Why We Won't Be Day-One VR Adopters

By Published January 18, 2016 at 1:30 pm
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Ivan Sutherland's “Sword of Domacles” head-mounted display lurched above its user as a spider above its prey; the contraption, as most technology of its era, was room-sized. The Sword of Domacles wasn't meant to be a user-accessible VR solution. It produced primitive wireframes of a room's interior and was strictly observational, demonstrated in awkward photos with the wearer's hands neatly clasped behind his back. This was Ground Zero for VR.

Sutherland later joined David Evans to build the University of Utah's Computer Science and Computer Graphics divisions, responsible for students who'd later create the world's first computer-animated 3D graphics. Through Sutherland and Evans – and their students – the foundation for Adobe, Pixar, and Silicon Graphics (SGI) was set, later producing companies like the modern nVidia. All this history of VR is recapped more thoroughly in our “History of Virtual Reality” article.

Oculus VR and Valve are makers of the modern-day HMD incarnates. Billions of dollars are backing these new ventures and, for the first time in history, viable VR solutions don't cost tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars. They're also not military-owned, another common theme of previous virtual reality attempts.

Our team has spent a considerable amount of time in virtual reality demos. The technology is an impressive fusion of display advancements, frametime pacing optimization, input latency management, and IR scanning. Just the display tech alone is nearly unrivaled, the Rift packing 2160x1200 pixels into a space smaller than a phone screen. Screen Door Effect issues have been largely resolved or circumvented on each of the major two VR solutions, and timewarp has been navigated with clever GPU processing techniques by both AMD and nVidia. Everything's lining-up to be a serious push into virtual reality and, this time, there's enough money behind the concept that it's not another “3D glasses” fad. Probably, anyway.

But I don't think VR is ready for day-one adoption by the general gaming audience. Impressive – yes; here to stay – yes. But not ready for gamers. The Vive and Rift both experience similar versions of the same problems: Hardware requirements and prices that rival more affordable displays, logistical and use case limitations, and the industry's myopic understanding of game design.

HTC's Vive and Oculus VR's Rift are the two big players that we're focusing on today.

VR Hardware Requirements & Price Accessibility

The Rift announced its price right when CES kicked-off, and it rapidly became the go-to conversational small talk to initiate most of our show meetings. At nearly double the initial $350 “ballpark” price, Oculus' announcement was a shocker – not helped by Oculus CEO Palmer Luckey's invitation for consumers to complain.

Even at $600, the Rift is infinitely cheaper than everything that's existed to-date, and far more technologically advanced in the way of gaming. The shock likely is attributed to the doubling of initial estimates and wouldn't have gotten the oppositional surge had Oculus VR kept its pricing more secretive. But a fair price doesn't mean it's accessible. $600 is a major investment for a round-one iteration of technology, especially considering that additional expense is required to properly enable the purchase – nVidia recommends a ~$350 GTX 970 or better (leaning more toward better), AMD recommends an R9 290/390 or better.

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(Above: Ivan Sutherland's "Ultimate Display," also called "The Sword of Domacles")

And we disagree with both companies that ~$300-$350 graphics hardware is enough to adequately sustain VR devices at desirable settings. Both the Rift and Vive demand a constant throughput of 90FPS at high resolutions, with a heavy emphasis on stable frametimes to avoid inducing nausea. Latency has to be below 20ms, and neither the Vive nor Rift presently support adaptive synchronization. The Vive's native resolution is 3024x1680 (effective render resolution). Looking at our game benchmarks, few games are playable even at 1440p (between the Vive and Rift for pixel count) when using a 980 Ti.

