Over the history of games there have been technology advancements that happened before their time.
Sega’s Dreamcast and its online gaming, for instance. Or Nokia’s NGage and its efforts to marry the worlds of mobile phones and portable gaming.
Great ideas that would eventually transform the games industry, but at the time the gap between the idea and the reality was just too great.
Oculus Rift – and the virtual reality movement in general – had a whiff of being yet another example of technology before its time.
It is a piece of hardware that’s not quite ready yet. It has no addressable audience and, outside of a few shiny tech demos, no real content, either. The idea of virtual reality is futuristic and exciting, but Oculus Rift felt destined to be just another gaming forebear. That initial failure which future companies will benefit from.
But then last month at GDC, Sony announced it, too, was building a VR headset.
“If you’re an engineer in a company that just wants to bring games to VR, the problem is it’s hard to get sign-off from executives because it’s impossible to get return-on-investment right now. Who are you going to sell to: 50,000 developers?” asks Oculus Rift co-founder Nate Mitchell.
“So with Sony getting into the mix, it really does mean that there’s going to be a bigger audience, there’s going to be more people who can buy VR games. Sony, I’m sure – I hope – is going to start funding content. It’s really cool to have Sony in the mix because it really does validate the space.”
Sony stresses that its Project Morpheus is currently not a consumer proposition. But the fact that one of the biggest names in games and electronics has made a prototype is a sign that VR is something worth paying attention too.
And according to Dave Ranyard, the head of Sony’s London studio that has developed a number of VR prototypes (including a demo shown at GDC called The Deep), VR could be closer than we think.
“The reason why it is being talked about and why
things are happening is because there is a passion
out there. There is quite a lot of people with the
ability to move it forward who are really excited
about it. My own experience within Sony is that
this hasn’t been a directive from on high, this is
a case of several groups within Sony who are all
excited about the possibility of it and are
working together to move things forward.”
Dave Ranyard, Sony
“We can definitely make cool experiences in virtual reality now,” he tells MCV. “Take a look at the Eve: Valkyrie demo [a dogfighting spin-off of Eve: Online, developed by CCP in Newcastle]. You’re flying around, you’re totally fixed on what you’re doing, it has multiplayer. That’s a game that I would buy on VR now.
“There’s still more things to do. The technology, the latency and the frame rate, it is improving all the time.
“But the stars have aligned from a technology perspective in that we can get the latency down, the screen technology has jumped dramatically thanks to the growth of smartphones, and frame rate is something we do know about and we just change our pipeline to address that earlier on in the development process.
“The reason why it is being talked about and why things are happening is because there is a passion out there. There is quite a lot of people with the ability to move it forward who are really excited about it. My own experience within Sony is that this hasn’t been a directive from on high, this is a case of several groups within Sony who are all excited about the possibility of it and are working together to move things forward.”
There is certainly momentum behind virtual reality. Major companies are involved and big studios are investing significant sums of money behind developing VR games. So how long until it’s in the living room of real consumers?
“Firstly, the whole platform needs to get better. We at Oculus need to improve our tracking, our ergonomics, and the whole experience overall,” says Mitchell. “If you bought one of these kits, what happens next? Where do you find content? What do you do? All of those things need to be addressed.
“So the virtual reality experience on the whole isn’t quite there, and then there’s content. If you took one of these dev kits home, there’s literally nothing that works on it except for our internal demos. So that makes it really hard for you to get excited about spending $300 on a Rift.”
Game designer at Untold Games, Flavio Parenti, who is working on a VR project called Loading Human added: “The timing of mass marketed VR is still a mystery. First it was Q4 2014, now it may slip to 2015. Things have to be perfectly executed from a manufacturing point of view. The hardware has to be perfect and no nausea or sickness will be accepted by the end user.
“But we are 100 per cent positive that the next years are going to be about the rise of VR in every home as the new entertainment device.”
It’s not just the arrival of Sony that has turned the head of even the most skeptical VR critic. Last month, Facebook spent $3bn on Oculus Rift.
The acquisition seemed surprising. Up until this point VR had been a product for core gamers. But the fact a mainstream behemoth like Facebook has taken an interest suggests that maybe VR has mass-market potential.
And Sony’s Ranyard says VR does not have to be just a core gamer proposition.
“One of the things that we have worked on quite hard is something we call the social screen,” he explains. “That is where you can see on the TV a version of what the person within the Morpheous is seeing. And we can link up a tablet or a phone to the device, so we have companion app play.
“That allowed us, in our demo of The Deep, to have a second person with the companion app add in extra sea life, like a giant turtle, which the shark can then attack before it gets you. You can have one person in Morpheus and a group of people in the living room either helping or hindering that person.
“Firstly, the whole platform needs to get better. We
at Oculus need to improve our tracking, our
ergonomics, and the whole experience overall. If you
bought one of these kits, what happens next? Where
do you find content? What do you do? All of those
things need to be addressed. So the virtual reality
experience on the whole isn’t quite there, and then
there’s content. If you took one of these dev kits home,
there’s literally nothing that works on it except for our
internal demos. So that makes it really hard for you to
get excited about spending $300 on a Rift.”
Nate Mitchell, Oculus Rift
“We did an experiment on Shuhei [Yoshida, Sony studio boss] when he came to see some of our early prototypes. We put him in a haunted house, essentially, and he’s wondering around this house in Morpheus. And we had a tablet where we could make scary noises and spooky things happen. The grand finale was this super scary face really close up in front of him for a second. And he literally went 'arrgh'.
“The 1970s future vision of virtual reality was a very solo experience. But actually it might not be that, it might be quite social. Maybe that’s why Facebook is interested.”
With Facebook and Sony at the forefront (plus rumours that Microsoft is readying a product) virtual reality as a product is looking increasingly, well, real.
As usual content will be crucial, and game developers have told MCV they are having to throw away the development rulebook on what works. “The first learnings I’ve had about VR is that some things that you expect to be great, aren’t, and some things you weren’t expecting to be great, are,” says Ranyard.
Yet developers – indie studios in particular – are experimenting and that VR content is coming.
And perhaps the best proof that VR is something to take seriously is by watching the reactions of those that have tried it.
“So far that journey has been really promising,” says Ranyard. “We did around 1,000 demos of Morpheus at GDC and seeing the reactions was incredible. I remember watching a video of one journalist that is trying to be quite methodical, and then suddenly they are like 'Oh my God, you didn’t tell me there would be a shark.' And then you get others in suits who are trying to take it seriously, and then they’re all 'wow'. That is what we set out to do, which was create something you couldn’t be reserved about.”