Virtual Reality is Real

Shoot the gun and block with the shield

My first experience with virtual reality was in 1993. The computer science department at UBC did an open house, and one of the displays in the Graphics Lab was a simple virtual reality simulator.  The viewer wore glasses with lenses that alternately turned opaque and transparent in each eye. The computer flashed two different views, one for the left eye, and one for the right. A stick connected the viewer’s head to the top of the monitor, so that the computer could sense where the viewer’s head was, and adjust the image accordingly.

It wasn’t the most amazing thing ever, but it certainly worked. As a viewer, I could see a three-dimensional image on the screen that changed in a realistic way when I moved my head. Of course, that a stick needed to be attached to your head was a big weakness, severely limiting the practical applications of the technology. But what do you expect?  It was 1993.

Now it’s almost twenty-five years later, and I’m pleased to say that virtual reality is now real—and I experienced it for myself over the weekend.

The return of the video game arcade

In the last year, several virtual reality technologies have arisen—the Occulus Rift, Playstation VR, and the HTC Vive. With prices in the $1000 range, these technologies are actually targeted at (relatively wealthy) consumers. However, some entrepreneurs have decided to buy fifteen or twenty of these devices, and open virtual reality arcades where consumers pay $10-20 an hour to play virtual reality video games. I went to one of these arcades that is using the HTC Vive technology.

Vive virtual reality requires a PC, a virtual reality headset, earphones, and two handheld controllers. The controllers are like a gun with a touchpad on the grip and buttons on the side, allowing interactions like firing a gun, squeezing a cylinder, and selecting from a touchpad menu. Though there was a learning curve to the system, it wasn’t that difficult to understand the basics.

Most importantly, it works—the experience was almost completely immersive. While the image seemed slightly blurry for the first ten seconds, I didn’t even notice it after that.

I mostly played a game called Space Pirate Trainer. In it, you are standing on a platform with a gun and a shield, while spherical robots fly around you. Your goal is to shoot the robots before they shoot you. To avoid their gunfire, you can either block with your shield or dodge. As you’d expect for this sort of game, you also have a variety of weapons with different effects, from Gatling guns to lasers to guided missiles.

It really did feel like I was fighting off a robotic horde. I’m pretty sure others felt that way too. There was also a two-player zombie game, where you work together to defend your stronghold against a wave of zombies. When people were playing that game, it wasn’t that unusual to hear them screaming as a zombie snuck up behind then. What’s more players who warned each other about zombies approaching them from their blind side had a considerable advantage. It was literally like two people in a realistic-looking world, fighting off zombies.

So it’s done, right?

All that said, while it does work, the virtual reality problem isn’t solved yet because you still have the stick connected to your head (figuratively). You have to stay inside a relatively small area (say a 100 square foot square). This isn’t a problem for these games, because the system displays a grid so you know exactly how close you are to a wall, and that works well. If you see a virtual reality wall, you can reach out and touch the real wall, and it will be where you expect it to be.

However, the small playing area severely limits potential games. Sure, you can design interesting games where the player has to stay in a ten by ten square, but that limitation excludes a huge swath of world exploration games. You can’t create Skyrim in virtual reality today. There is some room for creativity—in one game, you can teleport from place to place instead of walking. But that game dynamic would almost certainly not been in that game without the real-world mobility restriction.

It also make me wonder whether there will be a bunch of wheelchair games coming out—if you make moving around world connected to hand movement rather than leg movement, then this problem goes away. And wheelchairs are the most common real-world example today where movement is tied to the hands rather than the legs.

The arcade business

Though the virtual reality is cool, I think virtual reality arcades will be a tough business. I’m not sure why someone would start one of these virtual reality arcades—within years, consumers will have their own VR systems which will make these arcades obsolete. The people creating these arcades should really study history to determine why traditional video game arcades became obsolete, and figure out what they should do to avoid what looks like a nearly inevitable decline in their business. To make this business viable, they need to be creating experiences that can’t be reproduced in the home, and they don’t seem to be doing that.

Multiplayer games may extend the runway of these arcades, since it might be too expensive for people to purchase multiple systems and network latency may limit remote communication between systems over the Internet. But I can’t imagine network latency will be a problem for long. Maybe the niche for VR arcades is solving the mobility issue by creating big enough rooms that player mobility is far less of a problem. But in cities with high real-estate prices, it seems hard to do that in an economic way if you’re only allowing one player to be in each huge room.  (And multiple players in each huge room is problematic as real-world interactions between players can be dangerous.)

So, I’m not sold on the arcade business, so I’d be interested in hearing if these entrepreneurs have some way of making their business model sustainable.

The bottom line

While virtual reality arcades might not be here to stay, virtual reality is. This technology works, and works well. I imagine within the next five years or so, I’ll probably own one of these systems for myself.

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