With all the VR developments over the years, from the Oculus to Vive to the Index and more, VR used to seem like it was the inevitable future that was also right in front of us, but today, things are a little different. VR headsets aren't any less capable and powerful, the opposite in fact, but the hype out there around VR has gone down significantly.
So, what's going on with VR? Not to worry, because in this article, we'll tell you what happened to the VR revolution and if VR is dead.
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Did VR Deliver on Its Promises
This is actually a more complicated question than you might think. The first generation of VR, think back to the old Oculus test kits, was built to do something specific: Let you enter a virtual reality for what was, most likely, the first time in your life. Something out of science fiction.
VR was not designed to be super comfortable; and it wasn't designed to have an infinitely large field of view. It wasn't built to have the highest framerates and resolution, and there wasn't even a great controller for VR just yet. All of the things, today, that are part of VR that weren't back then.
Now, of course, they are. VR headsets have gotten far more comfortable; and they are designed to have large fields of view. They're built for high framerates and high resolutions, and there are lots of great VR controllers. But fundamentally, there's still a lot of stuff that hasn't changed.
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VR might be more comfortable now, but it's still relatively bulky and awkward and uncomfortable as compared to traditional gaming. They have larger fields of view, but depending on the headset, you can still feel limited. Headsets support fairly high framerates and resolutions, but it's tough to be able to drive games at those without expensive hardware. Controllers feel good, but there's still generally not a bunch of killer VR apps to use those controllers with.
Put simply, VR is better than it ever was, but it still has some key problems that are stopping it from becoming a true revolution.
Meta and the Metaverse
It may sound silly, but the existence of the Metaverse and the obsessive drive with building it out and supporting it with a huge array of content and features has been, in some ways, holding VR back.
In the beginning, VR was thought to be a function of video games. That's kind of why it came into existence: People wanted to step into a whole another virtual world. And by virtual world, that generally means video game. Yes, of course, there are some clever apps out there, but a VR headset is generally oriented around playing games. Or so they were.
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In recent years, companies have moved away from VR gaming and into bringing VR to other spaces. Whether it's the Metaverse you can interact with in virtual reality or just exploring Google Earth in VR or watching a movie on a big screen within the context of VR, the many different applications of VR have turned many of these headsets into masters of none.
Ultimately, why it may be cool to step into a virtual office park with coffee shops and jobs and coworkers in VR or fly around the planet in Google Earth, the truth underneath it all is the fact that VR wasn't really meant to do all that. It was meant to transport us to another world, like the magic of Sword Art Online or an MMORPG come alive.
The focus on building out VR to be a functional business tool or cool like techy toy rather than a conduit to amazing virtual experiences we couldn't have before has, in doubt been part of why there aren't many absolutely essential, killer VR apps and services like everyone imagined there would be.
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VR's 'Killer App' Problem
A huge problem for VR, as briefly discussed above, comes down to VR not really having a killer app just yet.
And before you start typing in the comments, yes, Half-Life: Alyx is awesome, and probably one of the (if not the) best VR experiences out there and a total must-play for fans of the medium. However, a VR shooter that functions very similarly to how traditional shooters function in terms of its core structure, pacing, and layout is something less than the ultimate VR experience.
There are lots of cool VR games, apps, and services out there, to be sure, but when you think of VR as a concept, what do you think of? Google Earth? Half-Life? Probably not. Most likely you're thinking Sword Art Online or Ready Player One. You're thinking about The Matrix. You're thinking about a fully-realized virtual world you can slip into and, almost, live another totally different life in.
Naturally, a lot of that is just pure fantasy. We aren't exactly particularly close to a Sword Art Online level experience in VR just yet. But all of this is to say that there aren't VR games that even scratch the surface of that just yet, not really. The VR games and worlds we have just aren't as rich, detailed, and immersive as the dream of VR really is.
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And VR isn't like another gaming console. It doesn't really need a ton of different excellent games and experiences to succeed. With just a killer app or two, something truly amazing that leverages the power of VR to nearly its full extent as it exists today, would likely be enough to convince many, many people out there to dive into the world of VR.
VR Hardware and Power Problems
A traditional video game on a console is going to run at 30FPS or 60FPS, while if you've got a PC, you can go even higher. Though, for most people, 30FPS is usually enough for a narrative-driven game, while 60 will be preferred for something more action-oriented. Then higher framerates are generally the domain of people looking to be as competitive.
Then, depending on what level of graphical fidelity you're after, games will target certain framerates. More immersive, graphically-detailed games will tend to run at lower framerates while simpler less impressive-looking games will run at higher framerates, as you might expect.
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This whole paradigm, though, changes a lot when it comes to VR games. With a VR game, you're going to want somewhere in the range of 90FPS at the minimum, and even more for maximum smoothness and immersion. On its own, running modern games at high framerates at all takes a lot of power, but there's another level of difficulty with VR games, too.
With a VR game, graphical fidelity kind of needs to be high, because the fundamental point of a VR game is to immerse yourself in a virtual world. And it's hard to get immersed if the graphics on display aren't particularly advanced. When you couple this with the need for high-framerate gaming, well, you get VR games like the ones we have that usually end up looking like a generation of games or so behind the graphical curve.
This presents a problem for VR games to truly take off, as the hardware in consoles and most PCs, right now, still isn't really up to snuff when it comes to outputting gorgeous, high-resolution, high-framerate VR content. Naturally, though, this is a problem that will slowly be solved in time as gaming hardware gets more and more powerful and advanced.
However, this also brings up another issue: cost.
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The Expense of VR
VR headsets, in general, have always been relatively expensive, and that hasn't really changed all that much, but the ceiling on those prices for the most premium headsets has gone up.
Look at Valve's Index headset. Even a couple of years old, this headset is still going to cost you $1000, all in, and after you spend that on the headset itself, well, you're going to need a PC to actually use your headset. And you're going to need a relatively powerful, expensive PC to actually take advantage of everything the Index can do, too.
This is further complicated by the unfortunate reality that PC hardware is still quite expensive thanks to COVID and chip shortage problems still sorting themselves out, slowly, over time. What's more, though, is that even within the context of the console VR space, cost is still a relatively big issue.
PS5s, for example, are still relatively hard to find, depending on where you live, and that's going to cost you (at least) $500. If you're looking to pick up Sony's next-gen PS VR2 headset, that's going to set you back another $550. And of course, that doesn't take into account the price of games or PS Plus or anything else. And that's even considering what a deal the PS VR2 headset really is, given the tech on offer, for its price.
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All told, with a console, you're looking at spending upwards of $1200 for a VR experience that, as described above, still has a lot of limitations and doesn't really have an absolutely essential killer app. Put simply, that's a steep price for what is not necessarily an experience that will be worth it for all that money.
So, Is VR Dead?
The answer here, probably, is no. VR isn't dead, but it's certainly not thriving just yet for all of the reasons outlined above.
In actuality, VR is at something of a standstill right now. Big killer apps and games haven't been coming out; costs are high; and the power demands for VR gaming are quite high, too. Accordingly, this entire genre of tech is still relatively niche and will probably be niche for a while.
Though, inevitably, this will start to change. Fantastic VR games will eventually come out, costs will go down, and more powerful hardware is only going to become more and more accessible as time goes on. Unfortunately, though, it's tough to say how long this will take or when VR will truly crack open the mainstream as it always was meant to.
All we can do, for no, is wait, see, and hope.
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