This article is the second chapter from our eBook The Future of Gaming, in which KeenGamer writers discuss how the game’s industry will change. If you enjoy our work, please consider sending us a donation via PayPal on [email protected]. Every dollar will help us fund future projects. Feel free to download the full book in PDF. Or you can read the chapter of your choice in the list below:
Chapter 1: The Future of Video Game Distribution
Chapter 3: The Future of Social Good Games
Chapter 4: The Future of Video Game Platforms
Chapter 5: The Future of eSports
Chapter 6: 11 Companies that May Build the Road to the Future
This technology isn`t new, but only recently it reached a point where people think it can work. Developers started to explore VR in 1962, with the View-Master, which was basically a slideshow viewer that you held over your eyes. We then move onto Battlezone from 1980, which was an arcade game where you played as a tank and shot enemies. In 1995, the Virtual Boy showed everything as red and was just all around awful and it was discontinued worldwide in only 8 months. While these devices are not the only ones to have existed, they were the main releases of their times.
VR then went quiet for a long time, on the consumer side anyway. While many Air Forces worldwide have created VR gear, consumer headsets flew under the radar until 2010, when the first development kit (DK1) of the Oculus Rift released. Despite the hype, it gave many gamers motion sickness. I almost fell over while sitting down when using one. This problem shunned the device instantly. The Oculus DK2 improved on this, as Valve freely shared and released lag and smear-free displays. Consequently, people stopped feeling ill. So, before we dive into the future of VR, we need to have a look at the present.
The current state of VR
We now have 3 major devices on the market, all of which released in 2016. The Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive, made in partnership between Valve and HTC, and the PlayStation VR, the only console headset as of February 2018. Samsung, Lenovo, Huawei, Google and others have released mobile VR systems that allow you to stick your phone into them. Microsoft, along with 3rd parties, also aims to bring low-cost VR to Windows 10, with wired and wireless headsets. Let’s have a chat about each device.
Featuring a 2160×1200 OLED screen, the Oculus doesn’t look bad at all. It also has built-in headphones, and optional controllers called Oculus Touch. The positional tracking uses an infrared (IR) LED sensor to have 3-axis of rotation (roll or rotation, pitch or look up/down, and yaw or looking left/right.) and 3-axis of movement (forward/back, left/right, up/down). These are known as “the six degrees of freedom,” but with the Oculus you have the inability to look behind, due to the camera being in front. This means that developers often build games as traditional arcade shooting galleries, where everything happens in front of the player, with little action happening past 100 degrees.
Later, Oculus released the Oculus Touch Controllers, which allow you to use them as hands and pick up items in games, instead of using a standard controller. These controllers cost around $99, and the headset is around $400, but there are bundles available. An interesting turn of events happened in 2014, when Facebook purchased Oculus for $3 billion. Mark Zuckerberg said: “Mobile is the platform of today, and now we’re also getting ready for the platforms of tomorrow.” He added: “Oculus has the chance to create the most social platform ever and change the way we work, play, and communicate.” However, seeing as any VR device has yet to bring any real profits, I’m not sure that Oculus has created “the most social platform ever,” but given more time, it might have.
PlayStation VR (PS VR)
It has a lower resolution screen, at only 1080×1200, than the Oculus, but has a far more comfortable head strap. Instead of the straps coming out from the sides, the whole thing has an interpretant strap, which simply allows the headset to sit over your eyes. This stops the issues of most other headsets where, after some time, your head starts to hurt and makes the device feel lighter, even though it is the heaviest. The adjustment is easy, with a few dials, switches, or buttons to get everything in place.
While the PS VR is like the Oculus in many ways, when it comes to positional tracking, to get the most out of the device you must purchase separate products. First, the PlayStation Camera, then the PlayStation Move (and maybe Navigation variant, which has a joystick) and you need PlayStation Aim controllers to simulate hands. In total, while the headset is the most affordable of the 3 main options, with the added accessories needed to get the full experience it doesn’t come out as much cheaper – around $500 for everything. Overall, the PS VR is like the Oculus only on the PS4, which makes it the only VR headset on consoles and it works amazingly well, considering a lot of it is based off (relatively) old technology – like the Move controllers, and Camera.
