VR's gaming future and why it's not a fad

VR's gaming future and why it's not a fad
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

April 10th 2014 at 10:35AM

Neil Schneider from the Immersive Technology Alliance discusses the potential of VR

The Immersive Technology Alliance, previously named the Sterescopic 3D Gaming Alliance, has been representing the needs and interests of the augmented reality, virtual reality, 3D and gesture markets for years, and its consumer arm, Meant to Be Seen, was one of the first places where Oculus VR was launched.

With such a keen knowledge of bleeding edge technologies, Develop caught up with the non-proft organisation's executive director Neil Schneider and discussed what the group is up to, how VR is developing and why he thinks the technology is not just a short-term fad.

Why have you revamped the Stereoscopic 3D Gaming Alliance (S3DGA) as The Immersive Technology Alliance (The ITA)? What role did VR play in this decision?
When S3DGA was founded in 2009, it was intended to make stereoscopic 3D gaming successful. We thought the technology would transition from 3D LCD panels to glasses-free to holograms to some kind of magic that makes things appear out of no-where. We did not plan for a future that included virtual reality, augmented reality, and other technologies in-between.
 
Meant to be Seen was the consumer arm of the originally named alliance, and everything was happening right there. It's where John Carmack and Palmer Luckey first met and launched Oculus VR (Palmer was one of our moderators), it's where Virtuix gave birth to the Virtuix Omni, and it marked the start of other companies like Cloudhead Games, the Minecraft VR mod, the Vireio Perception open source VR drivers, and lots more.
 
S3DGA had been receiving paid memberships from some big players in modern VR, and it was clear that for us to meet their needs, the alliance had to be formally renamed to The Immersive Technology Alliance with an expanded mandate. So here we are.
 
What possibilities does VR open up compared to the other technologies you focus on?
From a content development point of view, I would put virtual reality and augmented reality on par with each other in many respects. For example, there is a great deal of opportunity in the education and training markets. I was telling someone the other week that instead of doing in-class biology dissections, we could instead be saving a lot of frogs by recreating the lesson in digital form. So the VR version could involve an HMD by Oculus, VRelia, True Player Gear, etcetera. The augmented reality version could easily be working on a 3D desk space with Technical Illusion's CastAR and other up and coming products. Lots of options will be available in the market to make this possible.
 
There is a huge potential with VR movies, events, and broadcasting. Next3D is a great example which uses VR camera rigs to recreate the experience as though you are right there in the audience. There are multiple vendors in this space.


 
We are seeing an interest in making online VR communities through products like VR Chat or eventually a re-imagination of Second Life. For now it's a fun way to chat with people. In the future, it will be very important for people who need to communicate complex ideas without having the benefit of in-person interaction. Situations where a webcam just won't cut it.
 
Video games and simulators are definitely going to be a lot more exciting now if they are custom-coded for AR and VR devices. This isn't just about seeing the experience; it's about physically feeling as though you are part of it. It requires a very different mentality from the content maker.
 
From an industry point of view, VR and AR represents a melding of technologies like no other. Display, gesture, haptics, locomotion; suddenly there is a catalyst for multiple companies to work together on a cooperative vision. Like a high-tech pot-luck party.
 
After the Facebook/Oculus announcement, there was a lot of talk about what Facebook and other companies can do with VR beyond gaming. How will this affect gaming? Is it in danger of missing out on VR opportunities?
First, the most important aspect of the Facebook acquisition is that it was a bold statement that immersive technology is going to be mass market technology. The money alone was a very serious affirmation that this industry will indeed have a strong and diverse future.
 
I can't imagine any vendor spending any less energy on VR or AR gaming just because Facebook expressed excitement about additional directions. I mean, Microsoft loves Microsoft Office, did they suddenly drop their interest in video games? It's important to remember that Facebook answers to shareholders, so they likely had to emphasize the connections they thought their investors would most likely grasp.
 
As long as no one company controls which content can and can't be created and published – something an eventual standard would help ensure – then all options are on the table for everyone. Content makers would be crazy to voluntarily limit themselves to a specific brand or product.
 
There's almost certainly demand for virtual reality experiences, but is there an audience? Will these devices bring VR to the masses or do you think they will only be viable for users with high-end PCs?
Of course there is an audience! Nearly all the vendors in VR got their start with Kickstarter campaigns made possible by gamers or users willing to invest in prototypes and early ideas. It's very much a consumer driven market which the industry had to respond to; and that's the best way to start a market.
 
