Virtual Reality demonstration, courtesy of the Knight Center for Journalism at the University of Texas-Austin (Creative Commons License).

Will 2017 be the year of Virtual Reality?  Part of the answer to that question involves recognizing that we’ve gone through several periods since the early 90s when someone, somewhere would ask: is this the year for VR?  And it never was.  Nevertheless, with gaming permeating almost all aspects of life in over-developed nations, broad cultural familiarity with body motion controllers thanks to the popularity of the Wii, and new systems like those being built around the Oculus and Vive (not to mention the fact that the systems are backed by deep-pocketed tech company players who can afford to sustain losses), VR may start to emerge as more than a high-end gaming oddity.

VR promises to offer some amazing enhancements to existing gaming experiences and to open up completely new sensory experiences.  But what I’ve been thinking about lately are two isses that seem a lot more prosaic.  This first is that almost no one is asking the obvious question: do we actually need VR?  The default development and marketing assumption is that people are clamoring for this, but are they?  In the first of two posts examining games and VR I want to focus on one gaming area that VR developers have already been targeting heavily: space exploration sims.

Part 2 will focus on a concern sparked by reading a recent review of some of some new VR apps: how is VR going to influence the design of the spaces in which we live?  What will VR mean, in short, for the design of our houses?

Careful, Now

Yeah, I don’t think anyone would describe me as an early adopter of anything.  For example, I’m still not entirely sure about this newfangled democracy thing.  However, when I’ve seen an immediate utility connected with my work, I’ve tended go all in.  I was using e-mail before most of the world was even aware there was a thing called the Internet.  I was building and using web-pages in my classes while the rest of the US still thought the letters WWW had something to do with pro wrestling.  I jumped on board early course management systems while Blackboard was still mewling and puking in its crib (which is pretty much where it is still at).

My typical caution is more usually a defense against the hype that saturates the tech world in general and the gaming world in particular.  The marketing juggernaut associated with new technologies, products and processes is powerful, seductive and insistent, not least for the ways in which it plays on the long-lived industrial myth: that novelty always equals progress.  It is a powerful human desire, apparently, to believe that when change happens it is happening for the better.  That perception isn’t universal, but I’m constantly surprised at the way in which anyone who dares to try and point out that it is just not logically plausible that change always produces a net gain, is dismissed with that single all-purpose denunciation directed against those who have always found themselves on the receiving end of the developer’s bulldozer of history: Luddite.

I would simply say that when you’ve been through as many tech changes in a life time as I have it pays to be cautious and learn a few lessons.  Don’t be the first to try out a new operating system, for example.  Don’t pay full-price for games that are going to be on sale a few months later.  That new game into which you have invested all your hopes and dreams will more than likely turn out not to be that new at all..

Videogame players, however, are in the main extraordinarily resistant to learning from experience.  They absolutely must have that game right now.  They say they want “new” games but then buy basically the same game they have been playing for the last decade while deluding themselves that cosmetic variation is the same as major gameplay innovation.

There are certainly some reasons to cautious about VR.  Surprisingly, given the massive amount of hype thrown behind the concept by the tech press and those who pride themselves on living at the bleeding edge, it isn’t clear that the vox populi is really clamoring for VR.  Personally, I am clamoring for it.  It promises to make two of my favorite game genres–flight simulators and space simulations–even more immersive than they already are.  But these are nerdy niche genres in the overall gaming world (and when it comes to flight simulators it is actually a tiny crack at the back of a niche).  I strongly suspect that VR will, in fact, prove to have only a transient appeal and that in ten years we may well be back here again with some new tech innovation asking: is 2027 the year for VR?

What worries me about VR is that developers are, in essence, betting that people will pay for quality.  They are assuming that people will be entranced by the prospect of a higher quality, primarily visual experience.  This is an occupational hazard of spending too much time surrounded by traditional (often referred to, in a usage I find increasingly problematic, as “hardcore”) game layers.  Such players whip themselves into a frothy frenzy over the promises of new texture-mapping algorithms and base a lot of their self-esteem on comparing the size of their frame rate.  Many gamers do outgrow this high school locker room mentality and recognize that no amount of graphical splendiferosity can make up for crap gameplay.  But a disturbing number of these man-children (and it is, in my experience, almost always men who–no surprise, I guess–engage in this kind of juvenile pecker-waving) never manage to outgrow this mentality, which isn’t really a problem unless they are allowed to develop games and tech products in their own right.