The Vive has a 2160×1200 resolution and a wider viewing angle than the other headsets (at 110 degrees, then 100 and 90 respectively). It is also, however, the least comfortable of the three and feels the heaviest. Additionally, it is the most expensive, due to how it deals with positional tracking. The HTC Vive is the only VR headset to date that offers an almost true room scale experience. This is thanks to it using a 2 base station setup, called Lighthouse. These send out infrared (IR) pulses 60 times a second, with a maximum of a 15×15 foot radius.
These IR pulses hit multiple sensors on the headset and controllers to give accurate positional data. It is boasted to be 1:1 accurate and give zero motion sickness in return – a claim I don’t quite believe, but it is vastly more accurate than any other headset. I don’t believe in the accuracy simply because, to get this type of precision, all the sensors need to be activated at the same time, but, as your body gets in the way, sometimes fully accurate tracking is not possible. The Vive also comes in a package with everything you need, the 2 Lighthouse boxes, 2 controllers, and of course the headset – this also adds to the cost. In June 2017, the Deluxe Audio Strap became available, which includes integrated over-ear headphones, as well as improving the comfort of the headset by giving a more robust and well-designed head strap system. Out of all the VR headsets I’ve tried, the Vive is by far the most impressive.
There have been many simple viewing sets you can get for mobile, with the cheapest being the Google Cardboard, which isn’t very good, as there are no head straps, so you must hold it to your face. Plus, there are no adjustments for the lens distance, and building the thing is fiddly – yes you must build it yourself. But the two main mobile headsets on the market are the Google Daydream and Samsung Gear VR. These are alike in that you simply strap your smartphone into the headset and then your phone becomes how you view the VR world/video. The built-in phone gyroscope is used for orientation, but this means that there is no positional tracking as the devices are fully wireless.
The drawback is that each headset requires specific smartphones. This is where the similarities end. You can only use the Gear VR with Samsung phones. On the other hand, you can use the Daydream with a wider variety of phones, like Google’s own Pixel phones (all Pixel models), as well as Samsung’s S8, S8+, and Note 8, and a few others by LG, Asus, Huawei and Motorola. The Gear VR uses a trackpad on the right side of the headset to interact with, while the phone is mounted, whilst the Daydream comes with a positionally tracked wireless controller (there is a Gear VR controller you can get with all new headsets, or on its own).
More differences are in how developers deliver the apps. With Daydream, you simply download them from the Googe Play Store, while with the Gear VR you have to use the Oculus Home marketplace, as Oculus partially developed it. The Gear VR also has an integrated USB connector so that you can power your mounted device while using it, and has a small fan to keep fogging down (it can get hot inside a headset). From an aesthetic point of view, the Daydream looks nice and I wouldn’t mind wearing it out in public (if taking a long flight, or long train journey) where the Gear VR doesn’t look particularly good, as it has some jagged edges making the headset just not looking sleek.
It wouldn’t be honest to talk about VR without mentioning Microsoft’s Mixed Reality system. While this isn’t true VR, it’s closer to Augmented Reality (AR), it needs a mention. Currently, 4 manufacturers have released Mixed Reality headsets, Dell, HP, Lenovo, and Acer, with Microsoft focusing on the HoloLens. These headsets allow you to overlay a virtual world onto the real one, in real time, and let you interact with it while still seeing the real world.
All these headsets require the use of a Windows 10 PC, except for the HoloLens, which is the only AR stand-alone device Microsoft offers at this point, but you pay the price for it at $3,000 (Google has the Google Glass, which is similar in some ways). Where most of the headsets are comparable to the PS VR in cost, the HoloLens goes into the thousands (at least for the development kit, we will see how much the consumer model will cost).
The current moment of VR
There is still a long way this technology needs to go before becoming of universal use. As mentioned, in the past, the lack of the technology hindered the future of VR. We now have this technology. We just need to find ways to make it affordable for the mass market. Microsoft is trying this with an AR approach, which, in many ways, is vastly more powerful than VR, due to it being set in the real world, but with the user being able to interact with the digital overlays.
