Be ready, this’ll be a long one.
For what feels like quite awhile now, VR has been at the forefront of a lot of tech news and discussion. The hype is pretty palpable. The headsets have been here for a few years (and they’re quite good), the potential uses are there, and the technology keeps advancing. However, the growth has still been pretty slow and profits for all VR parties involved just haven’t really been there. It is evident that there’s stuff holding VR back, but VR also such great potential that should encourage excitement. So what’s going on with this currently unprofitable, yet promising industry?
General perceptions of VR
An often held position is that VR will be the next big tech in some form or another. The general areas of VR potential can probably be summed up into two segments: utility, and personal use.
For utility, the perception is that VR can revolutionize how we work and how we learn. First, the uses are very clear and prominent. VR could be used for job training, health care, psychological treatment, etc. VR provides the ability to simulate dangerous or delicate situations safely and more cheaply. This is the sort of potential that people will talk about when you ask them about the amazing things that VR can do in the world. What has held VR back in this area has likely been a lack of marketing, a lack of enterprise based VR distribution platforms, and a lack of a sufficiently large market.
Then there’s personal use. In particular, VR has always held promise as the next big thing in gaming. The most recognizable VR products like Oculus, Vive, and Playstation VR all center their design and marketing around being revolutionary gaming and entertainment products. There are also plenty of simple, preexisting gaming distribution platforms, like Steam, that integrate VR gaming easily. The widely held belief is that VR will revolutionize gaming.
However, there’s a lot holding VR gaming back at the moment. A major problem us the lack of big name game developers involved in VR. Developing games for VR just simply does have a great return on investment and remains unprofitable. The rea
lity of VR gaming development is that it vastly differs from regular game development. It is also much more difficult to make smooth gameplay with graphics that rival PC or other console based games. The most successful VR games (like Beat Saber and Superhot) do not require the actual character or player to move in the scene.
There’re simply aren’t enough solutions for a lot of gameplay issues, limiting the potential in gameplay. In short, there aren’t enough uses, not enough great applications, it’s too expensive, it requires a great computer, and progress is too slow to justify buying the current iteration of devices.
So what’s the current state of VR?
Sales of VR headsets are certainly there, but have declined the past four quarters for personal use. With the novelty of VR headsets somewhat fading, VR growth becomes more dependent on the actual product itself. For personal use, there just isn’t really anything on VR that is better than what’s provided on computers. Given the price, current state, and quality of applications available, I just don’t see any reason for somebody to buy a VR headset right now. The headsets like Vive are priced from $500 up to $1000 (for the significantly better Pro model). Oculus rift headsets sell for $350 but have lower specs, and Go’s sell for $199-$250 (which I’ll get to eventually). These are generally phone and laptop level prices.
Though priced and marketed as central devices like computers and phones, the reality is that VR headsets ought to be treated more like an accessory device like screen monitors and controllers. VR setups are simply two high resolution screens that connect with sensors and have controllers with entirely different event systems to develop for. They are dependent on other devices like computers and are tethered (unless you buy another accessory to the headset for a lot of money).
Quality of Product
By this point it may feel like I’m bashing on VR too hard, but to be fair, for the state of technology right now, VR technology is extremely impressive. I recently tried a Leap Motion device which lets you use your hands instead of controllers and I was pretty impressed. Though it wasn’t too buggy, every small, imperfect interaction still stood out.
Therein lies a key issue: any imperfection in VR has exaggerated effects. Perhaps the most common complaint when it comes to VR apps is that they are too buggy. When an app on your computer stops responding and you are shaking your mouse or spamming buttons to try to get the computer to just do something, it’s frustrating. Now, imagine if that was the whole world you were in. If your headset has lag in VR, it really means your whole world lags and you can’t quickly get out like you can with a computer. VR is nowhere near the level it needs to be to truly mimic reality, but it is great at putting you into an imperfect one; you just have to accept that new reality is wholly unlike our own.
What may be things needed for VR to fulfill its potential?
Maturity of Product and Development
Computer hardware improvements
This is a fundamental improvement needed and will naturally occur with time. Most people can’t even use VR headsets to their best functionality because most computers and graphics just cannot run it. The current state of hardware makes it so that the graphics are significantly lagging behind that of computers. Simply put, VR is much more detailed visually and requires stronger hardware to support the graphics demands.
This again is something that is already in progress with soon to be released products like the Oculus Quest and the HTC Vive Cosmos.
Essentially we are talking about headsets that do not rely on the computer to run applications. Because of the power required for these headsets I am very curious about their capabilities. The Go is essentially a standalone headset and is very good for what it is, but it is also limited in power and is relatively simple. While it’s a cool product, there really isn’t any reason to own it other than the VR novelty, which honestly goes for all of VR currently. The idea of standalone headsets means that VR has to have improved software, hardware, and UI development. It then can become a true standalone device and not as reliant on computers. Perhaps it could even have its own OS.
More software and application development
The fact of the matter is that VR needs more apps if it wants to be utilized more. As fun as it is, watching Netflix in a simulated movie theater isn’t enough of a draw. None of these apps satisfy any sort of need or are better than any existing apps on other devices. In general, large companies haven’t put in as much investment into the software development side as they have into the hardware. This makes sense because it is hard to develop for VR when it has fairly poor UI system and a market size that isn’t rapidly growing as fast as expected. This leaves us with issues where there are not really any great browsers (other than perhaps the Oculus browser which is by no means perfect). Google revealed to us hints of a browser last May, but have yet to release it. Because UI capabilities in VR can be so great, apps have to be developed to satisfy those capabilities, which is very difficult to do smoothly. Otherwise, these things would’ve been done by now.
