At long last, compelling virtual reality has arrived. The headsets are comfortable, the demos are fun and memorable and I've spent every day of CES 2016 trying to figure out ways to sneak in a bit more VR time. If you've got the cash, you can even preorder an Oculus Rift right now and sate years of hype and anticipation.
As an unrepentant early adopter, I should be excited. And I am: virtual reality is going to open up bizarre and fascinating new avenues for gaming, and I can't wait to see what's in store. But here at CES my thoughts have drifted. I once debated between preordering an Oculus Rift, or waiting around for the HTC Vive. But now that I've had yet another taste of what's in store, I suddenly find that I'm not so sure I want a piece of this at all.
My gaming PC is great, and also terrible
I'm proud of my gaming rig. It's built around the 5-year-old Intel Core i5-2500K processor, but a modest overclock to boost the CPU's speed, plenty of RAM at 16GB, and a monstrous Nvidia GeForce GTX 980 Ti means I've yet to find a game that'll bring my PC to its knees. But gaming in virtual reality is far more demanding than gaming in vanilla reality.
In virtual reality, games need to be rendered at a higher frame rate than normal, and there can't be any lag or delay. Fail on these counts, and you'll see staggered, choppy movement that doesn't react in time with your motions; this usually makes people nauseous. And the images need to be rendered twice -- once for each eye. That's an enormous amount of calculations, and if your hardware isn't ready for it, you're going to be left behind.
Nvidia is trying to make that transition a bit easier, with the VR Ready program. If you're shopping for a new laptop or desktop and see that little "VR Ready" badge, you'll know that the PC meets the minimum required specs for virtual reality. And while those requirements aren't extreme, you'll need to factor in the costs of virtual-reality hardware, too: in the Oculus Rift's case, that's $599, £499 or AU$649.
My PC is overdue for an upgrade. But a new processor and motherboard will set me back about $300, if I just target the bare minimum requirements. I'd likely want to aim higher, for a superior experience that's closer to what I'm getting outside of VR. Tack on the price of an Oculus Rift ($600), and I'm suddenly looking at a serious investment, mostly to play the games I'm already playing in a slightly more immersive way. If you're in the market for a new gaming PC, great! For the rest of us, this is likely going to be an expensive decision to make.
And I'm not sure it's worth the cost
"[Virtual Reality] is a new gold rush," said one Nvidia spokesperson, "and Nvidia is selling the picks and shovels." It's up to gamers and developers to trek to them thar hills and find that gold, but I'm not convinced it's worth it yet -- despite Geoffrey Morrison's dissenting opinion.
Floating around the vastness of space in 505 Games' Adr1ft feels phenomenal. But it's played with an Xbox controller -- looking around the flight suit is cool and all, but I think the standard, non-VR experience would still be fairly engrossing (and a lot cheaper). Ditto for the space simulator Elite: Dangerous. I want nothing more than to look around my cockpit while dogfighting in the inky blackness of space, but if it means shelling out roughly a thousand dollars (in my case), my current setup will do just fine.
Both the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive offer handheld controls that give you a more tactile approach to navigating virtual spaces. Games like the ridiculous Bullet Train and the hilarious Job Simulator 2050 are excellent examples of what developers can do with these controllers.
But the bulk of the virtual-reality experiences I've tried on PC and mobile VR have been just that: experiences to be savored and shared, but usually lasting for just a few minutes. Developers will need time to experiment, and see what works. Will we even want to play VR games for hours, trapped alone in a helmet in much the same way we might splay out on the couch?
Twelve-year old me is admittedly psyched that these are the existential gaming crises I'm having as an adult.
Those cables make VR a lot less attractive
Hardware will only get cheaper over time, so my cost complaints could be moot in a few years. And as developers spend more time getting to learn the hardware possibilities and limitations, we'll eventually stumble upon those fantastic experiences that'll last for hours, not minutes.
But the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift are at their best when their worlds surround you, encouraging you to peek under and around objects, and look in all directions as you explore. Thus far, the only solution I've seen to dealing with the cables that tether a virtual-reality headset to your PC is to have someone following you around, holding the cables and generally making sure you don't trip over yourself.
There's no way I'm going to convince anyone to stand around and hold cables while I scale Mount Everest, or perform surgery on aliens. And I had enough of a challenge keeping myself out of trouble with the untethered Samsung Gear VR. Without someone keeping an eye on me, or some serious diligence, I suspect I'll be in for a bruised time.
Cables are going to be a major obstacle in the VR industry for a long time. Mobile VR will be successful long before PC VR goes wireless.— Palmer Luckey (@PalmerLuckey) November 1, 2015
PC-based virtual reality will go wireless, someday, which will make this a moot point, too. But until we've sorted out the cables, and there are games and experiences I can't live without, I'll be watching this entertainment revolution from the sidelines. Virtual reality has finally arrived, and I'm not ready for it.