If we look at VR on the PC, there are vastly more possibilities, with the room scale system of the HTC Vive, and with the dedicated hand controllers, which are not older technology like with the PlayStation Move Controllers, of the Oculus and Vive players can get more immersed in games than ever before. The console side is a different story, while the headset is solid and works well, with many of the motion devices which can be used (the Camera, Move and Aim controllers) being slightly outdated, the accuracy is not always there. There is also the issue of the headset being locked to the PlayStation 4 system, which means that if Sony doesn’t support it, players who own it may get short-changed.
On the mobile end, with the added motion controls and the ability to control your phone without having to unmount it, I feel this is the best way to experience VR. If you already have the phone to run it, the price of the headset is comparatively cheap.
I’m sure you’ve noticed I have yet to mention any games. That’s simply because there are few outstanding VR titles. The best of the lot are ones where you are sitting still, things like racing games, or flight simulators. There are a few good experiences outside of those, on Google`s Daydream, EarthShape by Bithell Games has had favorable reviews and Volume: Coda for the PS VR by the same developer is good fun, if you enjoy stealth games. Also, on the PS VR is Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, which enhanced the scare factor of the experience and Battlezone on the PS VR and PC is a great use of VR as you are sitting in a hover tank and it feels amazing. There is also Windlands, which works well as it’s based on a grappling hook and not moving by walking or running. Beyond that, VR doesn’t offer much for gaming.
The most pessimistic future
This technology has yet to make a sizable profit. The media and the everyday person laugh at people who bang on about VR all the time. The only profit happened in the court. ZeniMax Media, the parent company of Bethesda, filed a lawsuit against Facebook and Oculus VR for $2 billion. This was due to the now Chief Technology Officer of Oculus VR, who had worked at ZeniMax Media, and was accused of sharing trade secrets when moving to his new employer. Facebook and Oculus won the case. The court ruled that Oculus did not steal trade secrets and lifted the necessity of paying $2 billion to ZeniMax Media.
However, the story does not end there. Facebook owes a combined sum of $500 million to ZeniMax Media for other various reasons — like a breach of non-disclosure agreements, false designation (when a product is said to be from one country but isn’t), and copyright infringement, to name a few.
Now, let’s imagine Oculus continues to suffer losses in court and money keeps going down the drain. This might surpass the $3 billion Facebook paid for Oculus and Facebook might investigate shutting the company down. If that happens, one of the biggest faces in VR will be no longer. This would mean that the only VR headset on the market will be the expensive HTC Vive – which has not made a profit. But taking a step back, according to data published by Variety, we do know that the Gear VR accounts for around 40% of the VR market, with the Google Cardboard being 23%, and the Oculus, and HTC Vive being a combined 25%, and the PS VR being only around 9%.
The numbers published are significant as the Gear VR has only shipped around 6 million units, according to Variety, which means that everything else has shipped a lot less, around 20% less and more. The currently estimated revenue of VR is $7.17 billion, a number which is likely the gross profit as these estimations very often are (think, Facebook have paid about $7.5 billion in total for Oculus). It doesn’t look good, especially if the HTC Vive is the remaining headset.
We can then look at the setup process of the HTC Vive, which is complex. Meaning VR would no longer be for the average person, but the tech enthusiast., thus reducing the customer base and further losing money. HTC would then cut their support for VR, and thus Valve would no longer be in VR either, outside of software – but if no one is getting VR headsets, then would Valve sink money into VR? VR games would be gone.
On the mobile side, as Oculus helped create the Samsung Gear VR as it is now, Oculus would no longer be trading in the stock market, so Samsung would have to go and fund the project themselves (as Google is with the Daydream). But would they sink more money into it after Oculus is gone? That would also mean all the developers would need to move the app over to either the Google Play Store or Samsung would need to create their own VR store.
