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I remember that way back around 1995, there was this big craze with VR in the media, a whole bunch of (mostly mediocre) games labeled as "virtual-reality-interactive-movie (...)" were published. If I recall correctly, the first 3D VR helmet was called VFX-1 and was sold bundled with Descent and some dedicated joystick. I never owned one, and I read just one review which was mostly enthusiastic, but pointed to some weak points, like the eyes getting tired after an hour or so of playing. Then the whole thing basically flickered down and died.

I suppose the main reason it wasn't successful was that the hardware of the day was not powerful enough, the VR gear's design wasn't perfected to make it comfortable and natural to use, and the companies that made it failed to market it successfully. What I can't understand is why isn't there any development in the field today. There is some vr-ish hardware mostly targeted at the consoles (Kinect, Wii remote, TrackIR), but all projects of creating some 3d head-mounted display system seem to be in early infancy, appear once in a trade show somewhere and aren't heard of again.

I think it could work great with head tracking and some of today's shooters, flight sims (trackIR is nice but the movement scale translation is awkward) and other games with an FPP POV. Is there any technological reason why decent vr headgear can't be made today, or is it just that nobody really cares/everyone is scared to repeat the '90s failure?

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Think this needs to be community wiki - very subjective –  MrCranky Jan 28 '11 at 16:25
    
Sorry, first post here, didn't know where to put this exactly. –  neuviemeporte Jan 28 '11 at 16:59
    
CW is a mod-only feature and should be flagged if you think that's the issue instead of brought up through comments. That being said I don't think this should be CW, it's more just probably not a very good question because it's mostly speculation. –  Tetrad Jan 28 '11 at 19:46

6 Answers 6

up vote 10 down vote accepted

There are multiple levels of what you are calling VR.

Translated Head Tracking

On the PC companies like TrackIR release devices precisely for doing this sort of thing. And several games, mostly on the flight simulation side, have support the head tracking.

ARMA II + TrackIR Demonstration

There hasn't been anything like this available in the console space but that may be changing soon. For example it's possible to do something very similar to what you see with TrackIR using the Xbox Kinect. Imagine the player playing with a standard controller and the Kinect tracks the movement of the players head and translates it on screen. There are two problems with this though:

  1. The amount of processing power needed to find the players head and track movements. Not to mention that any mistakes in tracking can be hugely distracting.
  2. This limits the locations a player can sit while playing a game. On the PC you tend to sit directly in front of and in the center of the monitor. On the console side people sit at all sorts of distances and positions from their TV. And effect like this works best only when you are centered to the display device.

Head Mounted Displays

This is the VR helmet style step the people often think of when VR is mentioned. There are several problems with HMDs.

  1. Displays were often heavy, leading to neck fatigue. This will improve over time as display tech gets smaller and lighter.
  2. Displays were low resolution. This has basically been addressed as an offshoot of the advancements in the mobile phone market. There are now lots of relatively cheap high res small screen technologies.
  3. Safety issues with enveloping displays. To really feel immersed you want to block out the players vision outside the screens in the HMD. Of course in doing so players my trip and fall over something in the real world. No one wants to take that lawsuit risk.
  4. Displays need a connection to content source. If you want console level graphics/games in your HMD, then you need to connect your HMD to a console. So now you've got a cable running to your head which hurts in a world of wireless controllers and communication. There are some advancements in wireless video transfer, but then we start to run into battery issues with the display itself, if it doesn't have a constant source of wired power.
  5. Control issues related to 360 movement. If your game requires you to turn around to look behind you this doesn't mesh well with peoples living room furniture. People play games sitting on a couch or chair and they often are restricted in where they can move. This effectively limits the control input of an HMD to the level of the translated head tracking above, which can be done with much simpler technology.
  6. HMDs are inherently isolating. Recent market expansion in games has come from more social experiences: dancing, music, and motion games. Building an expensive piece of technology for a smaller market isn't economically viable.
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Good answer! I don't think that head tracking can be considered a virtual reality experience though, it's really just another input mechanism. Virtual Reality systems are about making the user feel like they're in an alternate universe (either an augmentation or a replacement for the real one). That pretty much requires a method for shifting the perception of the generated universe from being 'something on a display in the real world' (not very immersive) to being 'the entirety of the universe which I can perceive' (very immersive). –  MrCranky Jan 31 '11 at 10:52
    
I've tried an oldschool VR cube with a dozen people, ie a room with back-projections on all six sides and active shutter glasses for depth perception. That was intense and very very VR indeed, without requiring an HMD in the classical sense (though perspective was rendered and tracked from a single pair of shutter glasses position so only 1 person got the really perfect sense of depth ;) –  Oskar Duveborn Aug 10 '12 at 14:56

My opinion: I think the fact that it's been tried and failed several times should hint that the fundamental problems haven't yet been overcome. Users aren't interested enough in the 3D / immersion, and the downsides (the requirement to wear head-gear) are more than enough to outweigh the interest.

