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Impressions of Virtual Reality in 2018

When both the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive VR headsets both launched in 2016, they were supposed to set a new standard for virtual reality: high-resolution displays, motion tracking both the headset and controllers, and software finally good enough to provide a sense of immersion. They were a technological curiosity when they launched, but suffered the same lack of software as any other new hardware + software launch.

Recently, I got intrigued by videos of Beat Saber, and ended up borrowing a Rift from a friend to try it out. 2 years later, the hardware hasn’t changed, so remains a clunky proposition with a large headset and thick wires that connect to a PC with a powerful GPU1. The software has matured a little since launch as well; there’s an app store dedicated to the Rift, and SteamVR works with the Vive with added compatibility for other VR headsets. In its current state, though, I’m guessing it’ll take at least another 2 years for this medium to reach any sort of mass-market appeal.

The biggest issue is still cost of entry. The two high-end headsets sell from $400 (the Rift after a couple of discounts) to $800 (the up-and-coming Vive Pro), and while that has left enough space on the low end for the likes of Google Daydream and Samsung VR, the overall experience—defined in large part by the sense of immersion from the sights and sounds—is noticeably worse. The standalone, GPU-less headsets just don’t have the processing power to render the amount of pixels needed for interactions in games, so their primary use case is viewing 360° videos.

As a consequence of that high cost, there isn’t very much software for VR, with what’s available is much more expensive than more traditional apps and games while simultaneously requiring more developer work to create. The economics don’t work in VR games’ favor; there just isn’t enough headsets, especially compared to other mainstream gaming devices like phones and PlayStations and even PCs, to sell games at lower costs and make up the difference in volume. Development has waned, and VR can easily fall into the chicken-and-egg conundrum which has trapped many a nascent technology, where the lack of a critical mass on neither the developer or user side dooms the industry to an insignificant niche.

Maybe such is the fate of this latest chapter in trying to fulfill the Snow Clash and Ready Player One sci-fi fantasy. Certainly this wasn’t the first or last attempt to trick our senses into thinking we’re elsewhere, and both clunkiness and cost of current headsets can be addressed via the ongoing march of hardware and continued miniaturization of computing, which in turn should fuel a healthier install base and better software. This is not happening in 2018.

  1. At least video cards have advanced one generation since the launch of these VR headsets, though really they should have advanced one more if it wasn’t for crypto-mining demand.

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