Last week we saw the best of the best in VR at the Virtual Reality Developers Conference. It’s an offshoot of the Game Developers Conference, and both are professional trade shows that show off the next wave of new games. This year, though, was particularly important for the VR sector of the industry. Now that quite a few consumers have gotten their hand on the Vives, PSVR, the Oculus, or any of the portable headsets you can mount on your phone, they’re all waiting for more great games they can play on their expensive HMDs.
But, I don’t think the next batch of games is coming. Sure, there are a few interesting projects on the horizon, like Mage’s Tale, a VR adventure in the same universe as a Bard’s Tale, but those are few and far between. Even worse many of these games come with some hefty reservations. Mage’s Tale, for example, still doesn’t have a solution to the movement problem, something I mentioned that VR devs would need to tackle months ago. Robo Recall, a free game from Unreal Developer, Epic, doesn’t push much either. And, in fact, it’s mostly a beefed-up tech demo.
The only games that gave me real hope for the future of VR were strategy and tactical games like Brass Tactics — an RTS where you battle armies across a digital table. These feel like the most natural use of Virtual Reality — position their players as gods, commanding complex battlefields and adapting to situations they can see evolve before them. And they don’t require players to move around too much. But it’s hard, if not impossible, to imagine an entire platform or industry sector to survive solely on one of the most niche genres in gaming.
This was the year VR needed to double down and show off its real strengths. Tens of millions have the headsets, now is when they needed to stay excited and invested in their purchase. Otherwise, even if there’s plenty coming next year, the momentum may not be there to carry in new customers, solidify install bases, and take the next big steps. And the more I see, the more I’m starting to think that VR was just a stepping stone for Augmented Reality or AR.
AR is functionally the same thing as VR, but instead of projecting a totally digital world in your field of view, AR headsets modify real-world objects, overlaying information or computer-generated images onto your desk, for example. The problem with AR is that it takes a lot more computing power to pull off — you have to have a system that teaches the computer how to see the world as we do analyzes which objects are important or relevant, and then presses the display onto your view. And all of this has to be done in a fraction of a second to make the experience smooth for us. If it’s done well, the advantages to AR are extraordinary. No longer do developers have to worry about their players getting motion sick, or working around their players’ total isolation from the outside world.
While VR had something of a meager showing last week, AR has never looked more promising. The most interesting sessions were about how VR developers were tackling design and technical challenges and how those lessons can be applied to AR in the next year or two. Hardware companies like castAR have started laying the groundwork for the second part of this revolution. But make no mistake, high-end AR is still a ways off, especially if you’re looking for a system that can work off the hardware in something like a phone, but these are still important steps towards the Minority Report-inspired future tech we’ve been waiting for. Even better, AR is a lot more practical for professional environments. It’s a lot easier to see it getting slotted into the boardrooms of the future as an easy way to keep track of appointments and data during meetings.
Even though Zuckerberg and pals have been pushing for greater VR adoption in the workplace, it hasn’t happened yet. And while that’s not necessary, by any means to be a success, having wide-spread adoption at their place of work was one of the key ways many Americans got used to computers and the internet. Businesses also have a lot more disposable income than your average household, and if solid enterprise uses can be found for AR, then you’ll see no shortage of companies willing to pay top dollar to be an early adopter.
It’d be naïve to discount VR as another fad just yet, but the longer the industry goes without addressing critical design problems. AR, on the other hand, just doesn’t have these kinds of problems, to begin with. It’s hard to come away from VRDC with any lasting confidence in virtual reality, and while sales have been middling for months, cultural interest in VR seems passing at best.