VR will remain a niche

Virtual reality seems to be all the rage in gaming these days. Everyone seems to be buying into it. Big corporations like Facebook (Oculus Rift), Sony (PlayStation VR) and Microsoft (HoloLens) are pouring money into VR as if it’ll be the biggest thing since sliced bread. But right now, few people who aren’t game developers actually own the necessary hardware. Will it all be worth it in the end? I think not.

I am not an authority on the subject, but I did work with VR for a bit (in the CAVE variety), I read a lot about it, and I know some people who work on VR software, so I am not entirely clueless either.

So why do I think VR will not take over the world in the foreseeable future?

The Hardware Problem

Let’s start with a “simple”, hopefully solvable problem. As Jeff Atwood of Coding Horror writes in his article I Tried VR And It Was Just OK,

Putting on a VR headset shouldn’t be a one-way ticket to jarring, grainy, pixelated graphics the like of which I haven’t seen since 1999.

Today’s state of the art VR gear gives you a resolution comparable to MS-DOS games. It’s hard to distinguish the individual pixels for some reason, but the world does look distinctly blurry. We need a huge increase in resolution before it becomes acceptable.

Atwood also notes how important it is for headsets to be light. I wear glasses, and fairly lightweight ones at that, but after a long day I’m happy to take them off. I don’t want something on my face that’s some 100 times heavier for more than a few minutes.

This would be within reach, if it weren’t for the fact that headsets also have to be wireless (more about that later). And that means batteries. And that means weight. An iPhone 6 weighs 172 grams, about 10 times a pair of glasses, and most of that is for a battery that supports a few hours of full-on action at best.

All this can be solved by incremental progress in technology, but the gap between where we are and where we need to be is significant. It will not happen in 2016. Maybe by 2020 we have a chance.

The Input Problem

Not counting auxiliary buttons, a good old NES controller in the ’80s had a D-pad and two action buttons, A and B, with which you controlled the game. A modern Xbox controller has a D-pad, twelve action buttons, and two analogue joysticks. A gaming PC has a mouse, and on the order of 100 keyboard keys to control a game with. Why did we need all these additional controls? With advances in processing power, game worlds got more complex, games started offering the player more ways to interact, and those interactions required increasingly higher-bandwidth input devices.

You could argue that we’re seeing a return to basics with smartphone and tablet games. Those devices have only one type of input, the touch screen, which can realistically be used by at most two fingers at a time. But games have found a way to adapt to these limitations, typically by not having a complex game world in the first place. Try controlling a first-person shooter on a smartphone.

What does this have to do with VR? Think for a second about how players will control the game. Basic controllers and WASD keyboard controls kind of work, as long as you’re experienced enough to blindly find the buttons. But we’re calling this thing virtual reality, we’re trying to make it look as real as possible, we’re immersing the player in it visually. If they cannot interact with the world except via some primitive buttons, it will quickly start feeling less like a good game, and more like a bad version of actual reality. If the player cannot touch, feel, pick up, or otherwise interact in all those ways that actual reality offers, you’re just building a virtual art gallery.

There are efforts under way to solve this. Controller gloves let the computer track the position of your hands, so the virtual world can react accordingly. But there will still be no sense of pressure on your fingers when you touch something, no sense of heaviness when you pick something up. Maybe the visual feedback will be enough to be convincing; I’m not sure.

The Camera Problem

Only today I read a blog post from the developers of Among the Sleep, who tried porting their game to VR. You play as a small child, so the developers included some unsteady view wobbling and occasionally even made the player fall over. How did that work out for them?

When your eyes tell you that you are wobbling along down a corridor but your body is standing still, it’s basically a recipe for motion sickness. Toggling between walking and crawling or climbing is the same, the discrepancy between what you feel and what you see is very uncomfortable.

Yep. Motion sickness. Note that these people basically got everything wrong in that department, but even if you’re more careful, it is still difficult to avoid making people sick. This starts happening as soon as your vestibular system tells you something different from your optical system; in essence, when it looks like you’re moving when you’re actually standing still. In the CAVE, we had to be careful to use very slow and controlled camera movements, and even then some people had to walk out. Move the camera faster, or turn it in unexpected ways, and people may even fall over. No joke.

