The History (And Future?) Of Virtual Reality Gaming

A lot of people, especially in the gaming industry, are convinced that it’s finally, finally, time for virtual reality to shine. The Oculus Rift has a groundswell of support and developer love, Sony is due to debut their virtual reality headset next week, and it looks like we’ll finally get that future the ’90s were always promising us. But, is it? And how did we get here?

The Perpetual Promise

If you’re a gamer in his or her thirties, there’s a sense of “been there, done that” to the news that Sony will debut a virtual reality headset. For roughly five years in the ’90s, all we could hear about was how a future of having a TV bolted to our faces was almost here. It was a technology that first began to be developed in the ’70s and by the ’90s, processors had advanced to the point where we were supposedly unable to tell the difference between reality and the simulation.

And in truth, VR did arrive… for industrial applications. Robots are regularly controlled through telepresence systems. Armed forces across the world use virtual reality for training purposes. It’s a common tool for architects. In fact, VR and VR systems are in use across the world, across a surprising number of industries.

But one thing it isn’t used for, at least not commonly, is gaming. So why aren’t we using goggles and gloves to frag demons?

The Perpetual Problem

The answer to that is often played off as complex, but it really isn’t: The sets cost too much, there was no software support, and consumers hated them. The few virtual reality tools that actually came to the public were roundly rejected, at least when combined together.

A good example is Nintendo’s notorious Virtual Boy, to date the only console to embrace virtual reality in any meaningful way. It debuted with great fan fare… and then promptly died an ignominous death. Ironically, Nintendo would wind up using VR tools in a much more effective way when the Wii came along: The Wiimote is essentially a VR controller without the goggles.

That’s pretty much been the theme throughout virtual reality gaming history: A prototype comes up, everybody gets excited, and then it fails to live up to the hype. Virtuality was going to dominate arcades, and instead it was relegated to the back wall of Dave & Busters. The VFX-1 was supposed to be an “immersive” experience that would be in every household. The iGlasses… well, you get the point.

To be fair, that’s because developing a VR game is a lot more challenging than many think: The Oculus Rift has a how-to for developers on how to keep users from barfing from VR sickness and it’s far stricter than a game on your TV. It’s hard to sell a product that makes you sick.

The Oculus Rift, and presumably Sony’s own VR headset, have these problems licked, or at least claim to. If nothing else, the Rift’s staggering Kickstarter for development kits would indicate the interest, at least among developers. Still, the Rift’s own success is telling: Less than 10,000 people contributed to that Kickstarter. For contrast, Double Fine’s first Kickstarter drew 87,000 contributions.

And Sony, of course, currently has the best-selling next-gen console. It’s difficult not to wonder if Driveclub‘s sudden delay is because it’s getting VR support. But by the same token, third-party developers praise the headset while simultaneously admitting that Sony needs to prove there’s a market before they’ll develop any games for it.

So, here we are, again: Virtual reality seems ascendant. But we’ll have to see if the current crop of tools sticks around… or becomes another footnote in gaming history.