Over the last few days I’ve read a lot of articles over the “transformative powers of virtual reality” and similarly fancy-sounding gobbledegook in the wake of the upcoming/ just released (depending where you live) Ready Player One movie. The whole thing is just ridiculous on so many levels, but offers the perfect opportunity for a reality check on the state of VR, regardless.
It’s just a Movie
The biggest misconception is that people don’t seem to grasp the concept of movies (and in this case the book it is based on) being works of fiction. Even though the novel is pretty recent, it ultimately portrays a possibly dated, but definitely romanticized version of what VR can do and achieve and how it might work, based on the understanding of a writer. No matter how feasible the scenarios and technologies displayed in it may seem, based thereon any predictions on when and if they come to pass in the real world are as sensible as asking your 85-year-old grandma about what next year’s hot mobile app is going to be.
Here this is even more critical because the novel tugs heavily on our heart-strings with nostalgia. Some German reviews nailed it perfectly: It’s a crazy race through video games pop-culture, but nothing more. One also asked the almost philosophical question of whether you would actually want to live inside such a virtual world for an extended period of time or permanently and the overall conclusion seems to be a pretty firm “No!”. Also you need to figure in the additional soft-washing by Steven Spielberg in the movie, and you know how “realistic” this possibly is.
For better or worse it simply is a world someone may have dreamed up, not how it is necessarily going to be or how it would “work” to add something to people’s lives. Technology in movies just like fashion and hair styles ages badly, anyway. We all know that when we laugh about stuff in films that ten years ago we thought were the coolest thing on Earth. Nokia phones anyone? I’m sure we’ll giggle just as heard over those ski-goggles in the movie (and the movie itself) one day, which brings me to the next point.
Yepp, you’re gonna hate me, but to me VR is just another technology rat race. The harsh truth of the matter is that enough is never enough. At the moment dealing with VR content is more than a royal pain in the rear, both in production and delivery/ playback.
The first element in this chain of failure pretty obviously is the actual display resolution. 4k and 8k resolutions may sound impressive for that new flat screen you just bought, but but once you wrap those many pixels into a sphere or cylinder, it still looks a lot less than 720p HD even. Those resolution issues alone could suffice to explain why most VR experiences are pretty *meh*. Add to that a ton of other technical issues like those pesky lens distortions and you begin to wonder why anyone would even put up with this stuff – both for production and suffering through the unpleasurable viewing experience.
Of course you need to figure in even more things. So far nobody really has cracked navigation and spatial orientation in a way that would prevent headaches and nausea. There’s more mundane side effects like your eyes turning sore and itchy when staring too long at those screens glued in front of your eyes, your hearing being impaired under those helmets and ear muffs, spatial audio mapping and so on down to the almost too trivial to mention issues like physical safety as in not bumping your head and knees into your living room furniture.
What’s pretty aggravating is that companies despite being fully aware of the shortcomings of their VR devices and solutions, manufacturers/ vendors seem to expect the customers to pay for everything. Now of course one could argue that “early adaptors”, depending on how you see it, were either always the ones that got shafted or the ones that helped technologies on their feet by financing the initial cost. Yet, at least they got something out of it in return. With VR that seems a quite different thing because the old chicken vs. egg paradox is particularly prominent here. You can cook up the nicest stuff on your computer, but you have no good way of getting it out there and let people experience it in the same way you may have intended.
Strangely, it somehow always boils down to current VR devices being either way too expensive and too unwieldy or on the other hand just cheap “fun” toys that only half work or are seriously underpowered. In the first category you have things like the Oculus headsets of course, in the other things like for instance Samsung‘s Gear VR. If that wasn’t bad enough, the real kicker is of course that on their own those devices don’t do anything and they need to be fed by a beefy computer, a PlayStation or your smartphone plus possibly a ton of other peripherals. As a result, your VR experience can vary hugely and range from pretty cool to downright awful. It simply depends way too much on how much you are able to afford and invest.
And it doesn’t end there. Remember how Oculus made their stuff (temporarily) useless with a botched update just two weeks ago? How the heck are you supposed to get a reliable, enjoyable experience that way? I mean you have that ugly two thousand dollar helmet and then it suddenly becomes just a piece of trash because the company who sold it to you messed up big time? Such experiences certainly don’t instill confidence and will make people think twice, assuming the actually can get over the fact that they have to wear those conkers. It’s funny how people always refuse to wear bicycle helmets, but totally don’t mind looking like idiots with VR gear on.
