Sunday, March 23, 2014

Games are just the tip of the VR iceberg

At last week's Game Developers' Conference, Virtual Reality (VR) was front and center, led by Oculus VR's second (and likely final) developer's kit, and Sony's prototype Project Morpheus VR headset. At Sony's launch event, a company executive noted that there are a number of applications for VR, but that games are the biggest opportunity. Games are an obvious application for VR; existing 2 1/2 D games, such as first person shooters, can be modified to enable the player to be immersed in the field of play using a VR headset. However, while games may be the first application for VR, in the long run, they're not the biggest application.

VR, which places the participant in an immersive environment, has the potential to recreate real-world environments much more successfully than technologies such as CAVEs that project an environment on multiple walls of a cube in which the participant stands. VR can be used for a variety of simulations; for example:
  • Military and police training, where recruits learn how to differentiate friend from foe and both how and when to engage with an enemy or suspect.
  • Medical training, where medical students can perform tests and try out surgical techniques.
  • Flight training for pilots and trainees.
There are also many applications in education. Students can be transported into ancient Rome or Greece and participate in activities as the people who lived there did. They can run science experiments that would be dangerous or deadly if they were to do them in real life, and they can observe processes at scales that would otherwise be impossible (from sub-atomic to galactic.) Students can do these things today with PCs and tablets, but the addition of VR makes them much more visceral, which should help students to learn more and retain more of what they learn.

There's also an opportunity for VR in television and movies. We think of these as passive media, but VR has the potential to immerse the viewer in the action to a much greater degree than has been possible with 3D. However, there are many questions that need to be answered, especially for live (non-computer-animated) content:
  • Can the viewer participate in the action, or are they merely an observer?
  • How much freedom does the viewer have in participating--can they move freely, or are their movements limited?
  • How do the characters in the production interact with the viewer? Can the viewer's actions change the production's course of action? (For example, in an action/adventure production, could the viewer's character kill the hero? What happens next--roll the credits?)
I believe that ultimately, these applications with be much bigger than gaming. However, gaming technology will be very important for creating these applications, and game developers will be in an excellent position to be early developers of these applications. Gaming engines that have been adapted to support VR will be the basis of the first generation of new applications, while production and development systems built specifically for VR will come along later. In short, VR's first big opportunity will be gaming, but the application set and market opportunities will ultimately be much bigger than gaming alone.
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