Sony, with the PS VR, would be the least affected by this move. But, with their history of releasing hardware and then not supporting it, I don’t see them keeping up the PS VR support for much longer. Look at the PlayStation TV (also known as the PS Vita TV), how much have you heard about that? Not a lot. What about the PlayStation 3D display? Announced at E3 2014, and then never really spoken about again. We then move to the handheld market. While the PSP was decently supported, Sony then tried to release the PSP Go and players didn`t receive it well, so Sony stopped supporting it. We then have the PS Vita. A handheld console which is loved by many, other than Sony. While it didn’t sell as well as Sony hoped, it still sold an estimated 10 million units worldwide, and is loved by many of those users Sony has forgotten about and in March 2019 PS Plus subscribers will no longer get free games for it. Sony will also forget the PS VR was sold and will stop supported it too.
I declare VR dead at this point. With Oculus dissolved, HTC dropping support, Samsung not willing to continue their Gear VR line, and Google no longer adding to the Daydream, and Sony simply not supporting their hardware anymore, we turn to AR headsets like Microsoft are championing. AR is where everything will move to, but not even in games. AR is far more versatile than VR, allowing for use on the move with safety. If you are in a car or truck, you can see through the support structures, removing blind spots. In aircraft, you can look through the floor. This is currently used in the F35 helmet (the F-35 Gen III Helmet Mounted Display System (HMDS)), but imagine this in commercial aircraft, in your own car or truck, in helicopters for search and rescue. All of this is possible with AR, but not VR.
The most optimistic future
This technology can have an amazing future, if developers work out a few things. For example, how movement works without giving motion sickness and how to design games around picking up objects. When these two key issues are over, just imagine being transported into a new world. One where you can explore thousands of miles without looking at a screen. Interacting with the universe using hardware that allows you to walk anywhere, but at the same time stay in place.
The only piece of hardware on the market that does this right now is the Virtuix Omni Treadmill. However, it’s bulky and expensive. At launch it was $799, but has since dropped to $555, which is still $200 more than the Oculus. If some simple straps were added where you could move your feet, and the game would interpret that as running, you would now be moving your legs to walk but not actually needing a large room. Then, with trackpad controllers as with the HTC Vive, you can do things like crouching or lying down. Just be sure to have space around you to turn and reach out.
VR also needs to go wireless. As with mobile VR, the lack of wires stops you from wrapping yourself up with the headset’s multitude of cords. If you could walk around a room, rotate, touch the ground, lie down, crawl and roll over, without being wrapped in miles of cables, you would no longer have that fear. Going wireless would benefit gamers worldwide, but it would extend the application of this technology much farther than gaming.
What if wireless headsets didn’t just help with gaming related usage? Take VR out of a pure gaming environment and there is a possibility of using it for remote surgery (above). No longer will surgeons need to rely on a steady hand, as a robotic arm on the other end will imitate the movements of the surgeon, but with far more precision. Scanning equipment would, of course, need to become super advanced so that it can model a human 1:1 accurately on real time, but with VR, the surgeon would be completely encased in the surgery with no distractions. They could also sit or lie down and be more comfortable than they would be otherwise.
If we then look at training, currently, racing drivers use simulators, as do pilots in flight training, but these VR machines are bulky and expensive. Just having a small setup, with the basic cockpit of a car, or simply a flight chair, with motion feedback of course. Then for flight training, having the virtual cockpit in front of you. Reaching out and interacting with everything would stop the need for having the physical setup. If we look at the best future of VR, all the things just mentioned are possible. Some are possible even now. VR can go further than its current state, it can be used to help, not just for entertainment.
The likeliest future
I see VR as not being used for gaming in the home for much longer. The only domestic gaming I see done in VR is with games where you sit still, like racing or driving, flight simulators, or shooting galleries. I see VR migrating to arcades. The likes of Time Crisis in VR, but where you must literally take cover behind physical walls which are at a 1:1 distance as in the virtual space (the walls don’t need to be there of course).
Alongside all of this, I see AR becoming more prevalent. In exactly the way I described in the previous section. So, with AR and VR joining forces, we will see whole new ways of interaction with the world. AR to make the real world safer, and VR to ensure that you learn things in a safe environment, before going out to the wider world. Imagine learning how to build in AR or VR without the need to try in real-life. Imagine a world where everyone knows how to do things before trying them for real. How much safer would the planet become?
