The Changing Shape Of VR Gaming

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Reading his reviews and comments elsewhere on the website, it’s clear that one of our lead writers Marcos Codas is something of an aficionado and supporter of VR. He’s certainly passionate and enthusiastic about the OculusGo, a device that we have talked about in the past here on the website and he has rapidly become a convert to all things VR. Personally I still remain skeptical and don’t see myself making the jump towards any VR system any time soon but it has to be said that the technology has come a long way since I first came across it…

VR and gaming is nothing new. While most think about the current crop of systems from Oculus, HTC and Sony leading the way, these are only the modern incarnations of what has been with us in the games industry for over three decades… While Atari brought the idea of an immersive environment to gamers in the arcades at the beginning of the 80s with the wireframe vector shooter Battlezone, trips to the arcades were still something that we all seldom got to enjoy apart from on family holidays. Home conversions simply couldn’t recreate the same experience so we had to wait to be able to feel that same adrenaline rush at home.

In 1983 it seemed as if that was going to be a reality with the launch of Tomytronic’s 3D handheld machines. During their short lifespan, seven different arcade based game were released (and subsequently licensed to other manufacturers for rebranding) bringing steroscopic gaming to the palm of our hands. While the technology was limited, it was years ahead of anything else at the time and looking back it’s easy to see why they were so popular. The idea of full 3D gaming that we could take anywhere and experience something that we could only feel in the arcades in the past was phenomenal… but the accompanying headaches from prolonged use were just as large.

Fully immersive 3D gaming seemed to disappear from the gaming agenda for a while – at least from public view – while technology progressed with the focus being on developing 3D engines for in-game use on 8-bit such as Incentive’s Freescape system and later 16-bit hardware. It’s this move to 16-bit that lead to the world’s next chance to play with VR thanks to a company called W Industries. WI had been experimenting with VR technology for several years including development of tracking systems, VR headsets and enclosure designs for entire VR systems but it wasn’t until the processing hardware caught up that the first commercial system emerged under the Virtuality brand in 1991 based on Commodore Amiga hardware. Released in sit-down and upright models, the Virtuality units hit arcades across the globe and while expensive were a somewhat disorienting hit with gamers.

Seeing an opportunity to bring 3D technology back into the homes and having enjoyed considerable success with the Gameboy range, Nintendo released their own foray into the market with the Virtual Boy in 1995. Cumbersome to use, a limited library of games and uncomfortable to use meant that the Virtual Boy has been relegated to one of only a few machines considered to be a blip on Nintendo’s otherwise successful range of consoles.

It was clear after this time that technology needed to progress significantly for VR to become not just affordable but also comfortable for the user before it became mainstream. The hardware was either expensive, cumbersome or was simply not capable of being used for more than a few minutes without causing severe discomfort for the end user so the tech boffins went back to the drawing board. It needed time to develop to the level we are accustomed to today where we can pick up a headset and play any game we want. To interact with characters in our living rooms, or even go online finding the best VR casinos – something no one ever thought about when VR was first being developed.

In the meantime Hollywood had already stepped in delivered us their own interpretations of what new virtual worlds could be like and the potential and dangers VR technology could bring… Stepping back a few years before the Virtual Boy to 1987 and our television screens saw the launch of Star Trek: The Next Generation. As well as a new incarnation of one of the most iconic shows of all time it introduced us to the Holodeck. A new type of virtual reality simulator that put people right into the middle of an artificial environment. We were shown the potential of what VR could become in the future. No more headsets, and a world where we could see, hear, feel, smell and taste the world around us. But it was a virtual world that could be fraught with dangers as well.

Certainly it proved that the VR of the future might not be the fun, safe technology that it is today. The manga, anime and video game franchise Sword Art Online paints an equally mixed view of the future of VR. This time it’s an even more bleak affair. An online multiplayer VR game goes horribly wrong when players become trapped inside. New immersive technology allows players to experience games in ways they couldn’t before but that comes at a price… the connections they make to the VR kit has deadly consequences as the hardware is discovered to be capable of killing players in the real world…

That’s all fantasy of course, but maybe we should just stick to playing games with the technology as it is for now and not rush to develop it too much further for a while…?

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