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Opinion – I’m Sold On VR’s Tech, But Not Its Practicality

by Brian Shea on Sep 02, 2015 at 01:45 PM

I’m underwater aboard a sunken ship. Rather than swimming and struggling to hold my breath, however, I’m walking effortlessly, shooing away tiny fish with the paddles in my hands. I spend a couple minutes exploring the small space around me before I am surprised to see a massive whale slowly approaching. I keep telling myself it’s not real, but my brain has rarely been tricked in this manner before. I stare the massive beast in the eye for several seconds before the world around me gives way to a bright light and I’m teleported a white room while the next demo loads.

During my time with the HTC Vive, which has been developed alongside Valve’s VR efforts, I encountered a massive whale in its natural habitat, directed planes and helicopters to safety, painted and sketched in a 3D space, and explored a small piece of the Dota 2 universe. It was a mind-blowing experience that left me feeling emotionally spent, and excited about what I had just experienced. 

I walked away from the demo sold on the concept, technology, and execution of the upper echelon of virtual reality headsets like Vive and Oculus. As I was leaving, I started thinking about how I couldn’t wait to have one at home. I thought of all the possibilities it could bring not only to gaming, but to entertainment in general. Then it hit me – it would take some serious reconfiguring of my home for me to be able to replicate even a simple experience such as the whale demo. I am sold on what virtual reality can accomplish, but not on the practicality of owning one of these amazing pieces of equipment.

The demo I played was set in a 16’ x 16’ empty space. All the room housed was a small stand for a computer that powered the experience and a shelf for any personal items I had on me. Also in the room were two mounted devices that aimed lasers in my direction to track the location of the headset. It was quite the elaborate set-up that required just the right placement of lasers and a large amount of open space to work. As someone who was at the very least intrigued by the early promises of Kinect’s technology, this was a hard obstacle to get over, as I rarely lived in an apartment that provided ample space for motion controls.

For several games developed for headsets like Vive, Oculus, and Morpheus, moving around in your actual space with the headset over your eyes is a major part of the most immersive experiences. Unless there is some way to program all of your furniture into the experience so it appears on screen, or with the blue lines I saw in front of my eyes before I crashed into a wall, there are only two potential options for experiences such as this at home: You move all of your furniture each time you want to use it, or you have an empty room in your house dedicated to virtual reality. 

A look at one of the mounted devices that tracked me with lasers during my HTC Vive demo.

Without options like these, stories about destroying or tripping over furniture will likely be much more common than those about Wii Remotes flying through flatscreen TVs. It could be a safety concern, with injuries possible as people go blind to the outside world, but still attempt to move around within it. The headsets will inevitably include warning messages and waivers absolving the manufacturers and game developers of any liability for injuries sustained during use, but it won’t fully prevent them from happening. That’s not even taking into account the potential increased chance for bodily stress brought on by the surprising and unprecedented state of immersion.

Virtual reality headset manufacturers have attempted to remedy these potential problems through various methods. As I mentioned before, the Vive visually alerts you as you’re about to crash into a wall, but further steps are needed to make it a viable in-home option. Of course, not all VR games require you to move around. In fact, the vast majority of games for all headsets can be played stationary with a controller – something Oculus has remained adamant about for its headsets. 

The Oculus also provides you with a smaller camera than the mounted lasers that the Vive headset uses to track your movements, but again, for the more immersive experiences, it will be difficult to use it confidently while alone in your home. Luckily, both the Oculus and Morpheus headsets have included attached headsets, so getting in and out of the experience is a lot easier if you don’t have the assistant that has always been provided to me when I’ve tried out the technology at trade and consumer shows.

Regardless of the practicality of the tech and its experiences, I can’t help but be excited for the direction it is heading. Virtual reality is a technology I am ardently rooting for. The tech is absolutely there, but until it can be proven that these demos have practical applications and can be conveniently used in the home, my enthusiasm for the future of this tech will always have a layer of apprehension weighing it down. I’m sold on how awesome virtual reality is – now I’m just waiting for someone to sell me on how I can realistically have this experience in my home.