Assassin's Creed: Syndicate sits at 65FPS AVG using the 980 Ti at 1440p/Ultra. Fallout 4 (initial launch) was at ~78FPS AVG using a 980 Ti at 1440p/Ultra, and FO4 is a uniquely unusable game for VR since its FPS should not be unlocked from 60. Just Cause 3 runs at 65FPS on a 980 Ti at 1440/VHigh, with poor 1% and 0.1% low metrics (36.5, 33 FPS, respectively). To play anything resembling a modern, AAA title is going to require a lot more than a GTX 970 or R9 390 – but not everything runs like these games. Black Ops III is more accessible and can achieve 90FPS with a 980 Ti at 1440p, Battlefront is in the same boat, but both dip far below 90FPS with 1% and 0.1% low frametime metrics. That's unacceptable for VR and will introduce nausea in some users.

To push 90FPS at the effective render resolution of 3024x1680 requires 457 megapixels of throughput per second. For the Rift, although lower resolution, we'd still need 233 megapixels of throughput. Assuming the average game where we'd want, as an example, 60FPS on a flat or curved panel display, throughput demands are massively lowered and tolerances for low frametimes are widened. Standard displays also include adaptive sync technology to slave the monitor to the GPU, which aids in leveling frametimes.

The point is that most triple-A, modern titles will demand video cards that exceed the cost of the Rift to achieve non-sickening frametimes and framerates at the resolution output. SLI 980 Ti and CrossFire Fury X cards would be required to push some of the examples we listed above, and we've routinely proven that dual-card configurations remain unreliable at game launch and often (still) exhibit microstutter that's perceptible on a standard display. In VR, microstutter will send the wearer immediately to the trashcan. To really support the kind of 233MP or 457MP throughput demanded by VR, it's going to be a waiting game for new architectures and graphics hardware – and that's not going to be cheap, either.

And none of this is discussing the obvious elephant: We don't yet know what the Vive will cost, but given the accompanying lighthouses and higher-class display tech, it'd not be unreasonable to exceed the Rift's price-point. One of our first conversations with Valve, back at GDC '15, pertained to the cost of the then-primitive Vive. We were told to expect shipment in December, 2015 (that was clearly pushed back) and that price wasn't final, but to expect something close to or just below the $1000 mark.

Between the system hardware and cost of the HMDs, entry to VR is prohibitively high for most gamers and one of the major deterrents to early adoption. The price of the Rift and Vive will decline as the market matures and HMDs hit their stride with production. This is one of the most practical reasons to wait on a purchase. It also makes good sense to wait on Pascal, Polaris, and whatever follows these new architectures, as current GPUs struggle to achieve optimal framerates at good quality settings.

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(Above: The VPL DataGlove. Some of the earliest VR tech.)

Logistical Hurdles

Of all the counter-points to immediate virtual reality purchases, logistical challenges are probably the easiest to discuss. They're the most tangible, though more restrictive of the Vive than the Rift. This photo should help set the stage:

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(Above: Managing Editor Patrick Stone tries out Intel's jury-rigged jetpack solution)

The above photo is from our CES 2016 meeting with Intel, where one of our editors tried out a jury-rigged VR backpack for portable Vive use. The ensemble resembles a jetpack in its attempt to cut the cords of VR. The backpack consists of a 9-pound, $2600 laptop (equipped with GTX 980) and a 300Wh battery, allowing users to wander the playspace without tripping over the HMD's tether. In every demo we've experienced for the past few years, floor managers are always present to help untangle us or silently manage cables while we wander the room – but that need was removed with the backpack.

The cable is also VR's biggest limitation to larger-scale play. Between signal degradation over HDMI, introducing latency concerns, and creating a jumbled, face-breaking mess of cables, room-scale VR is limited to rooms of reasonable size. The IR receiver/transmitter deployment can theoretically accommodate infinitely scaled rooms (just deploy more lighthouses), but to realistically scale beyond bedroom-size requires a backpack similar to the one shown above. But that's not the main reason for the backpack – it's mostly just to eliminate cable clutter and create a quasi-wireless solution to VR, hopefully reducing the high probability of entanglement.

