Monday, April 24, 2017

VR Gaming: The Future Is Just Beginning

In 2016, several new virtual reality consoles were made commercially available. They might just revolutionize the world of video games.  ♦ 
The dawn of a new era in video gaming is upon us, as the year 2016 marked the wide release and popularization of commercially available virtual-reality gaming hardware. For those unfamiliar with VR, head mounted displays (HMDs) use head-tracking technology in conjunction with handheld controllers in order to recreate a player’s actions in a 3D space. This allows gamers to fully immerse themselves in new worlds and explore VR realms never before thought to be possible.
     There are three major players in the current VR gaming marketplace: the Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive, and the Sony PlayStation VR. Although other headsets such as Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR are available at a significantly lower price point, these devices are meant to house mobile devices and are not suited for visually intensive, console-quality games.
     In 2012, the Oculus Rift made huge waves in the gaming community when Oculus, its parent company, launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund this futuristic dream. After raising a shocking $2.5 million, the California-based tech startup sent out two rounds of development kits to backers in both 2013 and 2014. These kits contained unfinished yet stable versions of the Rift, with specifications far inferior to the finalized consumer model. Seeing the potential value in a company that specializes in the development of VR media, Facebook acquired Oculus in March of 2014 for $2 billion, more than enough capital for Oculus to complete the Rift and take their product to market.
     The Rift’s design is revolutionary to the gaming world. Never before has such a fully integrated hardware setup been introduced in the 40+ years of video game history. The finalized version of the Oculus Rift features a stereoscopic OLED display with a combined resolution of 2160 x 1200 pixels. So really, that’s two 1080 x 1200 pixel displays being projected directly into the user’s eyes. Headphones are also built into the headset for a hassle-free audio experience. The six hundred dollar device conveniently plugs into any computer via USB and connects with an included infrared sensor that must be placed in the user’s field of play in order to construct a 3D space. The Rift’s primary drawback is its system of user input. A lack of handheld controllers pigeonholes the Rift into the market of PC gamers rather than the gaming community as a whole.
     The commercial launch of the Oculus Rift in March 2016 struck a chord with the public. Audiences young and old were both intrigued and excited about the strengths and limitations of VR, and the highly competitive tech industry was happy to oblige.
     In direct competition with the Oculus Rift, the Valve Corporation (makers of Steam, an extremely popular PC gaming platform) partnered with tech giant HTC to deliver their take on VR gaming. Originally named SteamVR, the HTC Vive was released in April 2016 with specifications similar to that of the Oculus Rift. Both devices use the same stereoscopic OLED technology and screen resolutions. However, the Vive costs $200 more than the Rift, justified by an increased number of headset sensors and the inclusion of two handheld controllers, one for each hand. These controllers aren’t like your average gamepad; they track 3D motion so players can extend their arms to interact with in-game objects. Even though the Vive was designed to be used with Steam, controllers provide for a far more immersive gaming experience than the traditional keyboard and mouse setup.
      Sony made their stake in the VR industry in October 2016 by releasing the PlayStation VR (PSVR), an HMD that connects wirelessly to the PlayStation 4 console. Unlike the Vive and the Rift, PSVR uses a single 5.7 inch OLED panel with a 1920x1080 resolution which is digitally divided to provide the stereoscopic effect. The PSVR has controller input, players can stick with the standard DualShock 4 Wireless gamepads, or spend an extra $50 for the PlayStation Move wireless motion controllers, which are similar to the Vive controllers.
     The difference in feeling between standard gamepads and motion controllers is massive. Imagine swinging a sword, nocking a bow, throwing a punch, or picking a lock. Now imagine doing these things without the use of your arms. Difficult, right? These activities (and so many more) require a great deal of tactile precision and can be much better replicated by using controllers that respond to motion. The HTC Vive bridged the gap of physicality left by the Oculus Rift. When a player is given a VR headset and no controllers, the player can look around their environment, but in order to interact, they must use a keyboard, mouse, or both. Controllers, however, allow for the next level of immersion by encouraging the player to interact with the virtual world the same way they would interact with the physical world. There is simply no way to translate natural human motion into a combination of buttons.
     The age of virtual reality gaming is just beginning. The VR innovations detailed above have happened in the past five years alone, and their developers show no signs of stopping. VR has finally reached a point of general accessibility, and I'm personally quite excited about that. Players will now be able to experience each game as it is truly meant to be and fully assume the role of whichever character they choose. And while not every VR game will be a role-playing adventure with a detailed backstory and a beautiful aesthetic, each game does aim to tell its own story, and VR allows the value of these stories to be realized.
  • About the Author
    Mitch Sutfin is a junior at Miami University, pursuing a double major in Creative Writing and Media & Culture. He’d like to be a screenwriter and/or standup comedian someday, as he thinks both would be equally fulfilling. In the meantime, his days are spent like so many other writing majors’: writing, listening to music, and working at a restaurant.

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