What is it that’s so exciting about VR?

Posted: 07.15.15

The military has been using VR to train soldiers, pilots, ship captains, and tank drivers for over a decade. Surgeons have practiced using VR HMDs even longer. It’s not new, nor novel. But for some reason, when Facebook bet $2 billion U.S. dollars on Oculus, all of a sudden VR was the most exciting thing in the universe. Dozens of companies sprang up to build HMDs, every game that was every created suddenly became VR playable, and the world’s collective imagination was set on fire. Ideas for VR flooded out of universities, high schools, corporate labs, government agencies, travel agents, and the king of all fantasy, Hollywood. 

INTEREST IN VR TOPICS over time worldwide.

To the extent possible we should create a VR index. The problem is that not many of the companies are publicly traded yet. However, we can use Google Trends. 

However, measuring interest doesn’t explain it. And, as some wise person once told me, “The best way to destroy a miracle is to explain it.” 

Maybe VR can never live up to the hopes for it. But maybe VR is so intriguing, and so compelling, that we just have to have it. When first-person shooters (FPSs) got really great, around 2003, with incredible rendering, the introduction of HD screens, and powerful GPUs and CPUs, you could easily imagine yourself in a game; albeit still 2D for you, 3D for the characters, but immersive nonetheless. We got big, open worlds like Skyrim, Fallout, Stalker, Eve—really wide-open spaces you could investigate and have an adventure in. 
So what’s the difference between those games and those games in VR? 

True 3D: the characters and buildings and objects in the world are seen as 3D objects with depth. 

Fluidity: In a monitor-only-based game, you can view an open world, you can move and look around, but with a mouse, or a joystick or a controller. In VR, you do it naturally by turning your head. 

Up and down: Most first-person games will let you look up and down, with a mouse, but it’s not something you do very often except when you’re in some corridor or room and looking for threats. In VR, you do it naturally, as part of the wonderment and discovery. 

The sound is the same—you can wear earphones with a 2D surface game, and you wear earphones with a VR HMD—that’s a null set. 

But, and, VR still doesn’t have all the stuff it needs to be really immersive to the point of suspension of disbelief—where are your feet, your arms, the chairs? That will be solved. Not only that, you’ll be able to be an avatar. Want to be a solider dressed in cameo? Want to be a monster with claw feet and hands? Not a problem. 
The next-gen “VR” will actually be a hybrid of VR and AR because it will have cameras that can see where you are in the real world, and then map those real-world objects with skins that fit the make-believe world you’re in. A chair becomes a rock, a doorway becomes, well, maybe a doorway, but one with a wheel that needs to be turned and can’t because you really shouldn’t get that far away from the computer. 

Is this a sustainable thrill? If done right, I think so. Look how long FPSs have endured. For that matter, look how long all 3D games have endured. 

The thing about gaming is, it is a real-time sim. VR opens up that sim and immerses you further in it. That exposes the hardware limitations, the latency, the head-tracking, the disorientation. And that, believe it or not, is the juice, the magic, the narcotic. It’s exactly the things that trouble us that make the experience so compelling. 

And the good news? Moore’s Law is alive and well. VR is just going to get better, and better, and more affordable. The HMDs will get lighter, and simultaneously we’ll probably evolve to a CAVE-like experience with no HMD. That’s probably 10 years out, but it’s on the path to the ultimate goal—(key the music: Da DUH!)—the Holodeck.