Virtual Reality: It’s Biggest Draw Is Its Greatest Challenge

As we head towards next year’s big VR hardware launches the hype is reaching epic proprotions. That means lots of buzz about how we’ve reached the tipping point and that we’re on the verge of a headset in every home.

Having already lived (and worked) through two iterations of humanity’s attempts to escape from our reality into a computer-generated world, I have to admit I’m still dubious that VR will be any more successful this time around.

Still, it’s been weird to see so much time, effort, and money being spent to create fancy tech demos for an experience that seems far from ready for mass market acceptance. Clearly, it’s no longer a hardware problem: the new generation of headsets offers a much more immersive experience and seems to be getting the simulator sickness issues under control. Despite that, I believe that there are still fundamental *design* challenges that we need to face if we want to make virtual reality a major retail success.

Up until now our ability to experience alternate realities has ended with a portal of plastic or glass that we peer through into another world. That limitation has allowed designers to use their control over the user’s perspective as a tool. From the locked-in overhead environments of 3-in-rows and puzzle games, to the first and third person avatars, that ability to control the player’s window of perception allows a designer the ability to optimize for the two basic interactions that make interactive entertainment feel rewarding to the user: mastery and control.

The promise of VR is that it represents a bold step forward for interactive entertainment – one that melds graphics and input together into a single immersive whole. But it also breaks our ability to use perspective to set expectations. A user in a virtual environment wants to with every object in that environment – just like in the real world.

Imagine trying to design a version of Candy Crush you can play from any angle and you’ll begin to appreciate the difficulties that a designer will face when they hand the user that kind of control.

Part of the answer could lie in a better controller. The current crop of VR controllers are technically impressive, but they still can’t bridge the gap between expectation and (virtual) reality. We can shove objects around and shoot at things, but we can *already* do that incredibly effectively *without* immersion. In VR, that crude level of interaction leaves users as little more than ghosts in these worlds. (Vengeful, powerful, ghosts, but still…)

For VR to be able to do more than activate canned elements and play with physics engines; we’ll need to find ways to limit player interactions so they can match up to their expectations. Good design turns an endless ocean of choice into a raging river of intention.

We’ve become so used to the instant transitions in time and space that flat screens present to us that the user *expects* to be thrown from one place to the next. Attempting to instantly shift the user’s location and perspective in VR just brings on simulator sickness. It also breaks immersion, making things seem so obviously on rails that we’re right back where we’ve been for the last quarter century: stuck on VR the ride.

I understand why people are so excited by the possibilities of virtual reality. Being able to walk around an immersive environment initially feels interactive, even when the experience turns out to be fundamentally linear. But hype has always been the enemy of VR. When the magic wears off, users quickly discover what they thought was them having an effect on the environment is simply them changing their relationship to it.

For an emerging medium that’s better than the mildly interactive streaming experiences that plagued the early days of interactive multimedia, but VR Myst won’t be enough. We may quickly reach the point where the excitement will wear off. The player will reach the same state as they did when the excitement over kinesthetic input devices such as the Kinect and the Wii began to wear off: bored and waiting for the next “big thing”.

New modes of interaction are always exciting – at first. But what happens once you’ve burned through the full entertainment value of the killer app? How do you keep the novelty going when the *next* experience is fundamentally the same as the one that came before it?

While I applaud the new technology, what I’ve yet to see is the kind of solid answers that will make the current generation of VR technology a genuine mainstream experience. For that to be the case, we’d need the disruptive, fully realized, game-changing technology made the iPhone an undeniable home run.

I could be wrong – I’ve been wrong before. I’ve even been wrong about VR – believing that the 90s would be the era where we’d dive headfirst into computer generated worlds that would put our cyberpunk dreams to shame. Obviously that wasn’t the case.

Meanwhile, our dreams remain more truly immersive than our most impressive virtual realities, and I’m looking forward to the experiences that transform us from curious tourists to eager residents of virtual worlds.