Some people think that VR is going to change gaming and entertainment forever. Some people think that the VR space is about to explode and become overly saturated. Some people believe that big-budget VR gaming is driving the types of technical innovations that will define the entire industry, while others believe that VR gaming is in a sorry state; little more than a collection of tech demos. Oculus CTO John Carmack is one of those people.
“We are coasting on novelty, and the initial wonder of being something people have never seen before,” Carmack stated to a room of VR developers at the close of Oculus Connect last week (via gamesindustry.biz ). “But we need to start judging ourselves. Not on a curve, but in an absolute sense. Can you do something in VR that has the same value, or more value, than what these other [non-VR] things have done?”
That’s a pretty tough wake up call coming from someone so intimately invested in the success of high-end VR. He went on to criticize the state of current VR games and apps as well. In Carmack’s opinion, they fall far short of their non-VR counterparts in various ways. In addition to being suped up tech demos, in most games the UI is sluggish and load times are way too long.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom, though. Carmack has high hopes for the future of mobile VR. “There might be a hundred million PCs that can do this, but I believe in the mission that Facebook had when it bought into Oculus, of having a billion people in VR,” he said. “So it’s not going to be a higher and higher bar for performance; it’s going to be a lower and lower bar for adoption.” I’m wondering if that’s the right way to go; I’m wondering if PlayStation VR can’t introduce a smarter alternative.
Sure, Rift and Vive owners may be starved for true, meaty game experiences right now, but that’s not VR’s greatest problem. The problem is that the tech on that end of the spectrum is still prohibitively expensive. The HMD and computer you need to run it will together cost you about $1,500 minimum.
On the other end of the spectrum, with mobile VR, the apps and games are all gimmicky. The coolest thing I do with my Samsung Gear VR is watch Netflix, and that’s not going to sell VR to most people.
Gamers aren’t drawn to mobile VR because of the technical limitations, and average consumers can’t afford the high-end VR experience, which itself is still quite shallow. We don’t need a billion people experiencing low-end VR, Carmack, but it couldn’t hurt to have 40 million people having fun with mid-range VR.
I think PlayStation VR has the potential to fill the gap here and provide a solid foundation for this industry. The visual fidelity with PSVR isn’t as good as it is with a Rift or a Vive, but it’s up there; we’ll get even closer once the PS4 Pro arrives. It’s a comfortable and capable HMD, with the power of experienced, creative developers behind it. As far as VR gaming goes, our early hopes are in PlayStation VR – not in a big-budget Rift exclusive or free-to-play VR gacha game on mobile.
If Sony is smart and PSVR establishes a wise user-base, we’ll also see non-gaming applications make their way to the PlayStation Store. This mid-range solution, accessible to millions, could provide a first glimpse of what might be possible in terms of social VR apps, educational VR programs, and exclusive VR entertainment. Sony could also prove that VR doesn’t have to be an isolating experience. It has an opportunity to fund and celebrate games that involve an entire room of people, where the HMD becomes a social hub and not a social barrier.
It’s tough to hear Carmack express his concern in these early days of virtual reality. I have very high hopes for the medium generally. I think he’s misguided, though, placing all of his hope in mobile as the future of VR. That may be a solution years from now once the technology has caught on, but until it does, developers and content creators won’t get the funding they need to create entertainment that persuades and delights us. Sony and its studios are uniquely positioned to do that in 2016-2017, and I have a feeling that they will.