In a recent GAMESPOT article, Strauss Zelnick, the CEO of Take-Two Interactive, encapsulated in a single sentence, the greatest challenge ahead for Virtual Reality. He said, “…there is no market for [an] … entertainment device that requires you to dedicate a room to the activity.” He, then, went on to identify the second major issue, when he jokingly said, “We don’t have a [room] where you stand in a big open space and hold two controllers with something on your head—and not crash into the coffee table. We don’t have that.”
And that my friends, is why Mr. Zelnick, though admittedly not a “gamer,” makes the big bucks.
As progeny of the television-centric home entertainment ecosystem (HEe) we have grown accustomed to staring at moving pictures on walls (see Figure 1), and not moving while we do so. Certainly there are times when movement is appropriate and expected, but in order to fit within the HEe it must be anticipated, and changes made to accommodate the increased need for space and separation. In other words, you need to move “the coffee table” so no one gets injured.
But in most cases, we watch TV, not moving, and, often, reclining. In fact, there have been numerous studies conducted by the manufacturers of video and audio equipment that indicate the best viewing angle, and thus seating position, for the consumer to fully enjoy a, so-called, “immersive,” entertainment experience. VR will eventually demand more.
In this, the first of a two-part series of the BOOM, I examine the problems inherent in the VR experience, as a duplication and augmentation of reality, in the context of spatial dynamics (the ROOM), room orientation, stabilization, and finally, sound presentation. It is around these fundamentals, along with several others, that the foundations of true, cognitive envelopment, necessary to convince our minds we are really somewhere else, may be established.
Those that grew up during what I have often referred to as the “Golden Age” of video gaming, remember a time when there was no preference between PC and console. There was just gaming. In fact, there are some games that we loved every bit as much as our favorite PC, console, and arcade games, which are now, all but forgotten. Still, as for where most gamers of the period, young and old, preferred to play their favorite games, the arcade was king (see Figure 1).
Though the graphics and gameplay of the standalone machines were often identical to their console/PC versions, there were a lot more games to play at the arcade then at home or school. Also, there was an energy in the place that was palpable and electrifying. Playing in the arcade during the decade of the 1980’s could be viewed as a prototype of the multiplayer experience that we now enjoy online, with one big difference: back then we played, physically, side-by-side, every time.
While the arcade may have been our preference, there were two, significant, disadvantages: cost, and the fact that you needed transportation to get to one. Both reasons made it an impractical, though highly desired, option for me and my eight and nine-year-old, school friends. Even after washing everyone’s car on the block, mowing their lawns, scavenging for and returning bottles and cans for the deposit, and, finally, squeezing your parents for every last quarter they had, it didn’t take long to burn through your hard earned change once you walked into that neon-lit, multisensory extravaganza of light, sound, and movement (see Figure 2). It is largely for these reasons that the console became our video gaming method of choice.
Thus, it was during the decade of the eighties that video gaming as a practice and event shifted from the surrealistic environment of the arcade to become a more home-based activity in which the console played a dominant role. At the time, PC’s were also in their infancy. Companies like Apple, and even HP, had demonstrated an early interest in video gaming software development, but purchasing their hardware was expensive, often more expensive than a console (see Figure 3). Moreover, PC’s were still, for the most part, considered business machines and not video gaming platforms. For many gamers, therefore, the console was the only realistic option.
This economic ‘reality,’ in many ways, created a division between the gamers that had access to a PC, and those that could only get their hands on a console. From this point forward, the question of which platform, PC or console, was technologically superior, became the subject of a debate that continues, thirty years later, into our current day.
Of course, the rift between PC and console gaming is more complicated than the “debate” over which is a, “superior,” platform. However, no one would dispute that this is the primary issue that continues to surface and resurface whenever gamers argue over which is best for gaming. Now, it seems, this age old argument has been given new life in the discussion over which is a better platform for delivering Virtual Reality (VR).