Out in the real world, putting your money on quality has tended to be a losing proposition.  If what people really cared about was quality, for example, Betamax would have beaten out VHS, laserdisks would have beaten out CDs and DVDs.  Most people are interested in a merely acceptable level of quality.  They are more interested in paying for efficiency, usability, and, increasingly, sociability.  This is why, for example, the Wii, with its cartoony graphics and simple games promptly spanked the “respectable” consoles–and why everyone then got spanked by the mobile gaming revolution.

Does anyone remember 3D TV?  Yeah, me neither.  Just a few short years ago that was supposed to be the next big thing.  Screens had got about as big as they were going to get, and then shrunk back to a more manageable size, and got about as flat as they were going to get, and supposedly people were pining for an even more immersive TV experience.  In retrospect, the reasons are obvious (and were obvious to many at the time, but, you know, those people were just Luddites.  Of course, like the real Luddites, they were also right): 3D TV was just more of the same.  It didn’t offer people anything radically new, just an enhancement of what already existed.  Turns out, nobody wanted to be “enhanced.”  They wanted cheaper TV (cord-cutting) and more efficient viewing (ad-free, more choices, binge watching): enter the streaming revolution.

Please Remain Seated

When it comes to gaming, then, I am usually waaaaay behind the curve and happy to be there.  It is a cheaper place to live for starters, and I find that in general my gaming experiences tend to be really awesome, because I am playing things that have been out for a while and stood the test of time.  But there is one area where I was ahead of the curve: use of body-motion controllers.

There was a whole group of us that were ahead of that curve; we just didn’t realize that it was a curve.  For us it was just part of inhabiting our own nerdy sliver of the gaming spectrum.  As combat flight sims became more realistic in their behavior it was apparent to most virtual pilots that they would need something that more closely resembled the real-world interactivity of flight.  Hence the preference for joysticks, throttle controllers and often rudder pedals.  But the one indispensable piece of kits for virtual pilots was, and still is, TrackIR.

This is a head-tracking technology originally developed to allow people with various physical impairments to manipulate computer interfaces.  But it found a ready market in the flight simulator world where it is used to control your visual field.  Using a small infrared camera atop your monitor and reflectors or emitters attached to a cap or, in later iterations, a headset, you use small movements of your head to produce proportionally larger movements onscreen.  So moving a few inches to your left, for example, swivels your virtual view all the way over your left shoulder.  More sophisticated implementations of TrackIR enable side-to-side movements of your head (leaning over the side of your cockpit tends to help with taxiing a Spitfire, for example!) and back and forward (so you can peer more closely at your gauges and dials in a natural way rather than simply  using a button to zoom your view.

It proved to be a mission critical piece of kit.  There are a couple of old air combat adages that help to determine whether or not you survive.  Pilots learned to “keep your head on a swivel”  because “lose sight: lost the fight.”  Many is the time I’ve been engaged in a fierce one-on-one fight with a virtual opponent only to have that terrible “uh oh–where did he go?” moment be followed by the sound of shells tearing through my fuselage.  And when you are in the middle of the whirling multi-plane madness of a “furball” keep tracking of multiple potential threats simply cannot be done with “pad-lock” or “mouse view” mechanisms.

But the other reason that TrackIR may be my favorite piece of gaming hardware is that when fully implemented in a simulation it makes flying stunningly immersive.  You can look around your cockpit in a way that feels completely natural.  Flying a WWI bi-plane for example and being able to lean your head over the side of the aircraft, hearing the wind noise change as you lean out, adds immeasurably to the feel of virtual presence.

That was then, this is now.  Well almost.  Sorta.

