Introduction and the reality of VR
It seems that virtual reality's time has come — again. With various manufacturers and hobbyists all building head-mounted displays and body tracking systems, PC games could soon be getting a whole lot more immersive.
Virtual reality hardware first became popular in the nineties, but the technology massively let it down and it faded into obscurity. Now though, with the likes of the Oculus Rift and Razer OSVR on the scene, we're getting to see just how much head-mounted display technology has progressed.
Suitable for space
A quick search on YouTube will show that the Oculus Rift is very popular among players of Elite Dangerous. The setting of any space sim is ideal for VR because your in-game situation is sitting in your ship looking out onto the cosmos through the canopy. Replace the cockpit with your bedroom, and the canopy with your VR headset and you get the idea. Even the creator of Elite Dangerous, David Braben, thinks it's a match made in heaven.
Elite Dangerous has really shown what is possible for a game that was built specifically (but not exclusively) for virtual reality. When a player fires up the game and dons their headset, they are instantly able to look around the cockpit, then look down and actually see their in-game body, complete with virtual hands on virtual controllers that react as you control the ship's movements via your PC. Expect to see much of the same experience from EVE: Valkyrie.
Even today's much improved state of virtual reality hardware is not ideal — the video bandwidth requirements for VR rule out wireless technology for a start. That means your head is tethered to your PC, which limits the distance you can move away from it. Even though most head-mounted displays have a 1080p resolution, when it's that close to your eyes, and distorted by internal lenses, 1080p is really a minimum specification rather than something to boast about. To provide video streams greater than 1080p, which must be delivered to each eye, of course, we'll need some serious graphics processing power.
Also, as any gamer knows, the top-of-the-line first-person shooters require the absolute best screen response, and so the displays crammed into a headset are going to need to keep up with these refresh rate demands. This is actually something that AMD's FreeSync or Nvidia's G-Sync could help with.
Pushing the envelope
With VR's limitations in mind, think about multiplayer shooting games where the action is intense, and some of the best strategies are to strafe, jump, and duck. It's hard to see how this would effectively map into a VR experience with the technology we have, such as with an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive plus hand controllers (e.g. STEM by Sixense).
On the other hand (no pun intended), Razer recently showed off its OSVR headset with a Leap Motion controller fixed to the front. This means that hand gestures without holding a controller could become a reality — although the latency problems that the Leap suffers would have to be fixed first.
The Virtuix Omni is an interesting attempt at addressing the first-person shooter market by providing a 360-degrees treadmill to walk on. This certainly opens up the scope for first-person perspective games in terms of VR, and even MMORPGs.
The current state of VR technology really points to games that move at a more sedate pace, which doesn't include first-person shooters. The need for speed and extreme maneuverability (at least if you are unable to get a Virtuix Omni) just seems like a bit too much to ask without getting just enough screen lag to potentially cause nausea and frustration.
However, there are plenty more games that would work well. Just imagine wandering around in an MMORPG stopping to appreciate the scenery. However, the control systems would need to be looked at. Just check out a few screenshots of World of Warcraft and see all the ability toolbars. Something like this, where you can't see your keyboard or (real) hands means that having a keyboard full of shortcuts isn't going to work for virtual reality. Then again, if hand tracking (i.e. Leap Motion) takes off, it's possible that VR games could have a type of HUD that you 'air tap' on with your fingers to access more functions.
As mentioned above, simulators that place you in a driving seat are ideal for VR. Puzzle games where you interact with 3D objects could work well too. In fact, talking of puzzle games, who wouldn't like to see Portal as a virtual reality game? Its unique mix of first-person perspective action and mind-bending puzzles could play very well to VR. In fact, Valve showed off some Portal 2 characters in a VR demo quite recently.
Sharing is caring
So far the experiences we've talked about are fairly solitary. What about multiplayer? Well, for most home gamers, the cost of a head-mounted display and pair of hand controllers and even an Omni treadmill is still going to be fairly prohibitive, at least in the short-to-medium term. However, this doesn't rule out online gaming where those who can afford the equipment can congregate and play.
Future VR games may even make the experience of human interaction richer by incorporating facial tracking into headsets so that if you smile, or snarl, that expression is reflected on your avatar. This would be amazing in an MMORPG where multiplayer experiences are much more social than in FPS games. (Who has ever seen the Master Chief smile?!).
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