Why I’m skeptical of virtual reality headsets

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Image Credit: Wikimedia/Yakiv Gluck

The Oculus Rift and its upcoming rival, Sony’s Morpheus, have become the darlings of technology. Almost everyone has something great to say about them, and many seem convinced that once consumer versions of VR headsets hit the market there will be no going back. Monitors, televisions and everything else will all be instantly forgotten.

I’m not so sure.

There are many serious complaints that can be made about the current state of VR technology. The units are bulky, they don’t play well with glasses, the display panels aren’t good enough, the price is too high, and so on. These aren’t trivial points, but they’re not the reason I’m skeptical of virtual reality.

My negativity is pragmatic. Geeks often pretend that technology is like a force of god that cannot be resisted and overwhelms human desire, pointing us towards a new, more enlightened path. In truth, technology – and consumer technology in particular – thrives only when it conforms to its users. Most people don’t care if technology changes their lifestyle, but hate changing their lifestyle for technology.

Virtual reality, as it exists today and is likely to exist for the foreseeable future, is a technology that asks you to change. There are a number of reasons for this and most of them have nothing to do with the specifications.

Let’s start at the interface, or lack thereof. A virtual reality headset can fool your eyes, but it can’t fool your body; you still need a controller. Using the keyboard and mouse is difficult with your eyes otherwise occupied so some other peripheral is preferable. This may be a Xbox controller, but a lot of VR games are targeting joysticks and other advanced control systems that very few people care about and even fewer people own.

A quality joystick is not cheap, but the problem goes beyond that. Once you buy, where do you put it? Where do you store it? Do you sit in your office chair, or on your couch? If the latter, how do you get the cords from your computer to where you want to sit? Do you even know how to set up the joystick in the game you’re playing?

Speaking of support, which games can handle virtual reality? At the moment the vast majority of titles don’t provide even partial support, and while some studios are targeting it in new releases, most aren’t. And, even if it is supported, there’s no particular standard for quality. Different games may use different camera perspectives, different angles, and may or may not render your own virtual body. While a few games may support VR fully, many studios will only do the minimum necessary to earn a VR-compatible label, a problem we’ve seen in the past with features like Nvidia 3D Vision.

What about resolution? Depending on who you believe a consumer headset will need a resolution between 1440p and 4k for each eye to provide life-like visuals, and up to 8k to make pixels completely invisible (the Rift team itself has said as much). That’s way beyond 1080p and way beyond the capabilities of most graphics cards. If consumer models do run at a resolution of 1440p or beyond (and I think that absolutely should be the target) only gamers with expensive, cutting-edge rigs will be able to fully enjoy the experience. ¬†Everyone else will be staring at a $300+ video card upgrade alongside the cost of the headset.

(Oh, and resolution beyond 1080p pretty much excludes using VR with consoles. Don’t ask me why Sony is getting in on this when the PS4 no hope of winning a resolution war against the PC-friendly Rift. It makes zero sense to me.)

These complaints may sound like nit-picks. In a way, they are. But as I wrote in my article about the death of plasma even a minor inconvenience can become a huge problem in the mind of a typical buyer. Geeks often forget is that most people aren’t geeks and, more horrifying, most people never will be.

But let me put this another way.

When did THIS:

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Image Credit: Flickr/John Biehler

Become less ridiculous than THIS?

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Image Credit: Wikimedia/Gregorios Kythreotis

Trick question. It’s not less ridiculous. It’s not more ridiculous. It’s about the same. VR has improved immensely, but it’s still a technology that forces its user to conform to it rather than the other way around.

And here’s the worst part; that may be the point.