Something even more basic than this challenges VR's usefulness in room-scale environments: Having a room available. Unless it's being used in a seated position, the Vive demands an empty room to fully deploy. Not many folks have empty rooms lying around, especially in parts of Asia and Europe, and temporarily rearranging just to play games isn't sustainable. Even when the space is commandeered for gaming, the tether's intrinsic clumsiness – unless circumvented by way of above “jetpack” – limits gameplay to more cautioned movement and requires a constant, external awareness of its location. This is an immersion killer. To be constantly aware of the tether means slower movement, the occasional twirl to unfurl its bungie similitude, duck-like side-waddles to “cross” the cable, and generally being constantly harassed by wires erupting in Borg-like fashion from the back of the wearer's head. That's not to exaggerate the problem, but to illustrate just how critical such a small, incessant awareness can tank the immersion experience.

The entire point of VR is immersion and “presence.” The logistical challenge of room-scale VR kills its mechanical viability for games as we know them today. It is, in that respect, a novelty. We'll discuss this point of design momentarily.

As for using “jetpacks” to ditch the tether, well, then you're carrying around thirty to forty pounds of batteries and computers on your back. If not physically fatiguing, it certainly is an inhibitor to fluid movement and a major liability should any accidents occur. This stuff will eventually need to become properly wireless, but the current limiters are latency and bandwidth requirements.

Not a Natural Fit for Traditional Gaming

htc-oculus-steve htc-oculus-stone

Seated play is a workaround to these issues, not a resolution. I can sit at my computer, in front of my monitor, with another monitor strapped to my head – but I'm still only using about 180-degrees of physical view and have to rely upon traditional input to walk and turn (not factoring FOV). At that point, I really may as well just use a monitor. There is little value in head-look for most traditional games, and negative value in games requiring accuracy of movement and aim – games where you'd want head-look and body movement to be tied.

It's not until dabbling in flight simulators or racing games that this view would be useful, and with regard to racing, it's so much effort to dig-up the inkling of usefulness that the concept enters into 'novelty' territory. At some point, that novelty of being able to physically look left to see upcoming racers is superseded by the hassle to get situated, and players will drift ever back toward using monitors instead. It's easier just to look straight ahead and stay in first than clumsily glance around and away from the track. These racing games, at their core, are still mechanical – it's still about control, cornering, speed modulation. That's something the VR industry just doesn't get right now. Games are more than an “experience” and “immersion” and “presence” and any number of other buzz-words assaulting VR press releases. Mechanics win-out every time. If the game isn't fun to play, isn't fun at a mechanical level, then the game isn't fun. It becomes a brief “experience,” blotted out in time by the excitement afforded by good, solid, fun mechanics, even if produced by a technologically 'inferior' game or output device.

For space combat, dog-fighting, and flight sims, VR makes sense. I will not argue against the use of VR for a game like, for instance, Elite: Dangerous. Head-look is actually usable. Still slow compared to traditional means of input, but the mix of function and immersion is just acceptable enough to actually want to use. Looking up-and-out of a cockpit to track flyby fighters is a usable and immersing feature, and being seated both in-game and in-life mitigate the potential for a break in that immersion.

That's an awfully specific use case for investment.

Gaming has evolved to consist of three constants: A stationary player, an input device, and a flat display. The Rift is meant to improve upon traditional gaming by adding full spatial awareness and head-look, enabling the player to easily isolate head and body movements for better survey of the environment. A joystick (or other device) will still be required to about-face, or turn 180-degrees, but free-look means we can glance around the 180-degrees (roughly) of terrain in front of us by physical head movement.

That's also the worst possible way to play a lot of games. Anything remotely competitive is immediately removed from the list of viable titles in virtual reality, short of inventing a new type of competitive game, as the timings suffer compared to traditional modes of play. Even with a true-to-life translation of physical movement to game movement, it will never be possible to outplay an otherwise equally-matched player who is equipped with a mouse, keyboard, and monitor. The head can't turn as fast as a mouse sensor can interpret 3000 pixels.

These types of games are most fun for their mechanical foundation. It's fun to get good at them, and even in casual / pub play, I just can't see a virtual reality headset being “fun.” No one plays CS:GO or Call of Duty for immersion. It's an instant ego-check. You were good – now you suck, and everyone else is significantly advantaged because they're using the traditional hardware for which the game was designed.

