Oculus Rift is a Fad

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.

16 thoughts on “Oculus Rift is a Fad

  1. Pingback: Latency Illness | Gamecraft

  2. The fact that virtual headsets were available 18 years ago can also be considered to be in favour that the Oculus Rift could succeed. The development of technology since 1995 is phenomenal., and taking into consideration Moore’s Law, it’s continuing to accelerate. Back then we didn’t have 7 inch screens capable of of displaying One Thousand, Nine Hundred and Eighty Pixels side by side (which is what they expect the consumer version to run), or screens that can display more colours than the human eye can see, or the years of research gone into VR in universities around the world that nobody hears about because they hadn’t quite cracked it yet. Now this guy might not have it perfect… but he’s close and that’s why he crowd sourced in the first place… to fund him ‘getting it perfect’. And this is only 1st gen Oculus Rift.

    Also Consider how much more accessible game engines such as Unity and Unreal and animation software Blender have become which allows the production of new material on such a mass scale. No not all this material is great, but stuff that is is amazing.

    That’s what will happen with The Rift. The initial novelty of feeling like you’re ‘in the game’ may eventually wear off, but the experience of the individual games, experiences that can only be offered via this medium, is what makes me think this will be a successful product.

    • >Back then we didn’t have […] screens that can display more colours than the human eye can see

      Actually, that is factually incorrect. Both of our old headsets have analog color inputs, so the number of colors available is technically infinite, and in 1995 I was developing on consumer grade video hardware capable of driving displays with imperceptible changes in color from one pixel to the next. This aspect of video display technology has not really advanced all that much (and for good reason: nobody can tell 😉 ). I do not think that Moore’s law applies the way you think (if it applies at all anymore).

      You may be correct; Oculus Rift could take off, but I doubt it. The last VR craze showed us that there are limited applications for which headsets and other hardware work well, such as location-based games and architectural walkthroughs (and “futuristic” scenes from Hollywood), but they are not practical for mainstream entertainment.

  3. Fair enough, I wasn’t aware that screens were so advanced back then… but you seem to have ignored some of my strongest points, and I still had more to come 🙂 We’re all entitled to our own opinion of course but I think it’s totally unfair to compare technology and society to how it stood 18 years ago.

  4. They created a head tracker chip just for the Rift to get around this motion sickness. This chip runs at 1000hz, most of the other ones that went to market never exceeded 120hz.

    Resolution is also getting better for smaller screens, which means we’re getting tighter pixel density, this moves us further away from the screen door effects of seeing the pixel array up close.

    We can’t possibly conceive of the uses for this. Lets think back when smart phones first came to market, in the early 2000s. Could someone really of guessed then what the smartphones of today are delivering? Whether it’s a fad or not is up to time and the public reception. Saying it’s a fad because it didn’t work before is naive.

  5. Indeed people tend to forget about Victormaxx’ Cybermaxx headset. Man, I remember back in the 90’s when I got my hands on one of those. Yes, it was terribly painful to use for more than 5 minutes at a time, but it was also the most awesome peripheral you could get back then. I remember when I got Descent to work with it and not to forget the demo software that came with it on 3,5″ disks. The rollercoaster/horror house demo was epic.

  6. Ok.
    But the main difference is that now we have software that would actually benefit from a hmd. Where were the tech back in 95? Doom came with 2d sprites (or similar) (what benefit one can get looking at that in stereo?), even worse the true 3d models (coming later) looked terrible!
    Nowadays when consumer grade pc can handle better in game graphics than the still renders, or artworks of that age, things might just go differently!

  7. > But the main difference is that now we have software that would actually benefit from a hmd.

    Better looking software does not negate the two issues I mentioned (latency and inconvenience). Sure, mainstream game software does look better nowadays, but lack of visual quality or game immersion was not the issue.

    > Where were the tech back in 95?

    It was actually quite good. Descent would have been (even more) phenomenal in a headset without latency, and Dark Forces was quite fun to play with a VR headset, as long as one limited the exposure time.

    With the recent news that John Carmack has now joined Oculus Rift, as Chief Technical Officer, I know that someone with a complete technical understanding is working to improve the product (i.e., mitigate the fundamental flaws). Still, only the future holds the answer as to whether my conclusion was correct.

  8. I would have to disagree with you. I have the oculus rift, and have tested alot of the old school HMDs, and for me the Rift is the only one that has done the concept of VR true justice. Also not having audio built into the rift has made it a practical device. I dont always want headsets on while playing with the rift, especially if I were to use it for something other than gaming,
    I have a very expensive pair of headsets, and I beleive that if the Rift came with audio, the device would be to expensive if it tried to match the quality of my headsets. It just makes more sense to seperate the audio, in my opinion. I could rattle off a long list why, but I’ll spare you that rant.

  9. So apparently no one noticed that Sony created a head mounted display at same time as the oculus rift but with much better resolution? The resolution of the rift is about the same as the Virtual IO i-glasses (yes I have tried all three). The only one that doesn’t look like you are looking at a pair of low resolution lcd’s is the Sony… So I’m not so sure there is anything revolutionary about 1995 technology.

  10. With the advancement of Sony’s Project Morpheus, Facebook’s purchase of Oculus VR (and the subsequent disillusionment of some supporters), and the pending Zenimax IP lawsuit, it seems that, unsurprisingly, the headset landscape is continuing to shift under our feet, so to speak. 🙂

  11. And then a year later, BAM along comes Dev kit 2 with double the vertical/horizontal resolution, extremely low latency and persistence and full positional (not just rotation) tracking to shatter this “fad” accusation.
    Tech just wasn’t ready for it back in your day I’m betting. No massive communities of open source coders to make drivers, no low latency oled screens and accelerometers. Thanks for helping to inspire this revolution, but do not expect a quick death like the last.

  12. I laugh at the people that think Oculus Rift is going to be some gaming evolution, and that it will be around 10 years from now. It will enjoy some success I’m sure, but the amount of people that buy it won’t be able to buy enough software to maintain a steady development of OR software, and gradually it will just fade away, like 3D at the movies.

  13. I find it fascinating that you comment on a post from about three and a half years ago gloating about VR, when no product has proven viable in the marketplace in all that time. Sales of commercial VR hardware, far from accelerating, actually stagnated in August. Of course, PlayStation VR has just been released, but it remains unproven.

    According to recent forecasts I have read, augmented reality, generally considered to be far behind virtual reality on the development curve, is nevertheless expected to have triple the market within the next 3.5 years. The AR market is also fairly unproven, save Pokémon Go, but that suggests even more strongly that VR is never going to be “the next big thing”; that is still just hype.

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