The Reality of Virtual Reality

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The Valve Index, released just this year

Ben McCutchan

Virtual reality, or VR, offers a relatively new way to play video games. In a traditional setup, players watch a screen as they make inputs with a keyboard or controller. While most video games strive to immerse players in the world in which they play, there is still a barrier between reality and the game. VR serves to break down these barriers. In VR, the screens are now pressed right up to your eyes, and there are two images so your brain can create a 3D image of the virtual environment around you. Instead of simply pressing buttons or keys, your hands hold controllers that are tracked in real time. All of these factors lead to an experience that is much more immersive than watching a screen. You are no longer watching the game on a screen; you are in the game.

While there had been instances of very early version of VR, the idea never took off commercially until the Oculus Rift was created. The Oculus Rift began as a Kickstarter project in 2012 where it raised almost 2.5 million US dollars from 10,000 contributors. After four years in development, the Rift saw its commercial release in March 2016.

The Oculus Rift, released on March 28, 2016.

The Oculus Rift was the first headset in the market, but it was quickly followed by other competitors. Computer company HTC teamed up with the video company Valve to release the HTC Vive in April 2016. Unlike the Rift, the Vive featured two tracker base stations, or “Lighthouses,” that would allow the player to move the camera and controllers around in a small room space rather than simply staying in one position. In October 2016, video game company Sony released its own PlayStation VR to go along with its console, the PlayStation. While it certainly wasn’t as robust as the Rift or Vive, it was much cheaper than either headset.

 

As for this year, several new headsets have been released. Oculus released both the Oculus Quest and the Oculus Rift S into the market. The Oculus Quest is unique in the fact that it does not require a computer or console in order to play. The Oculus Rift S is similar to the original Rift; it mainly has better technology and a better screen resolution. The current top dog in the market, however, is the Valve Index. It features the same base stations from the HTC Vive, but it has a much greater resolution. One of the main selling points of the Valve Index are the “Knuckles” controllers. These controllers are able to track your finger movements and can sense things such as your grip strength. It is the highest quality headset currently on the market, but it is also the most expensive one ever released. 

Image of gameplay from Beat Saber

After having played a few games in VR, I can tell you they are an experience like no other. One of the most popular VR games currently on the market is Beat Saber. In Beat Saber, you “slash” the beats of a song using lightsabers. It won the VR Game of the Year Award at this year’s Game Awards, and it is one of the best selling VR games on Steam. Superhot VR is a first-person shooter where time only moves when you move, allowing you to dodge bullets like Neo from The Matrix. A few games have been ported over into VR including No Man’s Sky, a game where you explore and interact with a procedurally-generated universe.

Playing games in VR can be a surreal experience, but it currently only holds a very niche part of the video game market. The main problem with VR is how expensive it can be: most VR games require a computer that can easily cost one thousand dollars, and you need to add the cost of the headset on top of that. While the current games in VR certainly can be extremely fun and entertaining, most of them haven’t provided a full experience like a traditional video game. Both of these problems can be solved by the industry, though. As interest in VR increases, more companies will invest in creating better games and technology. While VR is still in its early stages, I am hopeful for what it could become in the near future.