23 June 2015
By Stephen A Chadwick
Anyone who saw The Lawnmower Man back in the early nineties could have been forgiven for thinking that virtual reality was just around the corner. In no time at all we were all going to be stumbling around our front rooms, knocking over vases, smashing table lamps, whilst wearing Evil Knievel motorcycle leathers and with something resembling a SCUBA diving mask strapped to our face. It really did feel as though virtual reality was on the cusp of becoming actual reality. Sadly, unless you had the defence budget of a first world nation at your disposal, VR was to remain a long way out of reach for the next few decades.
Yes, we did get the PlayStation EyeToy back in 2003, and admittedly it did provide some additional functionality but it hardly transformed gaming into the immersive experience that we're all looking for. Kinect, back in 2010 was really the first peripheral in our house that added anything significant to the gaming experience. For the first time ever we weren't just slumped on the sofa, we were up and hopping around; playing table tennis, skiing, taking penalties - Kinect Sports was terrific fun (I could have a few beers and an evening 10 pin bowling with a mate on another continent without leaving my house) and unlike the Wii or the PlayStation, over-enthusiastic children were unable to launch motion controllers through the TV screen.
But now it really does look as though VR is finally about to arrive. E3 2015 is currently underway in the LA Convention Center and whilst it might not hold the mass appeal of Gamescom (it's only open to industry after all) it still generates a huge amount of interest amongst the gaming community. It's a sell-out this year. The big 3 console manufacturers are there (Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo) as are the likes of EA, Ubisoft, Bethesda, NVIDIA, CapCom, IGN, Disney and Warner.
But long before the doors even opened the focus was already on virtual reality. Facebook's 2 billion dollar acquisition of Oculus last year gives you some idea of just how seriously the industry is taking VR. Microsoft have just announced a partnership with Oculus to use the Rift headset on their Xbox consoles, and once Microsoft Studios start banging out VR games you can be sure other developers will be close behind. What's remarkable is that just 3 years ago Oculus VR were raising money to develop the Rift via a Kickstarter campaign.
Sony's PlayStation VR offering, Project Morpheus is slated for release in 2016 whilst the HTC and Valve co-produced Vive headset was unveiled at this year's GSM Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. HTC are making the headset available free to selected developers and it's an impressive bit of kit. The Vive comprises of 2 HD screens (one per eye) with a refresh rate of 90Hz, more than 70 sensors, accelerometer and laser position sensors.
Whilst the use of VR seems primarily targetted at gamers for now there's no reason it won't be taken up by those operating in other fields. I have an online supermarket app for grocery shopping and whilst it does what it has to do it is mind-numbingly dull. Scrolling through lists of products to find what I want, adding them to my "basket" then proceeding to the "checkout" to pay. Imagine strapping on goggles, getting your virtual trolley and bombing up and down the aisles. Developers could add trolleys with one wonky wheel for even more realism. You could stuff a bag of Maltesers in your virtual pocket and experience the rush of shoplifting without the fear of criminal prosecution.
What remains to be seen however, and what I'm particularly nervous about, is the pricing strategy of these VR units. I confess that I've never been an early adopter of new tech, mainly because with three small people in the house that constantly require feeding, or need new shoes, or money for a school excursion, I can't afford to be. I have friends that remortgaged to buy plasma TVs in the late 90's, which considering no-one was actually broadcasting in HD at the time seemed a bit extravagant to me. Having said that, it's those people that are prepared to pay a premium for the latest gadget that funds the manufacturer's R&D that eventually brings down the price for the rest of us to something slightly less eye-watering.
So please, if you're fortunate enough to be wealthy, or indeed if you have a good credit score, blow everything you can on VR, because I'm really keen to get my hands on it.