“It has been in the hands of so few people, that we don’t know what the truth is yet.”
Anyone who attended the 2016 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco could be forgiven for thinking that virtual reality was the only game in town. Virtual reality-centered talks, demonstrations and discussions dovetailed with an expo floor filled with major brands that are convinced that virtual reality’s future is incredibly bright.
The interest in virtual reality at a conference dedicated to gaming is understandable. Gamers are always early adopters of any technology that can make their experiences more immersive and “real.” Virtual reality ticks all the boxes on so many levels. Games are a multi-billon dollar part of the entertainment industry and virtual reality developers and vendors want a slice of that particular pie.
In many ways, this is year zero for virtual reality. People know it exists and the anticipation for much-hyped products like the Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive and Playstation virtual reality is high. According to Mark Bartlet from The AbleGamers Foundation’s, the hype is a good thing.
“For some gamers with disabilities, virtual reality might be a godsend,” Barlet said, in an interview with ARC at GDC 2016. “One of the core philosophies of the AbleGamers charity is that games allow disabled people to do things that they wouldn’t in real life. And that includes able-bodied people … in virtual reality you can climb Everest, be an NFL player … most of us can’t do that.”
The Experience Must Be Real
As is customary with technology conferences, the same buzzwords permeate every conversation. Virtual reality is “immersive,” it gives the user a “presence” and the chance to give somebody access to something that they might never see in real life.
For the able-bodied person, virtual reality can be a mind-blowing experience, even more so if you understand that VR is not just about games. But for a disabled person, virtual reality might be the path to inclusion.
Virtual reality could change the lives of not only disabled gamers but also any person who’s life is limited by a registered disability. Barlet is a firm believer that the disabled community should not be excluded from any part of modern society and while his focus is gaming, the potential for virtual reality is undeniable.
“There is an opportunity for your body to have an experience that it wouldn’t normally allow you to do,” Barlet said.
The chance to escape from the mundane nature of daily life is a benefit that has been a constant mantra at GDC. Virtual reality evangelists have preached to a captive audience in San Franciso, but Barlet thinks that VR has an opportunity to resonate strongly with the disabled community, especially when it comes to accessibility.
“Virtual reality will have a special meaning for disabled people,” said Barlet. “It means that for moments in time they can forget their disabilities and be immersed in the game. I think it could be the greatest thing since sliced bread for some … because they can completely reshape their world for a minute … for others it is going to be terrible!”
People who wear glasses may find the headsets uncomfortable to use while those with mobility issues could be limited by the tethered nature of the high-end devices, Barlet said. The technology is cutting edge but developers should consider all potential virtual reality users when designing the experience. Barlet cited one vendor who told him to take his glasses off and “blur” the lens in the headset to compensate, a scenario that he was not overly happy with.
“I said that is not how glasses work, but as a friend of mine told me … virtual reality, shut up and take your headache,” Barlet said.
The Mix Of Hype And Expectation
The problem with virtual reality in 2016 is not that the technology is here but when it will cross over into the mainstream. The hype at GDC has almost been deafening at times and it is hard not to buy into the euphoria that the first generation virtual reality devices have created.
Barlet said that the technology is sound and will change the way the disabled community views the world, although the physical nature of virtual reality could limit who actually invests in it. We have been down this road before with Nintendo’s Wii console and Microsoft’s Kinect. Barlet thinks that virtual reality could suffer a similar fate.
When Kinect came out, there were two schools of thought. The first was that this is going to destroy gaming for people with disabilities because of the run and jump elements and the second was that nobody was going to use it. I was firmly in the second school … I am super faithful in the laziness of my fellow gamers and I knew for a fact that we were never going to see Call of Duty Kinect where you sat in your room and jumped up and down and crawled on the floor for 12 hours … no gamer is going to do that.
Where Kinect worked for the disabled gamer was that it included voice commands, but virtual reality needs to trick every sense into believing that the experience is real—which is not always a good thing. Motion sickness, nausea, potential trauma from a photorealistic virtual reality experience have all been cited as potential barriers to usability and no real research exists as to what happens to the brain in virtual reality.
According to Barlet, we are all going to be guinea pigs for the virtual reality industry. Brands and developers have invested time and money in the technology, so much so that he thinks that there is an element of it being forced upon us. Virtual reality has existed in one form or other since the late sixties and while the general public sees it as the new kid on the block, the concept of Year Zero is related more to potential use cases and initial revenue.
Virtual Reality Needs More Than Just Evangelists
Vendors need to identify the right target market and that could be the disabled community, although Barlet is not sure what the technology will achieve in the next 12 months.
High-end wearable devices will dominate the media buzz but the acid test will come with the cheaper options like Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear. Sony’s Playstation VR could encourage PS 4 owners to invest in a headset and Barlet said that market forces will determine whether virtual reality is “the next Kinect.”
“I can’t say what it will do for my community. I am not 100% sold on what the tech will do for gaming, much less the disabled community,” Barlet said. “We are going to see one or two rounds of games, everyone will take advantage of it and then the market is going to speak and then we will decide if we like virtual reality or not … it has been in the hands of so few people, that we don’t know what the truth is yet.”