Virtual reality failed in the 90s, and sceptics are predicting that VR may fail again. There are a few reasons why VR is much more likely to succeed today, but it’s far from a sure thing.
Oculus has two problems. The first is that it doesn’t have an input device, such as hand tracking or a controller – yet. Its team is working on one, but they’ve got many hurdles to overcome. The second, and far bigger, problem is ensuring a comfortable user experience, and this is more or less outside of Oculus’ control. It has a right to be worried.
The pioneering activations of brands and advertisers in VR is a double-edged sword for Oculus. High profile activations get Oculus a lot of press, but Oculus has no control over the quality or comfort level of that content. I’ve tried many of these activations, and without naming any names, many of them seem to abandon the conventions of good VR.
Initially Oculus was a gaming-focused company, and the headset got the most amount of attention from the gaming press (this was before Facebook). I remember talking to an early employee at Oculus who told me when he first started with VR he was most excited to strap himself into VR Call of Duty. His excitement very quickly wore off when he tried it.
Take this scenario: you run forward in a first-person shooter at about 15mph… far faster than in real life. This works fine on a monitor, but in VR, it’s really jarring. Even strafing is uncomfortable – lateral movement will make you feel queasy. Acceleration is also a big no no for user comfort. It all boils down to a pretty simple formula. Match what the user is doing to they are seeing as much as possible. For the most part, the user is either sitting or standing.
But that’s pretty limiting right? Our clients want users to skydive in VR, drive race cars, and experience first person sports! So what kind of content does this leave us with? What will really work in VR?
Remember games like Sam and Max, and Monkey Island? If you don’t, they were popular games in the 90s which were simple point and click adventures set in stationary environments, but allowing for puzzle solving and exploration. Imagine being a part of those scenes. It would be incredible to be standing next to Guybrush Threepwood while he hocks up a greenie and tries to win the spitting contest on Booty Island; to look around you to discover clues and be immersed in the magical scenes.
It's these kinds of gentler experiences, where the action goes on around you, where you explore at a gentler pace, that are going to be better VR experiences.
Oculus has a lot of momentum and it is close to producing a truly incredible VR headset. I’ve no doubt that it will solve the input problem with clever tracking algorithms. Its challenge, and the challenge for those producing this kind of content, is figuring out how to make experiences which fit the strengths of the medium, not the usual marketing brief.
Henry Stuart is co-founder and managing director of Visualise. Hear more about VR in Visualise and Bima's virtual reality masterclass podcast.