Who Really Cares About VR?

Preorders for PlayStation VR bundles priced at $499 went went on sale 10 a.m. Tuesday and several retail outlets have already sold out of the new tech — it took less than an hour to clean out Amazon. This is surprising only because everyone I’ve spoken to about VR isn’t remotely excited to own their very own headset. So this begs the question: who really cares about VR?

Is all the VR-hype manufactured? It’s certainly starting to seem that way. In fact, the current VR blitz reminds me of the 3D TV phenomenon from a few years ago. Everyone was going to buy a 3D TV, according to media outlets at the time. Boring old 2D TV didn’t stand a chance now with a new dimension at our disposal. However, things didn’t really work out that way. Most major manufacturers have stopped making new 3D TVs because the flop was so dramatic. Short-lived 3D channels are being switched off forever.

And why? If I had to guess, it’s because people just want to watch TV. They don’t want to sit at the right angle, wear the special pair of glasses, and then sit transfixed at the screen lest their eyes wander to the clock and the effect be lost. People just want to watch TV.

Regardless of the obvious parallel between VR and 3D TVs, Sony is betting on VR. Facebook, via Oculus, is betting on VR. Valve and HTC are betting on VR. Samsung, AMD, and plenty of others are getting in on the game too. And, yeah, it’s entirely possible that this is the 3D TV all over again, or maybe is the Wii and Kinect all over again.

Part of the problem is that the VR experience can’t be disseminated easily. No matter how wildly VR trailers zoom the camera into a VR headset, no matter how hard they try to recreate the experience in 2D, in the end you’re just seeing a regular old game trailer. Only the games themselves look rather dull and the people playing them look goofy as hell.

VR goggles will sell. All of the big four manufacturers will report great numbers in the first couple of weeks, and then go quiet about the steep drop off until the next Black Friday/Christmas season. Enthusiastic pre-orderers and early buyers will excitedly try out the tech, muck around in whatever gimmicky software is bundled, and spend another $60 on a big brand game that’s designed to work with them. They’ll rave on forums about how thrilling it all is, because it will be thrilling for a bit, and then things will get quieter…

There will be a few high-profile games built for VR. Though, after that initial push at the launch, I have a hard time believing publishers will want to waste hundreds of millions on further VR-only projects. A VR mode for bigger titles might make sense, but eventually players will be in the same situation as movie-goers. Major movies are filmed and released in 2D, with a skew-whiff 3D version created in post-production and given a higher ticket prices. Given the choice, the sensible film-goer recognizes that the film was designed and intended for 2D and sees it in 2D. And players will get savvy to this too. They’ll realise that if a game works fine on a monitor or TV screen, then the VR version can’t be much more special. Eventually developers will stop wasting time putting the VR mode in (much as the brief dalliance with 3D modes for games quickly went away), and games will go back to how they’ve always been, and how everyone has always wanted them to be: something that can be enjoyed without stumbling awkwardly around your living room while trying to stave off nausea.

VR is a lovely idea. It’s been a lovely idea since the early 90s, and has persistently failed to get off the ground ever since. This time out things are certainly going farther than usual, but it won’t break through. Because until it can work without a giant headset, making you look like a lost robot tourist, people will always prefer to sit at their screen. People like TV like TV, they like game controllers like game controllers, and they like video games like video games. Until something comes along that genuinely improves the experience without limiting it (black and white TV to colour TV, joysticks to console controllers, 2D graphics to 3D graphics), it’s doomed.

But if you disagree and genuinely do care about VR, please tell us why in the comments.

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