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Putting some reality into virtual reality 17.10.17

We have become so accustomed to technical innovation and novelty in entertainment that we seldom ask the most important question: am I enjoying this more?

After the initial lure of novelty, stereoscopic 3D screens never broke out of their tiny niches within the vast industries of movies, TV and video games. There aren’t many stereoscopic TV sets in audiovisual stores anymore, if any. 3D compatible systems like the Nintendo 3DS and Sony PlayStation 3 have not seen similarly enabled follow-ups.

Another new dimension

Virtual Reality aims to open a new door for entertainment and given the early headway made by VR, it seems like the budding technology will fare better than screen-based 3D. Utility beyond novelty is probably the biggest obstacle for VR; it needs to prove that it’s worth the time, effort and the financial outlay.

In a video gaming context, this is proving more difficult than first thought. The three premium systems still occupy a small corner of the market with Sony’s PlayStation VR (PSVR) the most successful platform ahead of HTC Vive and Oculus Rift. The Japanese electronics giant sold a million PSVR units inside eight months of its launch one year ago but the relative failure of its competitors is worrying for fans of the platform.

Sony leading the way

Sony’s system has some major advantages over the Vive and Oculus. It only needs to be attached to a €300 PlayStation 4 console as opposed to a moderately specced PC, which would cost at least €700. Sony’s PSVR unit  is €399 whereas the Vive and Oculus Rift cost €929 and €599 respectively.

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The cheaper Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR headsets are around €27 and €99 respectively and use a smartphone, far more common than PS4s or beefy PCs. However, they lack the depth in their games, lacking the processing power and visual fidelity offered by Sony and HTC’s pair and are not considered direct competitors. For now.

While the Oculus and Rift use the relatively more open Windows platform as opposed to Sony’s closed software ecosystem, Sony have used this to their advantage. Enjoyable games of high quality are arguably harder to find on Vive and Oculus. Sony pumped their first and second-party might into the PSVR’s launch titles and have also delivered some notable games since.

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Google Cardboard exploiting the bottom of the market

The entry-level Cardboard or Gear VR are many people’s first experience with VR. Beholding the previously unimaginable visual immersion of VR for the first time should lead the potential consumer to imagine a world of possibilities. This is where PSVR and Vive need to step in and offer what people imagine when they think of gaming in virtual reality.

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Two of the most impressive display of market-leader PSVR’s capabilities so far have been Farpoint VR and Eve: Valkyrie. Farpoint and Eve: Valkyrie both take tired old genres and through their use of spectacle and immersive set-pieces demonstrate that games can be improved through the medium. That players can enjoy the games because of VR rather than in spite of it.

But games with such depth or long-term attraction are rarer than PSVR owners would like. Star Trek Bridge Crew and Batman: Arkham VR are more typical of VR system libraries, the experience is fun but fleeting and ultimately doesn’t go anywhere. These are essentially better-looking versions of the types of experiences already offered by Google and Samsung’s entry-level systems.

A moving precedent

This feeling of a new control system reducing the overall quality of the experience was the reason that the Nintendo Wii spent its prime years packed away in cupboards after a strong start. Ultimately, it never justified the switch from a standard controller to wild Wiimote flailing. The motion control system was novel but undermined the ability to make entertaining games of substance to further exploit the mechanics.

Building a piece of entertainment or a piece of art to exploit any new paradigm takes a certain level of uncommon genius. For example, the jump from game cartridges to CD-ROM was inevitable but took longer than it probably needed to as developers crammed the ample disc space with cheesy full-motion video sequences and CD-quality MIDI soundtracks, squandering the chance to wow consumers into upgrading sooner.

Sony has done a commendable job at shifting PSVR units and signing third-party developers up to populate its library. Sony has also added VR sections to some of the industries biggest names like Resident Evil, Gran Turismo, Ace Combat and Final Fantasy. Whether or not these are enough to set a precedent of juicy AAA content remains to be seen.

Bethesda has thrown The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim at every platform around and is looking to obtain a slice of the VR pie with a ‘special’ version for PSVR, Vive and Oculus. The game, however, is a point-to-point combat adventure game rather than the fully-fledged open-world RPG that most of the public wants. The showings of TES V: Skyrim so far do not inspire confidence with the game forced awkwardly in a compromised state into VR despite being based on a six year old title.

See for yourself

Joe and Joanna Public can get a closer look at Google Tilt Brush at PlayersXpo. Whether or not, Virtual Reality is the future or even has a future rests ultimately rests in the public’s hands, why not start deciding this October Bank Holiday weekend.

 

PlayersXpo, Ireland’s ULTIMATE gaming event is taking over The Convention Centre, Dublin on the 28th & 29th of October! Get your tickets here.