The same is true for other genres, like MOBAs – the world's biggest – or strategy and grand strategy games. No advantage from wearing an HMD and an overall detraction from the experience.

But anyone buying the Rift is likely acutely aware of this and doesn't plan to spend VR time in competitive games. They're buying for immersion. That limits us to the above-mentioned cockpit simulators, potentially RPGs, and potentially action games.

The Rift and the Vive take two different approaches to immersion, and we've only really discussed the seated element.

The Vive is best used for room-scale movement, a completely new type of gaming that requires more analysis. The Vive's biggest challenge – and this is true for the Rift, too, but to a lesser degree – is a myopic understanding of game design. The Vive needs new types of games to be created to truly use the physical movement to its fullest potential. And I'm not talking about more of that “experience” bullshit, either. Wandering around Everest isn't fun, and neither is walking around the bow of a sunken ship and looking at whales. It's cool for one demo – technologically staggering, mind-blowing how much technology has gone into this stuff – but not fun. After that first time, the charm is gone. It becomes something you setup to show house guests – a novelty.

They're not games.

There is no mechanical depth, there's nothing to propel that high created by a proper game's ever-present sense of player self-betterment, or of exploration, or of learning. It's entirely observational, this “FPX” stuff, and the notion that walking around a virtual landscape would be fun beyond initial onset is naive. There's an entire audience out there that may care only and entirely about this sort of stuff, but that's really not our specialty; we are a gaming website, and that means looking at VR from a gaming perspective. I will say that the 3-dimensional painting was fun, but I'd equate it to the level of “fun” I had with MSI's touchscreen AIO – that is, fun to hack around for five minutes, then time to move on.

Even when these room-scale headsets do try to stick you into a traditional game, the auto-aim or inaccuracy (pick one) are enough to be either offensive or maddening. Everything becomes a King of the Hill game, since the room is physically constrained to a certain size – maybe 12' x 12' in most demos – and the only alternative, as of present, is a puzzle game.

That's fine, but it's not good for early adopters. Game designers need to adapt to these new mediums; there needs to be a new approach to design and, maybe, a new type of game. I'm not condemning these devices to failure or saying there's no future here – there is absolutely a future for VR – but the day-one selection of games isn't going to be as mind-blowing as the hype would have you believe, and the day-one integration will be disappointing. It's going to be frustrating, it's going to be effort to use, it's going to get stale and push users back-and-forth between monitors and HMDs. At least, that's how it'll be until the market develops.

That development process will be arduous, too. In a market where every gamer is using a traditional monitor, and where most of them are 1920x1080, publishers are going to target the biggest buyer base. That's especially true for the AAA titles. It'll take a while for the ecosystem to develop properly for VR, and although the out-the-gate list of Oculus “ready” titles isn't shameful, we'd recommend allowing that time for maturation.

VR is a “real” thing this time and we think it's got immeasurably more merit than, for example, 3D TVs and monitors. But it's not ready for gaming in a way that demonstrations convey. In the very least, wait for better graphics hardware. The headsets will probably fall in price by that point, anyway.

(Read our previous, two-person discussion on Vive & Rift experiences here. Learn about VR architecture here. If you like our coverage, please consider supporting us on Patreon.)

Editorial: Steve “Lelldorianx” Burke
Additional Reporting: Patrick "Mocalcium" Stone

Last modified on January 18, 2016 at 1:30 pm
Steve Burke

Steve started GamersNexus back when it was just a cool name, and now it's grown into an expansive website with an overwhelming amount of features. He recalls his first difficult decision with GN's direction: "I didn't know whether or not I wanted 'Gamers' to have a possessive apostrophe -- I mean, grammatically it should, but I didn't like it in the name. It was ugly. I also had people who were typing apostrophes into the address bar - sigh. It made sense to just leave it as 'Gamers.'"

First world problems, Steve. First world problems.

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