What’s Next for Virtual Reality Gaming?

The evolution of virtual reality gaming has never been a smooth ride. Progress and popularity in the industry have been coming in fits and stops since the late 1980s. And depending on who you ask, is a medium that is dead in the water, or just getting started. With the recent successes of “Half-Life: Alyx”, “Trover Saves The Universe” and “I Expect You To Die” however, VR might just be getting its second wind.

The term “virtual reality” was coined by Jaron Lanier in 1987 when he and his company VPL developed and sold the first gaming-focused technology. VPL developed the first head-mounted displays, known as the EyePhone 1 (sold at $9,400) and the EyePhone HRX ($49,000). They also developed gloves to match ($9,000), which later inspired the creation of the Powerglove.

30 years later, virtual reality headsets are still considered to be in the developmental and experimental stage. VR is still considered to be a niche section of gaming due to the multitudes of unsolved issues. The headsets are still heavy, bulky and awkward, not to mention expensive, with many of the preferable setups costing thousands of dollars. Motion sickness and headaches are a common complaint made by users, thanks to the lack of required motion while playing. The visual quality is significantly underpowered compared to playing on 4K HDR displays, and there is still an extremely limited number of both quality and Triple-A games for the device.

In the past few years, however, VR is slowly beginning to redeem these issues. “Half-Life: Alyx” is the first Triple-A title made exclusively for virtual reality, and was highly praised for its response to the many problems VR still faces. Nausea was almost non-existent for players with the introduction of teleportation, and the game avoids making you bend down to pick items up by utilising a “summoning” feature for items in-game. Motion controls were accurate and smooth, and to cap it off, the game looks incredible, something that we don’t see enough of when it comes to VR.

“Half-Life: Alyx” was also extremely popular on release, with over 600,000 people have played the game. This is a high number of players for a VR title, hopefully drawing in a more massive fanbase for virtual reality gaming.

More fan attention, of course, means more interest and investment into improving the quality of the virtual reality experience. The Oculus Quest is currently the most innovative and successful VR headset to date. Unlike its competitors, the Oculus Quest doesn’t need extra hardware, such as a console, to be able to play. The headset includes four built-in sensors which allow players to walk around a relatively large space, and have that translate into the gameplay. Oculus Link, a software enabling you to connect your PC to your Quest, was also recently introduced. And in the past few months, it was announced that Facebook is developing hand tracking software for the Oculus.

Hand tracking, if successful, will be a massive step in the right direction for VR. The entire appeal of virtual reality games, after all, is the idea that they could be so much more immersive than regular gameplay. That it can make you feel as if you really are interacting with a real environment. The use of dual controllers often takes away from this immersion, and at times actually makes gameplay more challenging. And not in a good way. Lanier himself said in 2017 that “VR products focus a little too much on the visual side and not enough on what you do with your hands”. For virtual reality to be truly successful, it can’t rely purely on the success of its visuals. The player needs to feel the sensation of being in the location of wherever the game is set, and that includes how they interact with that environment.

The next step for VR is simply to improve upon what has already been established. Varjo and Pimax are already developing headsets allowing for improved visuals and 20:20 vision. Oculus is prototyping new lenses which will adjust themselves to focus on whatever the user is looking at, which should hopefully limit eye strain and improve comfort.

There are still other details that will need to be ironed out. Both wireless and a smaller, a lighter headset needs to be developed. Implementing eye-tracking software would assist with immersion and ease of play. There is still a long way for VR to go before becoming mainstream. However, the industry is still very much in the innovation stage of production. The industry is continually evolving and improving itself, and it’s only a matter of time before virtual reality is as popular and successful as PC and console gaming.

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