TrackIR is existing tech with a proven track record and a well-developed SDK.  It is used not just in flight sims but also in virtual racing games and Mech Warrior type games.  So, naturally, when the developers of the space sim Elite: Dangerous wanted to ensure that players were able to immerse themselves as fully as possible in the experience of virtual space flight, they added Track IR support (well, mostly: the game doesn’t offer the fully 6 degrees of freedom; your ability to lean forward and back and side to side is limited so I always feel somewhat cramped when I am playing in Elite).

So you would think that, Cloud Imperium Games, the developers of the upcoming (hopefully) Star Citizen/Squadron 42, who have made no secret of their desire to build the ultimate space simulation, would include this tech, right?  Well, they did. . .for a while.  But then a development update broke it.  Quite some time ago.  And they haven’t put it back.  Players (er, I mean “unpaid testers”) have found a few workarounds, but raising this issue on the forums has tended to result in people being stomped on.  (Ironically, Natural Point, the makers of TrackIR, currently feature a demo on their splash page which, I am pretty sure, comes from Star Citizen).

It is a truth, universally ignored, that as the development cycle for a game grows increasingly protracted, and players anticipated deadlines go the way of an electoral promise, a game’s fanbois and fanfemmes will become even more entrenched in denial and more convinced that their chosen game will, upon its eventual release, promptly cure cancer and provide them with free puppy.

This is where our story rejoins the world of impending Virtual Reality.  Because Cloud Imperium has bet the farm on Oculus Rift.  And it is one of the many, many things that are worrying me about this title about which I was once so enthusiastic when it was announced back in–Christ–2011.  Desperate players, facing a game originally slated for release in 2014 which is now still in Alpha, have claimed that TrackIR isn’t really a priority in the development cycle, that developers will fix it when they get round to it or, more tellingly, dismissed the tech by saying it is only of interest to a minority of players.

But the fact is this: TrackIR is the gold-standard for immersive manipulation of your field of view in anything that has wanted to call itself a real flight simulator or space simulator.  And has been so for years.  When the dearly departed Star Wars Galaxies added its space component via the Jump to Lightspeed expansion, TrackIR support was standard, recognizing that what players wanted from a Star Wars themed space experience was the feel of sitting in a “real” cockpit.  (Compare that with the utterly dire arcade-experience that constitute the space combat component of Star Wars: The Old Republic.)  TrackIR has been the essential peripheral for the group of players of historical and sci-fi space sims for years, a group that constituted the initial marketing target of Chris Roberts original crowd-funding campaign, which boldly proclaimed that everyone said PC games were dead, and space sims were dead, but that he was going to change all that.  In retrospect, those early trailers, so awe-inspiring and hopeful in so many respects, included some worrying signs.  The sight of Roberts manipulating an early version of the game with a gamepad while stressing how realistic the physics of the game were going to be was one such troubling moment.

But the allegiance to the Oculus is another troubling sign.  It did not exist at the time Roberts launched the development process for Star Citizen, launching its own Kickstarter campaign around the same time.  Unlike Roberts’ game, Oculus has finally seen the light of day as a fully-functioning product.  But it has never been clear to me what the Rift headset will provide.  Yes, the web awash is full of people saying “Oh my god, just wait until you try it, it will change your life,” and other nauseating gibberish.  But this is where necessary caution should come into play.  Because that is what people always say about every new tech innovation.  If you fall for that constantly, sooner or later you end up as one of those sad people lining up outside the Apple store to get the latest “Everything you used to have but now in a different color” phone.

There is a huge difference between something that feels like operating a computer, and something that immerses you in the world, where you interface with an environment and look around it exactly as you would in the material world.  Being able to look around naturally (rather than push a button or fiddle with a mini-joystick or pad) may seem like a small thing but in my experience it makes a virtual world of difference in feeling as if you are really there.  I suspect that if you have never used this kind of tracking technology before, then a big part of the “Wow” that many people are experiencing with VR is simply catching up with what flight simmers have been experiencing for years.