Like with the Microsoft Kinect, I see VR being more useful for specific non-gaming tasks – people used the Kinect to 3D scan objects cheaply and could serve as an infra-red camera for night vision CCTV. Yes, the Kinect was a failed gaming peripheral, but it still sold very well, in part for how it was used for non-gaming ways – selling 35 million in total and was the fastest selling consumer electronics device by selling 8 million units in the first 60 days.
Think about going to a VR cinema. Where 3D never really caught on, could a VR film truly bring you into that world? IMAX already has a VR experience, but it’s only available in 7 locations, two in New York, then Bangkok, Shanghai, Los Angeles, Manchester, and Toronto, but imagine this in more places. Yes, not every film will work like this and not every game should have a VR mode, but I see VR as not in the home but in public. In arcades, in cinemas, in schools and other places of learning, as well as AR being in transportation and enabling us to navigate better by superimposing where you need to go over the world.
The future is exciting, and I hope the right people can spearhead it so that we don’t get the cyberpunk cliché of AR over advertising, and VR brothels or all living in the matrix. The right people will enable this technology to make the world better and allow you to have fun while learning it.
INSIGHTS FROM INSIDE
Who is better to interview about the future of VR than a developer who began his career when he put a VR camera into a Dungeon Master-like game, and said “well I’ve got to build games for this”? I interviewed Jon Hibbins of Psytec Games. Best known for their VR rope swinging game Windlands (below) Psytec Games was founded in 2015, with their first game being Crystal Rift, a classic first-person grid-biased dungeon crawler with horror elements.
How was your first experience with VR?
“It’s important to bear in mind the [Oculus Rift] DK1 wasn’t a very good headset in comparison to nowadays, but even so ‘the, ‘I’m actually in the world,’ was such a revolution. It was a paradigm shift. It did highlight, really sharply, that no matter how good I’d made the [Dungeon Master-like] game in bog standard 2D it would not have been as good as that one minute of experience inside the game.”
Do you think these paradigm shifts are still happening?
“Even up to this day, there are still paradigm shifts happening. Like the Vive Pro and, most recently, having a go on the Santa Cruz – which is the new Oculus headset, which is tetherless and whatever. I’m still impressed with the pace of VR. I’m still getting those feelings of, ‘Wow, this is next level again. Wow, this is next level-‘I don’t expect that’s going to stop for a little while.
I think, even as developers… We think we are starting to get a good pace. We’re obviously developing Windlands 2… It’s multiplayer, which is a completely different experience. Social is a killer for VR. We’ve done a lot of things that are just so cool, I can’t wait to share. We enjoy playing our games so much, that we can’t get ourselves out of it in meetings. [It’s like a] ‘Just one more go,’ scenario. Especially, some of the features.
I think it’s four or five years now. Windlands 2 has been in dev for way over a year and a half, maybe nearly two years now. We’re two years into that, but we’re still learning. We’re doing really cool things. There is stuff we’re doing on Windlands 2 that we wouldn’t dreamt of being able to do in Windlands 1 or Crystal Rift.
We’ve been able to employ amazing talent from around the world. We’ve got a guy that does our NPC characters, from DreamWorks. We’ve got extremely talented people that have been working with us for a long time as well. [The person who is doing] level design and building level design [is] — absolutely — just getting better at that all the time and it shows. We’ve been able to bring on people that are specifically talented at certain things, which has meant that we’ve ended up with a great game.”
What is the future of VR and how will Psytec Games contribute to it?
“The question is whether or not I think VR is awesome, definitely… It is absolutely awesome. Where it’s going, I think we are into this futurist part of this amazing part of changing civilization. I was one of the first people on the internet. If I could have predicted where it is now, great. I was one of the first people to have an iPhone, if I could have predicted where it is now, great.
