With two high-end headsets launched and a mid-ranged one on the way, virtual reality has filled up many of the tech headlines in 2016. Even with the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive now on the market, VR still faces a number of tough hurdles before it can become ubiquitous, and here's what we think lies ahead.
The idea of VR is nothing new (The Lawnmower Man is nearly 25 years old now) but in the last couple of years consumer-level hardware and software have finally begun to catch up with that original VR fantasy. That in turn opens up a wealth of possibilities across gaming, entertainment, travel and more, some of which you might not have even considered yet.
But before we can expect to see a VR headset in every home and every office, there are a number of challenges to come. We expect virtual reality to emerge in good shape on the other side, but in the meantime the tech is going to be strongly tested.
The high price of entry
Top-end VR certainly isn't cheap: The Oculus Rift will set you back US$599, plus extra for the Oculus Touch controllers (which are coming later this year), while the HTC Vive sells for $799. On top of that, for both headsets, you're going to need a highish-end gaming PC, which, built from scratch, will be approaching $1,000.
That's not the whole story, with Samsung's Gear VR coming in at $99 (assuming you have a Samsung Galaxy flagship to power it). But right now mobile VR lacks positional tracking, which means that, while it tracks your head rotation, it prevents you from physically moving (or even leaning) inside the virtual worlds. The very best virtual reality experiences are only available to those with the deepest pockets.
Brand new technology is always expensive, and those prices should come down over time as components get cheaper. That said, the drop won't be particularly quick, and it's possible we'll see several tiers of VR emerge to suit a variety of different budgets. In fact, those tiers are already taking shape, even in this Year One of "real" VR.
The mid-ranged PlayStation VR shows that consoles are just about getting to the stage where they can power a decent VR experience (with one big hiccup, in Sony's motion controls). Even if console VR ends up having a rocky start, as long as there's a VR-ready PlayStation or Xbox in many homes within a few years, then at least that takes the gaming PC cost out of the equation.
Eventually we might see a trickle-down effect where early adopters fork out for the very best (as with iPhones and Galaxy phones) and the rest of us make do with slightly older and less powerful bits of kit.
Just as smartphone features like fingerprint sensing and HD screens have gone from cutting edge to commonplace, so the best that VR has to offer should get more widespread and cheaper over time. Just don't expect it to happen overnight.
Moving around in VR
Moving around in these games is still a problem that needs a lot of work. The Vive lets you explore a VR world the size of the room you're currently in, and does it extremely well, but few games are set inside the space of one room – and so you're going to have to get moving sooner or later.
If you're trying to trick your brain into accepting an alternate digital reality, then having the scenery flash by on all sides while you remain physically rooted in a chair seems to be a recipe for instant nausea. The "cockpit effect" helps – where something like the inside of a spaceship, mech or racing car provides fixed points for your brain to refer to – but that can only go so far.
So far teleporting is the go-to means of giving you wider world-level movement that isn't confined to one room, and, as by far the most effective solution, it may only continue in that direction. But it would be nice if there were eventually a solution that didn't require every single VR game protagonist to be a magical teleporting wizard.
Expanding on the cockpit effect, tricks like hovercrafts and moving platforms can also serve as workarounds. In Vive launch game Hover Junkers, your physical room-scale movement gives you locomotion on the deck of your floating vehicle, while you use your controller to pilot the craft around the larger world. And in one of the minigames in Valve's The Lab, there's a portion where the room you're in (set within the world of Portal) begins to move, as if on a conveyor belt. The combination of real-world movement, the cockpit effect and on-rails world movement make for an effective, queasiness-free experience.
It's hard to see where an approach more natural than the current options might come from, short of having entire warehouses to play in or placing players in a super-smart treadmill that lets them move in any direction without physically going anywhere (not something you would expect to find a place for in every living room).
Mind tricks like this Unlimited Corridor (where a player walks in a circle but software tricks the brain into thinking he or she is going straight ahead) might quite literally offer a way forward but again a substantial amount of space is needed.
It's still early days for VR gaming and perhaps we need to rethink our whole approach to perspective and the default angle for new titles. It's possible that, for the foreseeable future, first-person perspective games just won't work in VR unless you can a) teleport, b) employ the cockpit/hovercraft effect or c) stay in one room throughout.
There are also third-person perspective games, something the Oculus Rift's launch lineup was loaded with, which are less likely to require tricks to avoid motion sickness. Some of our favorite early VR games are strategy games, where you essentially become a giant towering over a tabletop-sized world. In these titles, a simple leaning of your neck and body is all it takes to see the other side of the miniature playing field.