Certainly everyone I've ever spoken to about it says something along the lines of 'maybe, if the glasses were cheap, and looked just like glasses'. And it's hard to make display glasses which are equivalent in terms of lightness and comfort to regular glasses; even before you get into the display quality or issues of mixing the virtual display with the ability to see the real world.

Maybe, if there was a tech advance that meant the displays could improve on previous efforts in terms of functionality, but cheap enough to come somewhere near the mass market. Until that tech advance comes, this will stay an expensive prototype that you only see at tech shows.

In a similar way, I think that even the requirement to wear inert glasses is enough to put many people off the new wave of 3D TVs. If 3D is really to become the new standard, there needs to be an evolution in display technology that lets the display show 3D, without the need for observers to be wearing / doing anything.

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I'm sure there are several factors.

Head-tracking technology is usually pretty bulky and expensive to produce. That means it's also expensive for consumers to acquire and since there are so few games that utilize it, it's kind of a catch-22. Similarly the lack of penetration or interest in the technology means that not much money has been devoted to researching miniaturization of the relevant technology for the consumer space, so the devices aren't getting smaller or cheaper.

Furthermore, the requirement to wear such a thing drastically reduces the social aspect of the game-playing experience, which is a major trend in popular gaming right now -- especially when paired with the direction that controller technology has taken (focusing on much less encumbering devices that allow much more freedom)... such as the Wii and the Kinect.

A headset is bulky, complicated, and isolating, which means it's much more of a hardcore gamer's type of thing. The hardcore market is a lot smaller and a lot more discerning, usually, so with that in mind I can see how this catch-22 came about. It takes a lot of money, a lot of smart people, and a lot of marketing to make an alternative input device a common enough item, which is why it's ended up being basically a thing that only first-party console designers can seem to pull off -- and even then, they've had a poor track record (consider Nintendo's prior attempts at doing so -- not all of them were particularly successful).

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I'd mostly agree, but I don't get the bit about the bulkyness of head-tracking - isn't it enough to have a few IR leds or white balls on the helmet and a webcam + freetrack these days? –  neuviemeporte Jan 28 '11 at 16:59
    
I'm not sure that that would provide data of sufficient quality to be useful, but I'm not really a domain expert on head tracking, so maybe. –  Josh Petrie Jan 28 '11 at 17:00
    
That is all you need for the tracking, but tracking isn't the reason HMDs are bulky. Ironically, your answer even pointed out how motion tracking has become so easy through Wii controllers and Kinect. What's bulky is the display, not the tracking. –  jhocking Apr 8 '11 at 18:25

Technology just is not as advanced as we think it is.

You said the answer your self, "the hardware of the day was not powerful enough" and it's still not.

The kinect is a massive leap forwards technologically not just another piece of retail hardware.

To demonstrate my point nintendo released the wii motion plus for their controllers because they were not accurate enough for the newer game being developed.

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In a certain sense VR technologies are becoming very mainstream actually, as now every smartphone has motion sensors built-in. Similarly the Wii controller has very advanced motion sensors, and Kinect takes that even further.

However if by "VR gear" you are particularly talking about Head-Mounted Displays, then the reason those have fallen out of favor is simple: people don't want to have big clunky displays strapped onto their heads.

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The oculus is on its way. http://www.oculushub.com/forums/viewtopic.php?f=14&t=55&sid=dbbaf812c7e0c632b7e40ba9cce692b1

Your original question was a valid one, the technology in hardware and software has been available for a little while now, seems it took Carmack to light a fire under everyone.

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-1 I'm not sure why you link to that page instead of the Oculus website. Self promotion is acceptable within reason, and this is not good self promotion. The rest of your post just makes no sense, leaving the only useful part "Well there's the Oculus." –  Jonathan Hobbs Sep 29 '12 at 5:10

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