Sony has been the clear winner in the next-gen console wars, but it just made a major mistake. Sony couldn’t ignore the siren song that has lured so many game designers to crash onto the rocks before it and announced this week that it's making a virtual reality helmet. It is almost as if it were forced, like Hercules, to clean out the stables full of video game muck, and it found this old, crappy idea lying there like a festering horse byproduct. It's such a bad idea I feel like heading to Wikipedia to make sure I can mix more Greek metaphors into my intro, because this idea is going to crash like Icarus.
Let’s take a look at it with this video:
Admittedly, it looks pretty cool. Ignore the floating arm and just look around the castle. Sure beats this old video of the Nintendo Virtual Boy, probably the most famous VR attempt before Sony’s:
Combined with the motion controllers and 360-degree sound, Sony has effectively created the Holy Grail of gaming: a 100 percent immersive experience. I should be really excited, right? I should be jumping up and down because I can finally shut out real life entirely and jump into a virtual world, right?
Nope, I’m still unimpressed. Because the very same reasons that have made virtual reality helmets fail over and over still exist.
For one thing, they’re like wearing a blindfold. Who wants to stand in his living room swinging around the glowing sticks and not be able to see whether you are about to smash your TV, your kids, or your cat? And your balance is based on sensory clues, so even if you make a bunch of space, just try to stay standing while swinging your arms around in an intense game without seeing “reality.”
Even if you can stay standing, VR helmets are really a solo activity. Who wants to play a group game together when it means everyone has to stay in his own space with helmet on?
I don’t know about you, but I get sweaty when I play a video game. This is me when I play video games:
How long can you wear a sweaty VR helmet while playing a game before you need to take it off? And who wants to put it on after you?
And if all of that isn’t enough, it is still a video screen inches from your face. How good can that be for you?
The VR helmet is never going to be the solution to the gaming immersion problem. Nothing with “helmet” in its name is a solution to anything that doesn’t involve falling rocks.
What is the obvious solution? The value of VR helmets is 360° video, so why not push out the boundaries of video? Instead of trying to bring the video close to you, surround yourself with video. Maybe something like this:
That is Llumiroom by Microsoft, something that was originally rrumored to be on the new Xbox but is not being pproduced at this ttime. One assumes it is only a matter of time, however. And Microsoft has the right idea. Combine the Kinect system to a four-wall video system, and you have the immersive experience of VR helmets without all the pesky side-effects. You basically have the closet thing yet to Star Trek’s holodeck.
And there’s Sony’s mistake. It isn’t that it hasn't made the best VR gaming helmet to date. It looks really cool. The problem is that it is still a helmet. Sony is closing in the walls of gaming while Microsoft is working to push them out. This reminds me of Janus, the two-faced god that looked back into the past and forward into the future. Sure, he’s Roman, but I’m already mixing metaphors. One company is looking into the past, the other is looking at the future. Where would you rather look?