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It's time to break up with VR

Commentary: More than two years into the current virtual reality era, it feels like we've hit a brick wall.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Dear VR: It's not me, it's you. 

We've had some good times, we've had some motion sickness, we've bumped into a few walls. But after giving you the benefit of the doubt for the past two years, it's time to throw in the towel. Virtual reality may yet become a massive mainstream hit, but it's not going to happen with this generation of tech.

I say this with more than a little regret. As a true believer in the promise of VR, I was a textbook early adopter, preordering both the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive on day one. I also grabbed one of Sony's PlayStation VR headsets as soon as they were available. Naturally, I later added the Oculus Touch controllers for the Rift and the Deluxe Audio Strap accessory for the Vive. 

Now playing: Watch this: Dear VR: It's not me, it's you
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My VR obsession goes back even further than that. I was one of the first people to see and try the original Kickstarter Oculus Rift prototype back in 2012, when I was blown away by what was essentially a pair of ski goggles with a screen shoved inside. 

But after years of hype and promises, the initial limitations and roadblocks of these VR systems remain largely unchanged. Note I'm speaking of PC and console-based VR right now. Mobile VR, like the Gear VR and new Oculus Go, is a separate category, with potentially more future upside, but also its own long list of problems and limitations.

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I've tried many VR headsets, and they all still have problems.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Do the locomotion

Locomotion inside VR games and apps remains a major issue, and just moving around inside virtual environments requires awkward point-and-click workarounds (usually in the form of VR teleportation) to avoid motion sickness.

You're still tethered to a computer or console via a big cable. A cable that you're definitely going to trip over, fight with or yank out of its ports on a regular basis. More than a year after the first workable demos of wireless VR, that's still a pipe dream. Sure, it's coming someday, but not soon enough. For early adopters, it'll be a heavy, expensive and clunky add-on at best, such as promised WiGig wireless transmitter from HTC.

Now playing: Watch this: Cut the cables with HP's battery-powered VR backpack
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So far, the most practical untethered solution I've tried is so incredibly complex, you might think I'm making it up. HP, MSI and other PC makers have released entire gaming computers that strap onto your back like a backpack, complete with a battery pack utility belt that would make Batman jealous. 

It's as ridiculous as it looks, especially as these backpack rigs are nearly impossible to set up and put on without a friend standing by as your personal VR caddy. Even if you stay anchored to your desktop or laptop computer, you're still looking at spending hundreds or thousands for a compatible gaming PC.

All about the games

But the biggest issue holding VR back is the games, or lack thereof. It's true, there are actually hundreds of virtual reality games available from Steam, Oculus and even Microsoft's Windows App Store. The vast majority are simple low-budget indie projects that range from pure dreck to forgettable filler, with just a handful of gems along the way (and a few interesting non-game experiments). That's because the big game companies -- the publishers behind hits from Grand Theft Auto to Call of Duty to Madden NFL -- have barely dipped a toe into the VR waters.

For EA's Star Wars Battlefront and Activision's Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, impressive VR levels were released as free downloadable content. When both those games got sequels for the 2017 holiday season, neither got a new VR level. That doesn't say much about how these big game-makers feel about the commercial appeal of virtual reality.

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Virtual reality gaming is full of promise, but it's simply not growing.

Josh Miller/CNET

Ubisoft, maker of the Far Cry and Assassin's Creed series, has published a handful of slick VR games, but is so far keeping its big franchises VR-free. Bethesda has put more into VR than any other major game publisher, but the virtual reality re-releases of Fallout 4, Doom and Skyrim just took older games and shoehorned VR onto them. Each had moments of immersive beauty and offer glimpses of VR's amazing potential, but all suffered from clunky controls and graphical limitations. The lesson learned here is, you can't just take an existing game and bolt VR onto it. 

More disappointments: RockStar's VR version of its excellent L.A. Noire game is an unplayable mess. Star Wars fans have gotten two VR "experiences" in two years. Both are highly polished and make for great demos, but neither one comes close to the definition of a game, and you could play through the pair of them in about 10 minutes.

The most damning thing I can say about the current generation of VR is that two years ago, I said the best VR game I'd found was a free, indie game about multiplayer paintball, called Rec Room. Cut to two years later, and the best VR game you can play is still a free, indie game about multiplayer paintball, called Rec Room.

I'm sure you have a list of your own VR killer apps that totally disprove my position. As they say on Twitter, don't @ me. Personally, some of my favorites include Gorn, Superhot, Robo Recall, Holoball and a great puzzle/adventure series called The Gallery.

Backwards to the future

The future of VR looks like it belongs to mobile headsets like the Oculus Go, Gear VR and Vive Focus. They're less expensive, easier to use, and -- most importantly -- don't have giant cables snaking out of them. But, they can't match the power and graphical fidelity of PC-based VR, and most don't support six degrees of movement, which means you can move your head up and down, and look left and right, but you can't actually move forwards or backwards by more than a half-step at best. (The Vive Focus, powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon smartphone processor and so far only available in China, has 6DOF support.) But in most cases, tethered or not, you're still basically rooted to the same spot.

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Might HTC's Vive Pro finally fix some of VR's shortcomings?

Sarah Tew/CNET

If the short-term future of VR is dependent on less powerful, less immersive hardware, I'm not sure I like its chances. I still believe high-end virtual reality will happen someday, perhaps in Holodeck-like environments indistinguishable from the real world, but it doesn't look like this is going to be the epoch of hardware that nails it.

Then again, just as I was about to stick a fork in this generation of VR, HTC's new Vive Pro arrived at the CNET offices. Yes, it's ridiculously priced at $799, £799 and AU$1,199 for the headset alone (you'll still need controllers and wall-mounted sensors), but it's got a higher-resolution screen and better design than the original. I have to admit, I'm feeling very, very tempted to open up the box and take it for a test drive.

First published April 2, 2018 at 4 a.m. PT.
Update April 3, 1:12 p.m. PT: Adds video.

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