The concept of a PC is radically changing. What is the most popular add-on for tablets? A keyboard, right? So what is the difference between a PC and a mobile device and a keyboard? The hard drive? The size of the graphics card? Where do we draw the line? Eventually, we won't.
 
Several vendors have been public about their intentions of being mobile supported devices: Oculus, Gameface Labs, Technical Illusions, VRelia, and more to come. That's just VR, mind you. Augmented Reality, which is often based on similar technology, is very much dependent on the mobile platform. PC versus mobile is becoming less and less of an issue.


 
How can we be sure VR isn't a fad? How can we make sure it has a long future ahead of it in games?
My roots are in stereoscopic 3D gaming. MTBS started as a community movement in discussion forums, and eventually resulted in the launch of a non-profit called The S-3D Gaming Alliance. We were in the middle of everything; even the first console game to support stereoscopic 3D on both Xbox 360 and Sony PS3 (Blitz Games Studios' Invincible Tiger: The Legend of Han Tao).
 
While everyone blamed the glasses for the industry's handicapped growth, this was really a non-issue. The problem was an unwillingness for the industry to get together in the same room and talk. Everyone wanted their own private ecosystem with their own branding and their own claims of what "3D Ready" meant. You had 3D Blu-Rays limited to specific 3D HDTVs, variations of 3D glasses only worked on certain graphics card models, 3D displays were limited to certain glasses. It was a real mess that everyone – especially the consumers – paid for dearly. This is very recent history, so it's still fresh in everyone's minds.
 
Sure, standards are important. However, if everyone had  agreed to just talk to each other in 3D gaming, this industry would be a lot further ahead. More than this, VR and AR technologies that use stereoscopic 3D would probably be further ahead too. Industry politics were what ultimately hurt 3D, not the glasses.
 
Immersive technology is facing the same fork in the road and I'm pleased that The ITA has 25+ members now, and the list is growing. Academic institutions, vendors, content makers, influencers – the industry seems to get it now. We're a non-profit and our interests are only in building an industry, so it's a no-brainer for most members.
 
What are the final barriers between the VR dev kits we have now and commercially released VR headsets, and when/how do you expect them to be brought down?
The most difficult barrier was proof of concept. The Kickstarters mixed with public opinion mixed with Facebook's recent acquisition solved this. Everyone has a case study to bring to mid-funding investors that there is a real value to this space and it's indeed worth investing in.
 
Next is content. As long as the game engine makers don't chop their legs off by being brand specific or avoiding real standards, I'm confident the independent game developers will be all over this. The triple-A developers are likely working on this too, but I think the indies will take the lead. There has to be content for people to look forward to – or at least a confidence that content will eventually arrive. We'll get there.
 
Ultimately, I think we will see a retail roll-out because you really need to experience VR and AR to truly grasp it. This won't be necessary for all vendors, but similar to stereoscopic 3D gaming, VR and AR is meant to be seen.
 
When do you expect VR to become commercially available?
I think 2015 is a fair estimate. At least one vendor suggested 2014 at GDC, but I think their intentions are rushed. I could be wrong.
 
Is it wise for developers to be working on VR games now, when there's no audience?
There is an audience. Oculus alone has shipped at least 50,000 developer kits (DK1) and who knows where they are at with DK2. This is a drop in the bucket, but their audience feedback will help gauge how well content is received. So for sure, now is the time to start developing and getting your hands on the different options available. Even if you just want to experiment, now is the best time.
 
It goes well beyond the game developers, though. At the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, we are developing an immersive technology division at the university, and we are already adding VR and AR as a staple for our game development students in the Faculty of Business and IT. It's critical that the academic world embraces this because their students will likely be the biggest idea makers and technology influencers in the not too distant future. The industry should of course back the academic world too – their business future is highly dependent on this community and what they have to offer short and long-term.
 
What do you want to see from VR and developers in the next five years?
I want to see a few things. First, I want to see a diverse and robust immersive technology industry. I definitely want to see an industry-wide standard that is developed by a non-profit organisation – not a publisher or for-profit entity. Finally, I want to see and experience some amazing AR and VR content; stuff we can only dream of today. If all the above is accomplished, immersive tech is definitely here to stay.

Want to get involved in our VR special all this week? Have something to say about virtual reality and what it means for developers? Email James.Batchelor@intentmedia.co.uk to find out how you can take part.