea that still hasn’t managed to take off.
Indeed, comparisons to the Wii U and its attempt to change how we think about video games can be a little worrisome given the system’s lackluster reception.
That’s because, even though it’s an exciting concept, VR remains an unproven technology.
The Oculus Rift has garnered a great deal of hype since its Kickstarter, and Project Morpheus is getting all the expected chatter following its reveal yesterday . But both these and Valve’s VR headset remain theoretically awesome rather than actually awesome. They’re concepts still, entering unexplored territory. These are terrific risks, not sure bets.
That’s not to suggest VR can’t or won’t succeed, by any means. I just like to remind myself that hype doesn’t always translate into success. A good idea doesn’t automatically result in a profitable business venture. VR is coming, but can it make a real splash?
Part of my skepticism is simply that this is what I do for a living. I try to check my own tech-and-gaming-hype at the door. It’s easy to get swept up in the hype when you write about technology, to see each new innovation as groundbreaking.
And it’s important to remember that part of what leads to truly groundbreaking innovation is repeated failure. Failure is the left-hand of success, all part of the experimentation process.
Some of my doubts also stem from the unsocial nature of strapping a gizmo to your forehead and departing planet earth while gaming.
That may work for some people, but I wonder if it actually translates into broad appeal. I honestly have no idea.
VR is exciting. I’ve tried the Oculus Rift and it’s very cool (and better versions have since been tested by others that are even better.)
But I’d be careful about letting the “disruptive technology” cat out of the bag just yet. I think the Oculus Rift is a really compelling product built by really passionate people. Sony’s Project Morpheus seems to have all the right pieces as well, and all the right ambitions. I want them both to succeed. And unlike the Ouya, which I was pretty sure was mostly hype, I think this time around VR may have what it takes.
As Paul Tassi argued earlier , the fact that more than one VR headset is on its way to consumers is really terrific for everyone (so long as it doesn’t end in patent court.)
Competition not only drives innovation, it’s a sign that the wider industry is starting to see VR as viable market.
That’s important, and even though Project Morpheus could become very real competition for the Oculus Rift, ultimately this just means more devices for developers to work with and more potential customers for their VR games. That means more content, and content is king.
If VR had a chance to succeed with Oculus Rift, those chances are improved dramatically following Sony’s announcement.
I’ll hold on to my cautious optimism, or my hopeful skepticism, for the time being.
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