It turns out that there’s only one way to do this right. Do not move the camera. At all.

Now where does that leave us for games? How many 3D games do you know where the camera is completely static? I’m sure they exist, but I can’t think of any. And even if we invented some more, how will they be truly immersive? Not being able to move is even worse than not being able to interact; it would feel like a virtual prison.

I wonder if future generations, if they grow up with VR-like technology, will become immune to motion sickness. If humans can learn to use echolocation, learning that eyes and the inner ear may disagree doesn’t sound too far-fetched to me. While all the cool kids are playing their VR games without throwing up, we dinosaurs would be forced to stay behind in real reality. Time will tell.

The Space Problem

So we don’t want a stationary camera because it will be too constraining. And we don’t want to control the camera with buttons, mouse or joystick because of motion sickness. What options remain?

We have to move the camera by moving ourselves.

If the virtual camera perfectly follows the motion of the player’s head – turning, jumping, ducking, walking, running – the inner ear agrees with the eyes, and motion sickness disappears.

But remember that said player has VR goggles strapped to their head. They can’t see a thing of the real world around them. So to play a game in this way, you need space. Lots of space. Ideally with soft and padded boundaries on all sides. Even if VR hardware becomes mainstream and affordable, in this increasingly densely populated world, space is becoming ever scarcer, and there’s very little that technology can do about it.

This is also the reason why VR headsets need to be wireless. And if you’re going to move around with them, being light also becomes even more important than it already is.

The Social Problem

As a software developer, I wouldn’t consider myself an expert on human interactions. However, I have learned a few things. As a kid, I was told I should look at people when talking to them (instead of staring at my feet like I used to). Later on, reading Paul Ekman taught me how important sight really is for human interaction, especially on the subconscious level. The point was driven home by my current job, where I communicate a lot via videoconferencing. Even if you can see the other party in HD at 30 frames per second, it’s still somehow a lot harder to communicate that way.

So what happens when you strap a VR headset to your head, preventing you from seeing anything, and preventing the people around you from seeing your eyes? It’s a bit like hiding from the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal by draping a towel over your head: you become invisible. Not in a physical sense, but in a social sense. You isolate yourself from everyone around you. At a game developer meetup I attended recently, some people were trying out a VR game, but they never kept playing for more than a minute before handing back the headset with a nod and a smile. I don’t think it was because the game was bad. It was just because it was awkward.

So what can we conclude? I think VR will almost exclusively be used by a solitary person in a space where nobody else is present. This is probably true for a lot of present-day games, but not to the same extent. Even with an inherently single-player game on traditional hardware, you can have friends come over to watch or to take turns. Not to mention the many games that are great in local multiplayer mode, playing on the couch with a couple of friends. This way of interaction is quite impossible with the isolation that VR brings.

But, you might say, you can’t play local multiplayer games on a smartphone either. This is true, but at least you can show it to someone while you’re still controlling it. Handing them your VR headset would be the equivalent of letting them move to the driver’s seat while you are giving them directions blindfolded. It’s just a lot harder to casually demonstrate something. As a result, VR games are going to have an extremely hard time going viral.

To quote Microsoft’s Phil Spencer in a recent interview:

I love people coming together and watching what’s happening on screen and laughing, and the kind of fun of what video games were always about. […] [I]t would be too bad if all gaming became people with head mounted displays on, headphones on, kind of blocked out from everything that happens.


I’m not saying VR is going to be dead and gone in ten years. There are clearly applications for this technology, probably even in gaming, and it’s not going to disappear. But the notion that it is going to take over everything from gaming PCs to consoles to smartphones is utter nonsense.

If you won’t take it from me, take it from Jeff Atwood:

[T]here is just no way that VR is going to be remotely mainstream in 5 years. I’m doubtful that can happen in a decade or even two decades[.]

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t invest in it. If VR interests you, now is the right time to go all-in. There is a lot of unexplored territory, not a great many explorers yet, and plenty of funding to go around. But the idea that the next Minecraft, the next Angry Birds, the next Super Mario Bros will be a VR game, that, to me, sounds unrealistic. Maybe I’m just an unimaginative luddite, but I’m pretty certain that VR will always remain a niche.