Virtual reality (VR) seems like the logical peak of gaming. For years games have been pushing a sense of photorealism in the environments of games like The Last of Us and Red Dead Redemption 2, while Death Stranding and Cyberpunk 2077 enlist Hollywood actors to portray game characters in their narratives. Instead of emulating our reality, the future of gaming should really be to step into the game worlds themselves. With the current VR tech on the market, the sci-fi dream of being completely absorbed into computer-generated worlds is pretty much a reality. But where do we go from there? Is VR gaming going to take over?
Let’s take a look at the current landscape of VR and what could be on the horizon so that when we completely give ourselves up to the virtual world, we know what to expect.
Having the power to play VR
For the optimal VR experience on a PC you’ll need a powerful system. Dropped frame rates and low fidelity graphics are a huge immersion breaker for games so make sure you have the minimum specs.
The most common head-mounted display (HMD) available for PC VR gaming is the Oculus Rift S (Priced at £299). The Rift S has a refresh rate of 80hz when playing VR games which allows for a more than smooth experience. As long as you’ve got a PC with mid to high-range specs you should have no trouble playing the latest range of VR games and even have access to some of the exclusive games you can only play on Oculus devices.
If you’re looking for the most high-end HMD on the market right now then look no further than the Valve Index (priced at £919). Compared to the Rift S, it offers a refresh rate up to 144hz and it’s higher resolution lenses make the VR game worlds seem so lifelike you can really lose yourself in them. Not only will you be paying premium prices for the Index itself but you’ll also need a really beefy PC as the recommended specs state you need a quad-core processor and at least a GTX 1070 GPU to run games on higher graphics settings.
While these are the standard HMDs on the market now, the next generation of VR tech is just around the corner. Its future will most likely switch from wired HMDs to wireless and are sure to push the latest GPUs even further.
Games paving the way for the VR future
When PC gamers first started to get their hands on the first wave of HMDs, a lot of the games on offer were very short and arcade-like in terms of gameplay. Music rhythm games like Beat Sabre and on-rail shooting galleries like SUPERHOT both have high score chasing gameplay that, while novel trying these experiences in VR, aren’t too dissimilar to what you can experience in the arcade on Brighton Pier. Gamers who had invested in this cutting-edge VR tech were looking for the killer app.
This came in March 2020 with Valve’s Half Life: Alyx. The huge PC gaming franchise returned with a game that showcased that story-driven first-person adventure games were possible in VR. Set in an Eastern European city taken over by alien oppressors, the imposing alien structures that tower over the city as you play offered immersion like no other game before it. Not only that but it created a whole new way of playing a shooter game, having to physically reload your weapons and actually duck behind cover during firefights brought a sense of tension and realism that just wouldn’t be possible with just a mouse and keyboard. There’s even an online lecture of one of the game devs explaining how it took them hours of playtesting to make opening doors in VR seem natural. Half Life: Alyx has set the groundwork for how VR gaming will progress into the future.
Now in 2021, what games are going to build off of Half-Life: Alyx’s success? Games like BONEWORKS and The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners have implemented similarly realistic weapon interactions although the environments and story don’t offer the same kind of immersion as Alyx. 2021 is seeing VR game releases from big franchises like Assassins Creed and Hitman but only time will tell if they continue to follow down the path carved out by Half-Life.
VR needs to go mainstream
We’re never all going to be living out Matrix-esque fantasies if VR isn’t a household appliance on a global scale. VR HMDs need to be bought and sold everywhere so Joe Schmoe can pick one up for the family to try.
At the moment, Facebook is leading the charge with their Oculus range of VR devices. They’re available at local retailers like Argos and John Lewis and are frequently advertised on TV. Their latest HMD, the Oculus Quest 2, doesn’t require a PC to be able to play VR games: just strap the thing to your head and you can start entering the virtual world.
Outside of games themselves, VR is making its way into other industries. Big companies like Facebook, HTC and even the European Commission are using the Engage VR communication platform so their staff can learn remotely.
While in the work industry a VR version of Zoom, Spatial, saw work colleagues gathering together for team meetings within a virtual space when the pandemic made that impossible for some.
Both Spatial and Engage create a VR avatar that matches your mouth and arm movements. These avatars are almost convincing but their dead-eyed stare and floating walk make them feel a little like the Stepford Wives. These are good steps towards VR becoming mainstream but there’s still that unshakeable uncanny valley.
Where will VR be in 2030?
VR has already started to make itself known in the mainstream. However, it’s still a highly expensive bit of hardware, requires a dedicated amount of space in which to play and also requires a beefy PC on top of that.
The issue of space and PC requirements is being resolved by products like Oculus Quest 2 which allows you to play without a wire so you aren’t limited by where you can move and even lets you easily bring it over to a friend’s house. PlayStation and Valve have both issued patents that show they’ve been working on wireless HMDs that we could possibly be seeing in the future. On the other hand, it seems like Microsoft aren’t currently producing their own HMD while Nintendo had a go but it was made out of cardboard.
While Valve have had a recent VR hit on their hands, company head Gabe Newell insists the future of gaming and even life as we know it lies in BCI (short for Brain Computer Interfacing). He states that whether this is achieved by a VR-like helmet or even a chip installed on your brain: games could achieve graphics that will make the real world seem “flat, colourless, blurry compared to the experiences you’ll be able to create in people’s brains”. Expanding on how BCI could affect everyday life, he explains you could have an app on your phone that communicates with the chip in your brain, which you can tell how long you want to sleep for. It’s crazy to think that may be possible in the near future!
VR is moving towards becoming a part of every industry even outside of gaming. Will it take over traditional gaming? It’s doubtful. A lot of people experience motion sickness with it and the price point can turn many away. As it stands now VR gaming will be an alternative way to play much like you decide to play with a controller or a mouse and keyboard. Still, VR can offer experiences like no other and you owe it to yourself to at least give it a try.