As recent as this past February, Tim Bajarin, a well-known, well-respected technologist, “futurist,” and contributor for PCMag, revealed how this divisive issue is being used to influence the direction of VR software development. In his post, “Why Sony Has a Big Lead in VR,” he offers reasons why the PC is a more preferable VR appliance than the Playstation, or any other console. The primary concern, as he sees it, is the console’s seeming, one purpose functionality as a gaming device. According to Mr. Bajarin, consoles like the Playstation 4, “[are] largely gaming platforms.”
Since the release of FB-Oculus‘ first of, what I expect will be, numerous iterations, of its mind-bending, reality-shifting, VR apparatus, much has been said by the mainstream media (Vox, Wired, New York Times, etc.) about the future of VR, and its immediate and long-term impact on the way in which we consume media. And while we at BOOM Salad are gratified to see these touchtones of 21st century, online journalism finally affirm something that we stated conclusively more than a month ago, it is clear that they are still struggling to understand the far-reaching implications of a world permeated by VR technology. By that I mean, VR is not 3-D Television. VR is legit, it’s coming, in fact, it’s here, and Oculus is just the beginning.
Unlike other entertainment devices, the uses of VR will not be confined to the realm of video-related entertainment. It will continue to evolve beyond its original focus to include whatever need or desire we have for a virtualized universe. In other words, there is no aspect of society that does stand to be affected in a significant way: education, politics, commerce, medicine, and of course, ART. VR has the potential to redefine the way in which humanity consumes reality.
A simple illustration: for the past two decades, most of the world’s greatest cultural centers have labored, with the best of intentions, to provide an immersive online environment via the web (see Figure 2). They have all failed for the same 2D reasons. With VR, their dream: to deliver an immersive, first-person-experience to anyone, anywhere in the world, just took its first big step forward to becoming a reality. Well, a virtual reality at least.
Still, it will take more than a fancy headset that looks like your grandmother’s UV shields (see Figure 3) for the promise of a VR universe to be realized, and this is where other media sources seem hopelessly unaware. The most important component of the VR paradigm is not the magic goggles. Nope. An Oculus would be nothing without a delivery device to feed it content (see Figure 4).
For nearly 60 years, television has ruled the living room as the center of the home entertainment universe. But the emergence of media streaming services, like: Netflix, Youtube, and Amazon Instant Video, along with an ever-expanding global network delivering high-speed Internet service to the home, has revealed a growing number of threats to TV’s half a century long reign.
First, and foremost, as consumer behavior has adapted to the expanding role of the Internet as a vehicle for the delivery of media content, there has been a notable shift away from television as the primary viewing platform. This has been accompanied, and is in many ways symbolized, by the so-called, “[TV cable] cord cutting” movement we see growing in popularity throughout the world. It is now possible to watch “TV” programming on something other than a TV, such as a PC, tablet, or even a smartphone.
In saying this, we are giving form to a fundamental change now taking place which seeks to dismantle our decades old, TV-obsessed culture, and replace it with a spatial reconstruction in which television becomes just another option amongst a growing number of alternatives. In other words, with the emergence of app-based viewing platforms that rely on the Internet to deliver their content, the interdependent link between TV and the creation, consumption, and distribution of video media, including video games, has been broken.
Moreover, with the rapid development of virtual reality devices, such as Sony’s Playstation VR and Facebook’s Oculus Rift (see Figure 2), it is now possible to envision a future in which the television is supplanted by a far more immersive, and spatially practical, viewing paradigm. Some, of course, would disagree, claiming that, “Television technology, with its increasing resolutions and size, in addition to a recent industry-wide adoption of app-based viewing platforms, a feature of so-called, “SMART TVs”, will insure its status as the primary media viewing appliance both now and well into the foreseeable future.”
And yet, in highlighting the increasing size of television, proponents of the TV-centric, media-viewing household, give light to one of television’s greatest weaknesses, which also happens to be “its increasing size.” A simple maxim to describe the problem might be, “the larger the TV, the less practical it becomes to the majority of consumers.” The prima facie evidence for this statement is in the simple calculus of how many consumers, worldwide, have the available wall space to support the largest sized devices manufactured today, and at what point in that mathematical relationship is that number reduced to zero?