Creating VR experiences
Then there are VR movies, which over time may well become indistinguishable from VR games. As with games, you're right there in the action, not just a passive viewer, and that already has filmmakers scratching their heads about how to focus the attention of an audience or position the camera's point of view.
What we might see are brand new forms of entertainment made specifically for virtual reality, game and movie hybrids that combine interaction and storytelling in a new way. VR isn't likely to replace the standard movie anytime soon, but it can take it in a new direction.
Major player Oculus already has a movie studio of its own, and its creative director Saschka Unseld has written about the unique challenges of VR: how the pace, direction, scope and visual language need to be tweaked to suit this brave new format.
For example, viewers need more time to find their way into a scene and get accustomed to it, Unseld says. The action has to be slower. There's no natural way to force a viewer to look in a certain direction, the Oculus team discovered, so they stopped trying – instead, everything evolves much more organically.
"By not forcing the viewer to look somewhere and making the surroundings interesting in all directions, we incite the viewer's curiosity in the world," writes Unseld. "And through this curiosity, have them take a more active role in experiencing the story."
Just like VR gaming, VR movies are in an embryonic stage, and we don't yet know exactly how audiences are going to take to them. From what we've learned so far, it looks like games and movies in virtual reality will offer up an alternative kind of experience to the existing 2D options, rather than replacing them completely, which should iron out some of the early problems we're seeing.
Interacting with virtual worlds
While the Oculus Rift is now available to anyone who wants one, its Touch controllers are still on the way, and that sums up how hard it is to put together controllers that work for VR. HTC has managed it, but Sony's Move controllers, recycled from the tail end of the Wii era, still leave a lot to be desired.
Wrapping your head and eyes in a perfectly realized virtual world is all well and good, but using a gamepad to take a step forward rather than your actual legs kind of breaks the illusion. As good as the controllers with the HTC Vive are, you still know you're pressing a button rather than picking up a rifle or banging on a door.
Then there's tactile feedback, which at the moment doesn't really exist beyond haptic feedback in the controllers and a few prototypes. Nothing can push back at you or affect you from the virtual world, because you can only see and hear these things that are happening around you.
Let's be clear: We're nitpicking here. Short of creating a VR bubble that can blow wind and rain in your face, and an all-in-one body suit that can create pressures and sensations on your skin, we're not going to get completely immersive touch interaction anytime soon. The efforts that Oculus, HTC and others have put in are already very commendable.
That said, it's worth noting as a potential limiter for VR further down the line. Whether you're playing a game or enjoying a movie, controllers and feedback are going to be one of the more artificial aspects of the VR experience, and there's room for improvement.
It's also a huge opportunity for VR. In decades to come it's not inconceivable that the 52nd Oculus Rift could trick our brains into sensing touch and feeling objects physically that aren't really there. When a custom-made virtual reality can duplicate real life so comprehensively, who would ever want to leave?
The rise of AR
Another "problem" facing VR may well be its ultimate solution: augmented (or mixed) reality (AR), something you're no doubt familiar with if you've played Pokémon Go. Essentially it's digital graphics laid on top of the real world.
That instantly solves the issues of motion sickness and bumping into walls, because the real world is in view at all times, to both stabilize and maintain awareness. It also fixes some (though not all) of the issues relating with interacting with these virtual worlds.
AR is only a problem for VR in that it might eventually supplant and overtake it, although there's still plenty that VR can do and AR can't. You need a fully closed-off experience to be completely immersed in a virtual environment – to go wandering on an exotic beach without your cat getting into your line of vision.
At the same time, augmented reality has its specialties, as Microsoft's HoloLens proves: playing Minecraft on your coffee table, for example, or watching Netflix on a virtual 100-foot screen while still keeping an eye on the kids.
In the end we suspect AR may win out as the most commonly used technology, particularly as it's less demanding and works well enough, in a cruder format, on a smartphone.
Speaking of smartphones, we think AR could eventually be the tech that overtakes the smartphone. If you're wearing a headset that lets you watch a YouTube video on the wall of the subway you're riding on, play Clash of Clans on your dining room table or make your Twitter feed float above your office desk, then do you still need a smartphone in your pocket? We're talking long term, mind you, but AR could eventually be that big.
VR is strong enough to survive alongside augmented reality, however, it could learn a few tricks from it too. Ultimately the end destination, according to Oculus, is "magic glasses" where you put on a discreet-looking pair of specs and are instantly and completely immersed in another world. Perhaps these ultimate glasses would give you the choice between VR and AR, stepping from one to the other seamlessly.
Despite these caveats, we're hugely excited about the virtual reality future we're heading towards – after all, some issues are to be expected with a technology that's so new and groundbreaking as VR is. The great minds that brought us these new devices in the first place are working hard to make them better, and we can't wait to see what's next.