An actual stable and precise UI system
One thing that holds VR systems back from being standalone devices is a lack of a great UI system. In general, great UI systems need to be quick, intuitive, precise, stable, and require minimal concentration to use. CLI’s (Command Line Interfaces) satisfy those things as it is just typing on a keyboard which has a very easy event system to track. Computer point and click GUI’s (specifically with a mouse) takes this to another level with their additional capabilities and to this day it’s what we use. For smartphones, the UI is pretty remarkable and incredibly accurate. If you watch the original iPhone keynote, you can feel the awe people have in watching the ease it takes to use the phone. Without UI improvements in stability and accuracy to things like the keyboards, the smartphone wouldn’t be where it is today.
For VR, UI hasn’t really come to a revelation on the best UI. A lot of apps try to use an adaptation of point and click which just doesn’t work well at all. If anyone remembers the original Wii with the Wiimotes, you remember the concentration required to point and aim with stability at the buttons you want to press. Typing on a Wii was just agonizing. This is very similar to what a point and click system is like in VR. While it seems intuitive, it isn’t quick, precise, stable, or requiring minimal concentration to use. This is why I think currently, general non gaming VR use is smoother and more relaxing with an XBOX controller or Oculus’ remote. This is because while doing things like typing is still slow with a game controller, it is at least more precise and accurate, and does take less concentration to use.
However, using a game controller to play VR renders the primary reason to buy the system a moot point. Thus, we come to the point where overall VR UI has to be improved in some way that maximizes all of VR capabilities while still satisfying key requirements for good UI. Whichever VR company does that I bet will transform the VR industry.
Better control systems
Haptic feedback is essentially sending the signal to your nervous system of some physical contact. Game controllers do this with rumble. The Nintendo Switch does an incredible job with this with their joycons responding independently with haptic feedback.
Mario party has a great example of just how nuanced this is where there’s a minigame entirely based on detecting differences in the types of vibration in the controller. While VR controllers do have haptic feedback, it should be the most advanced of all devices. This is because anything you interact with in VR is simply virtual and so there remains a level of disconnect between what you see versus what you feel. To maximize the use and potential of haptic feedback in VR, this might mean leaving handheld controllers behind entirely.
Why don’t we just use our hands as controllers?
I think everyone generally expects that our hands should intuitively be what we use for controls. So why not use them? Well, it’s hard and expensive to do that and VR is already expensive as is. It’s also easier to make controllers with some familiar
things like buttons and joysticks. For Oculus, this is exactly what they use for their controls, while for HTC Vive, this is sort of the same, except they use the Steam controller style trackpad instead of joystick which, although very cool and flexible, just doesn’t have any great use in VR.
So, the whole hands idea. Where to begin? Yes, VR can track your hands. In fact hand tracking and display has been around before personal VR headsets were even a thing with Leap Motion. However, like mentioned earlier, it isn’t as precise and any lack in precision is immediately noticed and felt by the user. Using hands as controls also creates an entirely new controller event system independent of buttons that has to be perfected (it clearly hasn’t been). Furthermore, it doesn’t have the haptic feedback that can take things to the next level. So yes, it can be done, but it’s still held back a bit.
How would we then add haptic feedback to VR?
There are plenty of “VR gloves” that have the hand tracking and provide haptic feedback. This is great as now when you touch something with your finger, your finger will feel it. VR gloves can also have sensors to make tracking more precise. However, these products are quite expensive and I don’t really know how prominent they are currently. There are many different types like the Plexus.
Oculus is also working on gloves (but that was teased 2 years ago and still hasn’t been released). They seem more like really cool technologies that just don’t have much use currently. Furthermore, there aren’t a lot of prominent software and applications developed for these technologies because it isn’t the main way to use VR for any of the popular devices. A very common thing to see on these innovative VR tech company’s websites is that they’re looking for people to develop apps utilizing their technology and software so their technology will have a use. Unfortunately, because the UI for VR is still based on VR controllers, that is the system that developers have to build for.
How far can we go with hand controllers?
The tools are in place to enable VR to be dominated by hands as controllers with haptic feedback. Here’s a great video of just how impressive the technology can get by SmarterEveryDay. Granted it requires insane power but that’s why with VR we have to look 10-20 years down the road.
Beyond this, he also has a great video where he tries out an omnidirectional treadmill. Another big problem with VR controls is the difficultly in designing movement mechanics. There’s the balance of letting the user physically walk but also having controls to allow the player to move further distances. Omnidirectional treadmill like technology is certainly interesting to even think about, but again it is looking so far into the future.
As much as there is wrong with VR right now, there is too much potential for it to not eventually become a significant part of the technology ecosystem. Perhaps the place to really focus is AR eyewear where the Microsoft Hololens is doing amazing things and has an impressive UI. I’m of the opinion that solutions developed for either AR or VR in terms of UI will be able to transfer over to the other as well.
If there’s one key takeaway to have it is that yes, VR tech is here and it’s cool, but it is only at the beginning of its journey. Solutions to the many problems will take years of iterative improvements but eventually solutions will come for these problems. Like all game changing technologies, it takes decades of progress before it has the monumental impact it always had the potential to do. It wouldn’t be surprising if this is the case for VR as well. There are too many brilliant people already making amazing things for VR. The overall industry just has to evolve to enable these innovations to be put to use.