So for what it’s worth, until someone can tell me that you can pack all this stuff in a simple box that can be put in your pockets, connected to simple, elegant glasses and at the price of an iPod, I’m not buying it – literally and figuratively. I’m not saying that it won’t be this way some time in the future, but currently we are far, far, far away from that point.
Yes, there’s another wrench being thrown into the gears of VR at the moment and that is simple market demand for graphics chips. You could call it sheer coincidence, you could call it fate, you could call it bad timing, but as it stands, people apparently have found better, more profitable uses for GPUs rather than feeding their VR devices with pixels. Mining cryptocurrencies, artificial intelligence and deep learning or even basic cloud computing powered with graphics hardware have become all the rage and as a result of those use cases essentially sucking the market dry, prices for cards from nVidia and AMD are soaring to new heights despite those companies maxing out their manufacturing capacities.
It’s so crazy that some models are constantly sold out and you sometimes have to wait for months to get your hands on the card you want. Should you then be so lucky you may in fact have to pay a higher price than on the initial release date even for older cards. The old rule of prices dropping every quarter after release no longer is valid, at least for those cards that qualify for those uses, which coincidentally also are the ones you would need to bolster VR. And this isn’t going to change any time soon. There is simply no way in hell for those cheap, yet powerful devices that VR so desperately needs to become available. It’s simply not lucrative. You could even expand this as e.g. nVidia is surely having a good time selling their Tegra chips for Nintendo‘s Switch console just as well.
Lack of (good) Content
One thing that totally rubs me the wrong way is the piss-poor quality of a good chunk of all VR. Especially when it comes to the “cinematic” variety, i.e. pre-recorded clips and presentations, there’s just so much wrong. We don’t even need to discuss the millions of sloppily done “let’s replace our regular camera with a VR one” clips, but also elaborately produced documentaries, music clips and so on all too often just totally miss the mark. It always seems to me people are way to busy shoving down the VR aspect everyone’s throat instead of focusing on telling their story. Yes, show pieces in the worst meaning of the word.
What a lot of creators don’t seem to understand that any VR piece by its nature is an experience-driven medium, not a narrative one. The user simply has way too many possibilities to evade your intended form of interaction and storytelling or misses out on it inadvertently. Basically there’s usually two ways this pans out: A sparsely designed experience will bore people to death and just at the moment they may veer off to find something else to explore, they’ll miss that single important moment that you intended to be the core of your VR experience. The other way around there’s a lot of overstuffed productions under the (wrong) assumption that there always needs to be something for your viewers to always have something to look at no matter where they turn. As a result, those viewers still may miss what was supposed to be the most important bits plus it results in a nauseating overflow of every sensory channel.
And what about interactive content? Games to the rescue? Unfortunately not. So far it’s like there’s only one or two VR-enabled games trickling out every month and a lot of them are short and convoluted, more acting like a tech demo. The rest are adapted versions of existing games with the games companies seemingly only doing the bare minimum of extra work – replacing the renderer/ virtual camera model and remapping inputs. They are of course fully within their rights – with for example 2 million units of the PlayStation VR having been sold vs. at least 50 million actual PS 4 consoles it doesn’t take a math genius to figure out how many games are actually played this way.
What is even more discouraging and confounding is that companies who have been riding the VR train for a while are already jumping off again and shutting down their games for economic reasons. A good example for this is Eve Valkyrie. A space flight simulator with full head movement is one of the most obvious and sensible uses for VR helmets I can think of, yet people aren’t even into that? Imagine how unattractive games tens of times less immersive than this then must be. It’s a bust!
Nobody really wants VR
With all the endless issues, it simply seems nobody really wants VR. Wait – of course the people making a buck from selling this stuff want it – but that’s about it. Otherwise adoption rates are more or less negligible and people don’t seem to have the least bit of desire to enter ridiculous virtual chat systems, explore tourist attractions from their sofa or for that matter get seasick while playing their games.
To me it looks like yet another phase we seem to be going through like every few years and because it is being pushed by “the industry” rather than evolving organically, it ultimately going nowhere. We all know what happened to the stereoscopic 3D TV fad, don’t we? Same story all over again. everyone is just wasting their time, energy, resources and money on something that will be forgotten again a few years down the road…