The ability to go anywhere and do anything has served as all the marketing video games have needed for the past four decades, all 45 years of consoles and PCs. That freedom has always been a delicate illusion though; you’re still just a regular person sat in front of a TV screen, even if you are moonlighting as a blue hedgehog saving the world from a mad scientist or even if you have a truly open-world game in front of you, such as Minecraft.
Source: Virtuix Omni on Facebook.
And the above will be true for some time. We could be thousands of years away from Star Trek’s Holodeck technology, but virtual reality (VR) devices like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, a device aiming for sales of 22m by 2021, have at least provided a compelling stopgap for gamers looking to escape their responsibilities in a far more complete way. It might be a bit jerky (and expensive) at present but living the life of the famed speedy blue hedgehog isn’t all that crazy of an idea anymore. Honestly.
The VR 9 to 5
With the Oculus Rift strapped to our collective faces, we’ve honed our bomb-disarming skills in 2015's Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes. We've fallen to our deaths in The Climb, flown a space yacht in Elite: Dangerous, and worked in a convenience store in Job Simulator. However, VR “spaces,” rather than games, may prove the killer feature of the technology going forward.
A space is exactly what it sounds like – it’s an empty world to fill with whatever the player likes. Whether that’s a medieval tavern for a Dungeons and Dragons game or the modern equivalent of the phone call, with player avatars interacting in a virtual park or within a video feed of a boat cruise. It’s the idea behind Facebook Spaces and one that Valve (of Steam fame) recently introduced to its online battle arena Dota 2, an incredibly popular title that attracts more than 800,000 people every 24 hours.
Source: Road to Virtual Reality on Facebook.
The idea of “being there” or belonging is an increasingly important one in entertainment, along with the inclusion of simple social features like chat rooms - it’s all about immersion. For example, Twitch TV introduced the idea of gaming for an audience and has since enjoyed immense success - so much that YouTube and Facebook decided to also offer live streaming, while Betway Casino carries live casino games featuring a live feed of a dealer. Players are connected to that feed and interact with a real person via their keyboards, virtually "being there" in a casino setting where real cards are dealt for them, and real wheels are spun. Similarly, Oculus Rooms lets up to three players chat and watch video streams together, wherever in the world they might be.
Dota 2’s VR Hub is something a little different. Offering a battlefield-level view of eSports tournaments, the VR Hub is an embryonic version of VR’s Holy Grail – a true spectator experience. Whether it’s the World Series of Poker, the SuperBowl, or the screening of the next Star Wars movie, the ability to sell VR “tickets” to events could revolutionize entertainment, letting fans attend games without getting out of bed and allowing promoters to reap the rewards.
Becoming a Sport
The Dota 2 VR Hub is unique for serving as a combination video feed and stats center; fans can step out of the action for more of a cinema-style experience, with the current game map, teams’ overall worth, and the EXP they’ve earned displayed on several monitors. It’s the perfect environment for fans of eSports, but it’s apparently aimed more at viewers of The International, a Dota 2 tournament that attracted a prize fund of $18.7m in 2016.
Source: Wildcard Communications on Facebook.
Outside of Dota 2, VR and eSports have a relationship based on The Unspoken, a game in which players pit sorcerers against one other. Working with Microsoft, the developers of the title, the California-based Insomniac Games, recently created an eSports tournament for The Unspoken in North America offering $7,500 in prizes. The event serves both as an expansion of the eSports schedule and as a springboard for more VR-based tournaments.
However, the trophy for popularizing VR eSports goes to Virtuix, which created a competition for 100 people at CES 2016, largely as a marketing opportunity for its Omni full-body VR treadmill. The company’s CEO Jan Goetgeluk insists that convincing experiences in the first-person shooter genre are hard to replicate in VR, due to “safety issues, space constraints, and simulator sickness” so a device like the Omni is almost essential.
Source: HTC Vive on Facebook.
Virtuix has already shipped more than 5,000 of its Omni devices (the company raised $8.3 million from investors to make the device a reality), but it’s hard to see full-body VR (or VR in general) ever supplanting the mouse and keyboard in the eSports world. It would do wonders for the industry in its quest to become recognized as a sport though; competitors would have to run in real life to have their avatar do the same in the game.
As far as gaming is concerned. The word “immersive” in the 1990s meant creating something that players only enjoyed, something that would help them forget about work. The same term in 2017 has much greater implications for the industry; immersive means surrounding the user with entire environments – and blocking out the sounds and the sights of the real world altogether.
There are still plenty of technical mountains for VR developers to climb but there's more than enough evidence out there that the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are not fads. And, with devices like the Omni, VR has gained potential far beyond gaming in industries like healthcare - imagine how much easier physical rehabilitation would be (for example) without the constant reminder that you're stuck between so many hospital walls.