I didn’t want to miss the boat on VR, that’s why I set up the company and that’s why we’re doing it. It’s going to change everything, everything. Not on a level that- People talk about the way they play games, or maybe looking around buildings or whatever. I think that this is internet and phone level paradigm shift for the world. I don’t think most people see it that way. I think most people see it as this geeky little thing that’s taking off somewhere. I don’t, I think this will be normal in everyday parts of life. It will be radical in the way it changes the world.
There is literally no point in commuting; I don’t understand why it happens. In the future world, that’s what I think is going to happen. Nobody will commute anymore. You’ll be able to work from, either, local centers to your house or you’ll work from inside headsets. Those that say, ‘Well, I quite like seeing people and moving around and all of those interactions.’ Those interactions will be stronger and better inside VR and AR than they will be in the office environment.
The majority of people just goes and sit at a desk, don’t talk to anybody all day, use a computer in front of them and go home. That was unthinkable. That was unthinkable 10, 25, years ago, right? That people would be on the internet all day, using Skype or using computers all day long. It was unthinkable, people were using typewriters. It was like, ‘This is never going to happen.’ Actually, the next level of humans and the way that we work is that VR will make instant teleportation to each other’s environments.”
Psytec has a whole bunch of people working for us, contractors and stuff.
We meet inside our own game. We actually built Windlands 2 inside of Windlands 2. We actually log in and see our stuff inside Windlands 2, we hold meetings in Windlands 2. It’s fully voice over IP, you can hear where people are around you, you can high five people, they look at you, they communicate with you with their hands – because it’s fully 3D tracked. We’ve been doing this for a few years. It’s just perfectly normal, and yet everybody that is in those meetings is around the world. We’ve got people in Japan, we’ve got people in America, the original people that were working with Windlands are all from Finland, we’ve got people all over the UK. It’s just normal, for us, that we’re in each other’s visual space but in a virtual environment.
That is only just going to get better. You’ve got inside-out tracking that’s fully functional, workable, and purchasable today. Eventually, that will be room-scanning level. We know the technology is already there, because we’ve got stuff like the AR kit on Apple and the equivalent on Android. We’ve got photogrammetry that is getting faster and better. We’ve got machine learning that is scanning environments looking for objects.
It amuses me because you’ve got very simple technologies like on the iPhone X, you look at it and it can scan your face. It’ll show you a monkey, or whatever, in your face. The same, now, has just been released on the S9 Samsung. That same technology, obviously, could scan your own face and present that face to somebody else in virtual reality. You can, sort of, see that all the bits of the glue are coming together.
What purposes do you think VR can fulfill, apart from gaming?
“We won’t have to travel on a train, why do we do that? With VR, we can go anywhere instantly. We would never need to physically travel for work (for pleasure is a different story as you want the real physical sensations of traveling and being in a new place). Why do we need shopping malls? If you can literally do any of those environments repeated in VR, and do is as well if not better… I get so much pushback when I say that. It’s mostly people that are stuck in the mind frame of change. A lot of people don’t like change, and can’t envision that change, and are quite happy the way they are.”
How do you think VR will help players to express themselves?
“Expression of personality goes through the roof. If you want to be the Iron Giant or if you want to be the Hulk, fine, the future lets you be that way. I’m sure that will start to transpire itself in many exciting ways. It may even just be an avatar of yourself exactly as you are, you can express yourself how you wish to be. The whole of that social side, I think, is only just starting to budge in. I’ve played more games socially in VR than I have non-VR. It’s hard to set up, frankly. VR is like you’re there, you’re there with them, it’s like being in the room. Some of the best experiences I’ve had have been the social VR side of things. That’s why we’ve been focusing on it in Windlands 2…
We saw a gap, as well, for cooperative multiplayer, which is actually going on an adventure together. There aren’t that many games doing that well. There is a lot PvP or racing. We’ve decided to do a cooperative adventure, that’s really what we wanted to do for ourselves. We saw that gap, and it’s an obvious thing to do I think.”
I want to once again thank Jon Hibbins for taking the time to talk to me. Windlands 2 is launching in 2018 for the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PS VR.
Article written by Pierre Fouquet. This is the second chapter from our eBook “The Future of Gaming,” in which KeenGamer writers discuss how the game’s industry will change. Feel free to download the full book in PDF.