It’s All Been Done [repeat 3 times] Before…
There has recently been a great deal of “buzz” surrounding the Oculus Rift, which is a virtual reality headset, or HMD (Head Mounted Display) with positional tracking. The talk really got started at E3 2012, when John Carmack demonstrated a prototype. After that, Oculus launched a successful Kickstarter campaign, eventually receiving $2.4 million in funding (after seeking just $250K).
The Kickstarter page, however, is very revealing, describing the Oculus Rift as “the first truly immersive virtual reality headset for video games.” This is just plain false, and it shows not only a lack of research, but an associated failure to understand the history of VR gaming headsets, which (unfortunately for them) strongly predicts the future.
There were virtual reality headsets readily available back in 1995, 18 years ago! Then, as now, they were being hyped as a new standard of immersion and a paradigm shift in gaming and [insert preferred hyperbole here]. In particular, I speak of the Virtual i-O iGlasses and the CyberMaxx headset, both of which our company owns (and has in storage, notably not in use), though I recall other competitors; even Nintendo got on the virtual reality bandwagon with its Virtual Boy.
I suppose that this is a good time to provide my credentials for this discussion. In 1995, I wrote the official game drivers for Virtual i-O, which included native drivers for Doom II (ironically, Carmack’s game) and Dark Forces. I was also later (1996) contracted by VictorMaxx (the manufacturer) to write game drivers for the CyberMaxx, as well as a virtual mouse driver that was controlled by its head tracking. Also in 1995, I worked on Locus, the first release from Zombie, and also the first (to my knowledge) retail game that was truly (as the box says) “Engineered for head-mounted displays“. At the very first E3 in Los Angeles, I had my software being shown in three different booths, and I helped demonstrate the iGlasses myself in two of those places. I know whereof I speak.
Clearly, as evidenced by two nearly adult headsets collecting dust in storage, the “virtual reality revolution” never took place. Sure, there were games that supported HMDs, and a brief time when some “location-based entertainment” (a fancy phrase for video arcades) had games which used VR hardware, but most people still played (and play) games with just a controller and a standard display. This is precisely analogous to the non-existent 3D television revolution touted by those with skin in the game; it never happened, and while the hardware is readily (even fairly inexpensively) available, it did not take off.
There are two main issues with why virtual reality gaming has not become mainstream. First, using a head tracker and/or other VR hardware is inconvenient. It requires some preparation, there is a degree of setup, and then players need to wear/use slightly (to significantly) awkward devices. It is nothing that cannot be done fairly easily, but it requires just enough effort that most will generally not bother. This is quite the opposite of the current mobile gaming revolution (which is happening) where a player simply picks up a device, touches a (virtual) button, and plays. There is also no “killer app” for the technology (guillotine simulator notwithstanding), so nothing but novelty to drive sales.
The second issue is that position tracking latency in a head mounted display makes you ill, literally. Extended use (more than 5 minutes or so) of a head tracker will actually give you symptoms similar to motion sickness, or perhaps a severe hangover, including nausea and headaches. Apparently, the makers of the Oculus Rift claim that this feeling of seasickness could be overcome once you get your “VR legs”; do not buy that. There are specific physiological reasons for this reaction, which I will describe in my next post. For now, let me just tell you that I have never gotten seasick nor experienced any other kind of motion sickness, but using the iGlasses for an extended period, during final Doom II driver testing, caused such an unpleasant experience that for a long time I would start feeling unwell just seeing that game played on a normal screen. Locus was explicitly designed to have short matches and encourage a break from the headsets between rounds.
So, the Oculus Rift is nothing that has not been done before, and although the vertical resolution for each eye is slightly better than the Virtual i-O device, the iGlasses actually were more immersive, since they included stereo audio on the device, not just video. That all said, I will admit that the Oculus Rift (like others before it) is a cool device, and I am certainly considering one on that basis. However, it is still just a fad.
A cool fad, but a fad nonetheless.