My concern with VR, in fact, is that while all the hype is about it enhancing gaming, it may actually be dumbing it down.  How so?  When TrackIR support is fully implemented in a game, it feels immersive, it feels as if I am inhabiting a fully three-dimensional world.  I lose myself in historical and space simulations in ways that I have never been able to do in many other games.  These spaces look and feel real (and if you look at an ultra high-end flight sim like Cliffs of Dover, you are in essence dealing with photo-realistic cockpits with working switches, levers, wheels. . .everything).  But there is still an element of the imagination involved.  What VR does, at least in the store Rift demos I’ve tried, is force-feed you reality.  Or that isn’t quite it.  It is more like it “tells” you dimensionality, “tells” you space, rather than “shows” you those things.  The analogy I am trying to make here is based on the advice often given to aspiring writers: don’t tell, show.  Don’t lay everything out for your readers, let their imagination do a large part of the work.  When I added TrackIR to my flying kit, it was as if the illusion of presence was complete: there was me, there was the world, and I was looking around at it.  But I can’t help feeling that VR is not just on my face but in my face, screaming “I am the World!  Look at me, motherfucker!”

While it isn’t clear what the Rift will add over the experience of TrackIR, it is very clear what it will take away: large sectors of my wallet.  The Rift is between 4 and 5 times as expensive as the basic TrackIR version.  Is it going to produce an experience of immersion that is 4 or 5 times as powerful as what I have experienced using TrackIR?  Extremely unlikely.  For a game like Star Citizen cost may not matter because due to the game’s unusual (and unusually expensive) fundraising structure, it has already attracted a number of players who I can only assume possess sizable trust funds.  While the game can be purchased with a very reasonable starter package, players are encouraged (before the game has even been released) to purchase additional ships, and upgrades to existing ones.  By the time you add in the Rift, many players could easily have spent over $1,000 to play this one game.

The New 3D.  And Not in a Good Way.

OK, you may be thinking, as an experienced player of highly realistic flight simulators you may not find much that is new in the Rift.  But as you, dear writer, have already pointed  out, you are part of a tiny minority of videogame players.  What about the vast majority of players who have never experienced this type of thing before?  Won’t they be jazzed about all this?

I am sure the novelty value of it all will move more than a few units. But the Rift headset faces another challenge, one similar to that which 3D tech has been largely failing to meet since the movie Avatar resurrected the technology.  Years ago I wrote about what would need to happen if 3D was really to become a significant new cinema innovation.  It would need to transcend the status of visual diversion and instead join the repertoire of techniques that directors are able to use to convey something new and different about character, theme, or plot elements (something that Cameron did, but which few people seemed to recognize).  Directors would need, in essence, to think about it in the same way as extremely familiar techniques such as the close-up, or more unusual techniques like the dolly-zoom (the effect made famous in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, but also used to stunning effect by Spielberg in Jaws).

By and large that never happened.  Movies are still being made in 3D, but in most of them it amounts simply to a cynical attempt to get people to pay more for tickets.  There is almost always no narrative use made of 3D, nothing where the expanded depth of field, or “in your face” effect does more than provide a brief moment of visual excitement (a case in point is Rogue One; 3D adds absolutely nothing to that movie).  I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of films I’ve seen in 3D that have used the effect to aid narrative or character depth or–and I don’t discount this at all–where the sheer visual spectacle provided by the 3D takes the ordinary level of special effects to a new level. Most of the time I come out of the theater feeling like I wasted money.

This is the real challenge that VR will face.  The novelty of enhanced presence will soon fade, particularly for a gaming audience that is used to obsessing over incremental improvements in visual quality before moving on to the next incremental improvement.  The Rift will need to offer new gameplay mechanics, and so far there is little evidence that developers are thinking in that direction.  Theoretically, there are some intriguing ways in which you can use your view to activate and manipulate objects (something that Elite already uses to brilliant effect, where turning your head left and right causes contextually appropriate cockpit screens to pop up: an effect already achieved, of course, with the aid of TrackIR).  Equally, however, developers will need to figure out how to use devices like the Rift to tell different kind of stories and provide different kinds of emotional experiences.

If neither of these things happen, then 2017 won’t be the year of VR, it will be the year of the next 3D.