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VR: hype is real, but we're not there yet (GDC2016)

Walking around around GDC 2016 you realize that most of what you see can be described by “something something VR”. Or just look around and see some cool demo like this.

VR is everywhere on GDC.

But after trying dozen demos, I can make several statements, based on my observations.

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disclaimer: don’t read if you preordered VR headset. This is based on my personal impression, experiences may vary, discussions are welcome.

1: Head tracking is really good

Yes. You can spin your head and lag is unnoticeable. I didn’t get nauseous and spinning my head around felt very natural. Except...

2: Field of View is a problem

I know this isn’t blinders, but it describes a feeling
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Most of the time I felt like I was wearing blinders. When you turn your head it feels natural, but the illusion is irreversibly broken when your eyeballs move and you see a giant black circle around where you suppose to look. This experience is completely opposite to, say, IMAX, where by sitting in the centre you basically fill all your view-field with awesomeness of the movie. After some time using VR I realize that immersion actually way lesser than sitting before huge PC screen, where I can freely look around using my eyes. Well, yes, I have to use mouse instead of my neck, but nerves are trained long ago to interchange one for another.

3: Comfort

I don’t think this may be a deal breaker for me. VR controllers and infrastructure are designed to do stuff with your hand in air without support. It seems silly, but holding up your hands without elbow rests or table support is hard. Sure, it is ok for 3 minute demo, but you don’t want to do it after 10 minutes. I did some electrical engineering in university and can say that one of the hardest part is to hold your hands up for prolonged time. It is not fun.

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Also, most truly “VR experiences” involve you moving around... I don’t know. It’s not for me, I guess... If I would want to move around, I could just go and play soccer, or something.

Having 360 controller/mouse-keyboard, sitting in comfortable chair and playing really cool games is still very good, and I can see it being enjoyable for more than 5 minutes. But, as of state of now, this experience is inferior to having nice screen/TV in front of you. I prefer to move my eyes, rather than neck (see #2: Field of View is a problem)

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4. Controllers

I’m grateful that all popular headsets come with some sort of VR oriented controllers. In this section I’ll talk about Vive and Oculus first party controllers. They are good for playing particular kinds of games, where precision is not required. What astonished me, that is how bad precision is if you try to do something intricate, like placing puzzle pieces. Giant puzzle pieces and giant snap-points help (most of the times). It feels like playing surgeon simulator. Only you control hands, and they still do stuff you didn’t really intended to. Unlike head-tracking which is unnoticeable, you just don’t think about it anymore, your virtual hands are awful. Constantly making small mistakes, not having any adequate feedback is frustrating. It is not cool to spend 5 seconds trying to hit a button in 3D editor. I think this problem can be absolutely solved by designing games in a way that they don’t require fine motor skill at all. Like 3D model with interpretive dance, rather than trying to pinpoint a slider.

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5. Custom devices

Good part is a lot of cool custom rigs: cockpits, full body costumes, treadmills, gloves, some cool device which trick your inner ear... And they are amazing. Problem - support. To gain benefit from most of this devices you would have to implement custom controls for each one of them... Some of them have some middleware, emulating keypresses or axis, some doesn’t, but some integration is definitely is required, would it be done by game developer or by user. As a game developer myself, I dread prospect of integration and testing tenths of custom controller SDKs into a game. I can see AAA titles with millions to spare doing it, but not indie developers, who would rather work on improving game, than focusing on lots of 3rd party SDKs and buying expensive gear for testing.

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6. Games

Games are good. I enjoyed all VR games I tried. But I can see how each and every of them would be better with improving hardware. Special nod to simulators where you sit in a vehicle cockpit. If you’re into that, event current level VR is adequate alternative to computer screen, just because of head tracking.

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Good job, people making games.

Edit: especially I liked Sony VR games. They don’t require you to crawl around the room, spin or do some other actions which you wouldn’t associate with lean-back relaxing gaming. In my opinion, this is a great idea, when VR is a pleasant add-on to experience. Think of it as you have a third hard with mouse to rotate your point of view and take a look where you want to look. Like a very good hat switch, which is (unlike original) is super easy to use.

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Conclusion

Imagine you time travelled 9 years back, and see Steve Jobs presenting original iPhone. You know it’s going to be great someday. But now it’s small tiny thing, with 320x240 display, which you can’t even install an app on, because there aren’t any apps. This is not a clean analogy, this is a parallel. When I was trying all VR gadgets, I saw a lot of potential, and desire for it to be happening. But I really don’t think this is it, as of the state it is now. It has to evolve. I would gladly buy 4th generation Oculus/Vive with wide field of view and established controller ecosystem.

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