There was a point when the cars that I owned didn’t have central locking… I mean, really. What was the point? Why would I pay extra to have a feature that would unlock all of the doors in my car when I could just do it myself?
There was a point when the cars that I owned didn’t have a remote locking feature… I simply couldn’t understand why it would be remotely important to unlock my door 10 feet before I was going to get there anyway. Who would pay money for that as a paid extra?
There was a point when none of the cars I owned had air conditioning. It was expensive and unnecessary. If I was hot I’d just grin and bear it. I certainly wouldn’t pay a couple of grand extra just for a little convenience…
All of these examples have something in common. They’re ‘extras’ which I simply would not consider being without in my current car. Having now experienced them, the benefits that they bring to convenience has completely outweighed the ‘I can do without it’ attitude that I previously had, and it’s this attitudinal adjustment that is going to be central to our discussion of the Oculus Rift because I suspect I’m not the only one who this has happened to.
It’s an abstract start, I know. Please bear with me. Let’s bring the discussion to a more gaming orientated example – the Kinect for the Xbox One.
I’m sure most people remember that this isn’t the first iteration of Kinect. It was originally announced for the Xbox 360 under the name ‘Project Natal’ and I was one of the relatively few people who actually bought the hardware when it was officially released. What a waste of cash that was! There weren’t many games that supported it and those that did really only had novelty going for them. The best use of it was the integration of the voice search feature into the Bing search application or Netflix and it was going to rapidly become obsolete anyway. I’m absolutely certain that out of all my Xbox friends, I was the only one to try it – the rest saying ‘what’s the point? Why would I spend cash for that unnecessary extra?’
Fast-forward to today and almost everyone I know seems to have the Kinect attached to their Xbox One. Not only that, but I’d put a beer on the bet that if you asked current Kinect owners if having the voice features that it brings to the console would be important to them in the next generation a huge percentage would say yes. It’s created its own necessity by introducing the consumers to the convenience that it brings.
Why? What changed and what does any of this have to do with the Oculus Rift? The answer is simple – changes in buyer attitudes isn’t a short term play. It’s best introduced as part of an entirely new bundle where punters can realign their expectations of a product; whether that’s a games console or a new car – and that’s the problem with the Oculus Rift.
As an owner of the version 2 of the Oculus dev kit I can put it very simply: In my opinion in terms of the gaming experience it brings it’s just not worth the additional money it costs for gaming – I wish it was. Let’s be generous and assume when the consumer version is released that it’s half the current price – about $150. That’s about equivalent with the Kinect. Currently there are few games that support it and there are still issues with frame rate. Getting the device working for individual games harks back to the old PC days of manual IRQ and DMA addresses in terms of complication and the resolution is average at best. (One of the few times I’ll make that argument). But you know what? Those aren’t what makes the Rift a poor purchase choice, after all, it is still in development. All of those technical details can be worked out but they’re overshadowed by the people-problem of how you actually use the device itself. It’s a relatively clunky bit of kit and there’s only so much streamlining that can be done to resolve that, and even if it’s slimmed down to a Star-Trek Geordie-esque visor you’ve still got the problem of having cables attached between you and the computer. Not only that, but the entire experience a little surreal. In some ways it really is the next evolution of immersion in gaming; after all, the completely unsupported experience of Rift in Alien: Isolation is so absolutely terrifying that I can’t even finish the game and one of the best short-term gaming experiences I’ve had in a number of years. I’ve gotten about 7 hours into it and it scares the shit out of me.
It’s brilliant and it’s everything I hoped that the VR technology would be but at the same time as being completely immersive it’s also the opposite. Yesterday I played video games for a solid 9 hours without any ill effects and could easily have played more. With the Rift I can play an hour tops, and that’s not just because of the refresh rates or the resolution or the weight or any other technical factor. Human eyes just get tired if they’re forced to focus on a screen that’s an inch and a half away from the eyeball for long periods of time and that’s not the only human issue… You’re always aware that you’re wearing a headset and that you’re not in front of your usual gaming screen with the peripheral vision you’re used to and that’s what spoils it. Not the technology itself, but the change that it brings to your expectations.
Elite Dangerous is the same. Stunning and incredibly immersive while at the same time taking you out of the immersion because of the physical limitations of the entire concept. It’s a weird dichotomy.
Unless something massive happens and Rift launches with a huge set of unbelievable games to support it, it will always be a niche gaming extra for our gaming generation who have a bit of additional cash to spend on seeing an alternative interpretation of how user-interface can work.
But what does that have to do with cars I owned 20 years ago? It’s all very negative and the summary is that people probably shouldn’t buy a Rift at the moment, but that’s not really the end of the story. As it stands, the Rift has been slated to officially launch in Q1 of 2016 (which probably means Q3) but the important point is that it’s going to launch with this generation of console and I suspect will have exactly the same uptake profile as the Kinect did with the 360, or as XBMC had with the original Xbox – minor uptake but used as a beta platform for the next generation of consoles and gamers.
If Facebook are smart (and they are), the Rift integration with whatever the next Xbox is will be at a fundamental level, just as Kinect currently is with the Xbox One – not mandatory (MS have learnt that lesson) but value-adding enough that it seems worth it. Go one generation even further down the line and the punters simply wouldn’t even consider buying a console that doesn’t have some sort of VR integration, just as I wouldn’t consider buying a new car without central locking and air con and you probably wouldn’t consider the next Xbox without some form of Kinect.