Are we now seeing the next step in console evolution?
I'm writing this in the aftermath of an E3 conference that definitely had a very real tendency towards Virtual Reality (VR), and Augmented Reality (AR) gaming.
Now, both of these technologies are hardly new, Ether in concept nor in, largely failed, real world implementations. Although we now we seem to be at a place where the technology; and equally importantly, its cost; has caught up with consumer expectations, making large scale VR and AR devices not just commercially feasible, but viable in mas-produced marketplace, perhaps for the first time...
The main runners in this new technology race are a bit of a mixed bad of contenders. Some of which don't seem to have completely found their feet yet.
The much hyped 'Oculus Rift,' in whichever flavour you chose, appears to be a definite contender. Sony have their version and, at the time of writing this, the production version of the Rift has already been made and is ready for mass production and shipping in the near future.
But the Oculus is far from alone...
Although to date this particular implementation of the AR technology has not proven to be hugely popular, and its impact on the general market has been negligible to put it mildly.
And google Glass is far from the only competition. More AR and VR products than ever before are ether being considered, released, or in prototype phase just now. Some of these are going for the general PC and or Consoles peripheral market. While others are already looking at taking a more insular route by making their own bespoke VR technologies. Once these propitiatory devices are out there you may find yourself locked in to a particular device for any given franchise. Now a market full of alternatives isn't necessary a bad thing, but a market full of locked propitiatory devices could become a rather expensive proposition.
To quickly recap:
- Virtual Reality - VR: is primarily an attempt to fool our predominant sense of sight into thinking we are immersed in another 'virtual' world. It attempts to do this be removing the 'real' world from our vision entirely, and presenting us with a new 3 dimensional space for us to explore. Although it does have its 'serious' real-world uses it is ideally suited for gaming, and has the potential to open up games in a way we literally haven't seen before.
- Augmented Reality - AR: is exactly what it sounds like, our current reality with an invisible digital 'screen' overlay. This 'overlay' can be used to give driving directions, point out places of interest, play games, or perform any number of other tasks. Although AR is rooted in the real world, and has many non-game uses, it also presents us with a new and very interesting sandbox for gaming with almost limitless possibilities.
Ether way, the immediate shape of things to come does appear to be in the form of a rather awkward looking pair of out-sized goggles or glasses.
So what is best, VR or AR?
Obviously this is a loaded, and rather unfair, question. But that won't stop it being asked. As with all things the answer is simple... Whatever is best, is whatever you like the most. Having said that I don't see a huge overlap in the use of the devices, even though they do share the same basic technologies.
What does this mean, if anything, for 'traditional' consoles and computer gaming?
Well, if I were to hazard a guess, I'd say probably not a lot for the foreseeable future. Further down the line we may see VR, and to a lesser extent AR, split into its own marketplace and genres of gaming . In much the same vain as hand-held gaming is split just now.
Then again if the VR platform proves popular enough, both with the public and with the games manufacturers, there is a chance that it could take over the mainstream gaming market completely. In my opinion I think AR is a bit of a different prospect. I do expect to see the use of this grow, but more as an addition to our existing technologies rather than an out-and-out replacement for anything. I think a lot of current devices could 'grow-into' AR.
What impact would an substantial, or even predominant, market share for VR based gaming system have on the type of games produced for the mainstream audience?
Well nobody actually knows just now, but I could hazard a guess at even more streamlining of the first-person shooting franchises, as this would tend to lend itself perfectly to the VR .medium. AR on the other hand could open up different prospects entirely. Augmented reality could mean anything from playing Minecraft 'through' your living room wall to playing 'a nice game of chess;' or bridge, or ma-jong, whatever really; on your Coffey table with a random stranger on the other side of the planet.
I believe there is a real palpable difference between AR/VR and all previous non-standard control devices. Everything from dance-mats and the eye-toy to the move, and every other non-standard gadget in-between, have all been aimed at a specific group of people using specific software. AR has the potential to be very non-specific and could rival the keyboard, mouse and joy-pad as the standard interface device. VR offers a much more mediate, literally in-your-face, experience that can bring a real difference to the way we 'see' games, and can be much more than a new interface gimmick.
At the time of writing this there is no way to know if these technologies will be taken up on mass, or where they will take us if they are, but at long last it does now look like we are at a point where it is both feasible and practical for VR and AR to be mas marketed.
With the prospect of VR and AR for all, the future is definitely meta-shaped...