Written by Technology

Unconvinced by Virtual Reality

Last week Oculus Rift finally started shipping consumer units, two and a half years after it first appeared on Kickstarter.

This week the HTC Vive has been launched, part of a system that includes motion tracking.

Sony is readying a VR PlayStation add-on for imminent release.

And then we’ve had both Google Cardboard and iterations of Samsung’s Gear VR, both working at the lower end of the market and utilising the processing power of your phone.

Elsewhere, a range of 360 degree cameras are on sale at a variety of price-points expanding the action-cam market a little. YouTube accommodates 360 degree footage, and a recent episode of the BBC’s Click programme was filmed entirely in this format.

The New York Times gave away a million pairs of Google Cardboard glasses, and various news organisations have shot pieces in 360 degree video, learning as they go.

Everyone is very excited about virtual reality.

But isn’t it just the new 3D?

That is to say, fine in some limited circumstances, but mostly just a bit of a novelty, and something most people will quickly get bored of?

Now I confess that I’ve not experienced any of the higher-end VR devices. It’s therefore possible that I’m being grossly unfair. But then you’ve probably not experienced it yet either. I’ve no doubt that there are some awesome games that use VR, but high-end PC gaming, or even console gaming is a relatively niche area. The Xbox Kinect was an incredible piece of hardware, but has it really changed gaming?

There’s no doubt that broadcasters and film-makers are getting excited about VR, and as with 4K and developments in multi-channel audio, it’s right that they should be interested and experiment. Last weekend’s El Clásico was streamed in VR in Spain. Some rounds of the NCAA March Madness basketball competition in the US were also in VR. And of course, parts of this summer’s Rio Olympics will be shot in VR.

Whether any of that coverage was or will be any good is a separate question. I suppose I could look at Barcelona fans’ faces as Ronaldo scored the winner, but TV coverage already gives me that.

In any case, what I’m not clear about is, beyond gaming, what VR really adds. There will clearly also be some experiential stuff, but regardless how brilliant those special cases are, it’s not quite enough to convince.

Here are a few of my problems:

  • It’s not a social way to watch video. You have to wear goggles and headphones to get an immersive experience. Yes, your whole family or your friends could sit around similarly, but I bet your family didn’t even sit around all wearing 3D glasses, never mind each with a pair of VR goggles that cost hundreds of pounds.
  • You have to wear glasses. This is the same problem that 3D glasses had.
  • It’s expensive. Very expensive. Sure prices will come down a bit. But it’s expensive because you need a lot of processing power and high resolution screens to give the user a good experience. (Yes, I realise that £5 Google Cardboard also exists, but that’s not nearly as good an experience)
  • Did I mention it’s expensive? You also need a very capable PC for the full VR experience. Most current PCs aren’t powerful enough. Nvidia has said that less than 1% of PCs in use at the end of this year will be powerful enough. Go away and try the Oculus Rift or Steam VR test tools to see how your machine fares. I don’t have to download them to know that I’d need a new computer, probably getting on for £1000 worth. Even with as processing power gets less expensive, it’s going to take a while, and not be especially cheap for many years to come.
  • Motion sickness. This is going to be a problem for some people, and I’m not sure that it’s technologically solvable problem. Sea-sickness tablets? Reports suggest that you need to get to 90 frames per second to avoid the issue. That explains the immensely powerful computers and graphics cards that the VR manufacturers are specifying. (It’s also worth noting that many video cameras top out at 60 fps before dropping to lower qualities.)

If you’re a hardcore gamer, then none of these are necessarily problems. The social element comes from playing others over a network, and you’re probably alone with your computer during gameplay. Sure, your gaming PC plus VR goggles are expensive, but high-end PC gaming has always been an expensive hobby.

So yes, gaming is a legitimate use case, and I imagine lots of people are going to be enjoying an awesome gaming experience, although perhaps eyeing that even more powerful GFX card so that they can max out all the details games’ settings.

And I’m well aware of Moore’s Law which will see the cost of the technology drop quickly. But it wasn’t a cost premium that killed 3D – it was a lack of consumer interest. Yes – you might go and see the new superhero spectacular in 3D, but back home on TV, those 3D glasses that came with your TV set are probably gathering dust in drawer somewhere. 4K and HDR is where the technology is now, and it’s where the focus of the manufacturers and companies like Netflix and Amazon are. I’ve no doubt that we’ll get some 360 degree productions from some broadcasters or narrowcasters, but they played with 3D before, and look where we are with that now.

The wider application of VR is in video, and it’s here that I find the parallels with 3D are closer. I think you have two key problems here, in addition to general issues I’ve already noted:

  • Beyond an initial curiosity, are viewers going to be interested in seeing what you’ve shot through a VR lens?
  • And won’t most of them be viewing on quite low-end gear anyway?

So while yes, I can see people being interested in seeing your Planet Earth-style clips of wildebeest crossing the Mara River in the Serengeti in 360 degree video, I’m not sure I want to watch 10 hours of documentaries in that format. For the most part there’s the thing you want to point a camera at and watch, while everything else happening is actually a bit dull. It’s akin to those situations where you can choose your own angle to watch sports. You play with them for a bit, before you finally realise that the director is busily cutting around to the best angles on your behalf, so you revert to the main feed. In any case, the average user is likely to be using low-end kit at the same that their next TV will be capable of 4K. So clips in Google Cardboard will look far worse than those on the home’s 48″ TV.

And once you’ve got over the excitement of seeing everything around you, often spotting the production team standing “behind” the camera, you quickly realise that you’re losing focus on what you should be watching. Ordinarily a director and/or video editor has made those decisions for you, controlling your focus. So aside from distracting and weird stitching between the multiple cameras used to create the shot, what’s actually the point?

Perhaps a primary use case hasn’t really emerged yet. Maybe a certain kind of immersive storytelling utilising this kind of technology will be adopted and prove popular. But at the moment it feels like we’re experiencing tableaus a bit like those 4K videos you see running in stores of incredibly detailed waterfalls and forests. They certainly achieve a wow-factor in store, but when you get home you’re actually going to watch The Great British Bake-Off or Ant & Dec on your set. Those tableaus will seem to be of very limited appeal.