Virtual reality gaming is the future.
That’s a bold claim, but it’s an honest one. This technology is one of the most promising gaming innovations in some time, and it’s unlikely to go anywhere soon—from its numerous applications outside the gaming sphere to the increasing quality of its visuals and mechanics, VR is here to stay.
While it might seem early to make these kinds of claims, this isn’t actually the beginning of VR. The technology has a longer history than that, and it’s that history, along with some clever innovations and lessons learned from other gaming peripherals, that make it more than a fad.
Virtual Reality’s Long History
Virtual reality feels new, but that’s only because we’re doing it better than we’ve ever done it before. Even without going fully into the history of things like panoramic paintings and the ViewMaster toys we played with as children, VR has a long past.
Back in the 1960s we had the Sword of Damocles, which required players to be strapped in and featured primitive, wire-frame graphics. Its uncomfortable nature and large size never caught on, but, barring technological restrictions, the system pioneered head tracking, and that technology isn’t all that far off from what we have today.
While Oculus and Vive might be the names we’re talking about now, they’re not the first VR goggles to hit the market. That honor goes to a system back in the 80s—priced at around $250,000 for the complete package, the EyePhone and Data Glove actually pioneered the term “virtual reality.” While the technology was impressive (at the time), it ran at a whopping five to six frames per second. Coupled with the outrageous price tag and the potential for such a low frame rate to cause nausea, the EyePhone never achieved a wide audience.
The 90s were the beginning of plausible virtual reality gaming. Sega attempted to release a VR set in 1993, but the goggles floundered due to technological issues. 1995 introduced Nintendo’s Virtual Boy, but the poor quality two-toned graphics and uncomfortable headset meant it never really caught on either, despite repeated price drops, leading many to believe that VR just wasn’t marketable.
Current Technology Makes VR Practical and Plausible
So what’s different about today’s technology? Take a look at 90s games and today’s games, and it’s hard to believe we’re even talking about the same medium. Framerates are smoother, lag is better, and graphics are no longer two-toned polygons, but can be gorgeous, photorealistic scenes.
And while photorealism is great, in VR, realistic graphics matter less than you might think. It’s not necessarily about looking realistic, but rather how those graphics are used—a beautifully rendered, hyperreal scene might suffer from framerate drops that cause nausea or persistence issues that make players dizzy.
What matters is that technology has improved to the point that 60 frames per second and low lag are more than feasible—they’re commonplace. Some concessions have to be made when working with VR technology, but these are not the far-off dreams they were in the 90s.
VR is More Affordable Than Ever
Right now, when VR is still hitting the market, it might not be in everybody’s budget (though it’s no $250,000), but this virtual reality generation has more options than ever.
- Playstation VR: When you get into headsets created for gaming purposes, the cheapest is the Playstation VR unit, which runs about $399. Though the PlayStation VR costs about the same as a new console, it also brings an entirely new dimension to games in a far more affordable manner than previous iterations of the technology.
- Oculus Rift: The Oculus is priced at $599, a higher price point, but it’s also a standalone unit. PC gamers and those that like their games console-free are more likely to purchase the Oculus because it’s meant to work with their PC.
- HTC Vive: Finally, the HTC Vive comes in at $799—it’s not cheap, but it does come with unique controllers meant specifically for the system.
- Google Cardboard/Samsung VR: These smartphone VR systems are considerably cheaper than the other systems, with the Cardboard coming in at $15 and the Samsung system at $99. However, the cheaper price point means limited options, as both only work with apps available on smartphones. It’s a great budget option, but not the same immersive experience as the full headset systems.
VR is More Than Gimmicky Peripherals
Many gimmicks have come and gone in gaming. 3D gaming never really took off: there just weren’t enough games developers with the technology in mind, and often the cost of 3D TVs and glasses kept people from buying in. And the Kinect’s motion controls, while interesting in theory, ended up being fairly lackluster in practice. Great for dancing games and controlling your console without having to dig up the remote, but otherwise unimpressive.
So what does virtual reality have that these technologies don’t? First, history. VR has been in development for some time, and, as covered above, this isn’t its first time on the market. This generation is improved in every imaginable sense, building on those early foundations for something totally new.
Second, more options. While the Kinect’s body sensors were cool, you could really only play games that required body movement of a particular kind. VR works with every genre, significantly improving its applications. VR isn’t just for gaming; it also has potential for movies and other forms of entertainment, making it an all-purpose investment. It probably won’t replace your TV or console, but it’s an additional peripheral to let you experience all-new media made specifically for this technology.
Essentially, VR is here to stay because it’s finally time. Other iterations of this technology have failed because we didn’t yet have the ability to support it. We’ve had this on the brain since the sixties, and now we’re finally in a place where we can make it happen. There might be some bumps in the road yet, but VR is here, functional, and exhilarating.
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