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Virtual Reality Headsets: A Look at the Past, Present, and Future of the Industry

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Photo Credit: Yanko Design, Designers: Transparent House & Eduard Zhikharev

Virtual reality (VR) headsets have advanced in massive ways over the past few years, with the technology evolving from clunkier and heavier headsets - with multiple wires and external necessities - to a much sleeker, more ‘modern’ design. Headsets no longer need external sensors pointed at players, and most new launches include either a single wire, or a completely wireless experience. As we continue to push the boundaries of immersion and interaction in the gaming world, it feels prudent to take a step back and appreciate the progress that's been made, and to look forward, exploring the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for the industry.

In the early days of modern VR, headsets were a far cry from a user-friendly experience. With a massive cost barrier, bulky designs, tons of wires, and relatively limited content, it's no wonder they originally struggled to find ‘mainstream’ success. The user base consisted of a core set of videogame and tech enthusiasts who were curious to try the next big thing, but it was incredibly rare to find a full headset in many homes. A few companies toyed around with attachable devices for phones or tablets, like Google Cardboard, but the lower image quality of a phone and weaker computing power left users with a lackluster experience, poorly representing the full capabilities of VR. If someone did own a fully realized headset, it was a testament to the raw power of their PC rig, and their dedication to being a truly “hardcore” gamer.

Today's VR headsets have advanced considerably from their predecessors, boasting wireless capabilities, significantly improved graphics, and intuitive controls. Devices like the Meta Quest 2 and the HTC Vive Focus 3 make it possible for users to enjoy fully immersive experiences without being tethered to a souped-up PC. Meanwhile, other headsets maintain a single wire connection, like the PlayStation VR2, in order to achieve impressively high-quality gaming while still minimizing clutter. Accessibility in headset design advances every year, but there still seems to be a barrier to entry that remains a massive focal point for the industry.

One of the most significant hurdles is the catch-22 situation involving game development and user adoption. Game studios are naturally hesitant to invest in creating high-quality VR games without a large userbase to buy their games. Even making a AAA title within an established IP can yield rocky monetary results in the current market. Harnessing the manpower and spending the money to develop an impressive VR experience is a huge risk with such a smaller audience than the normal console crowd. On the other hand, people in that crowd are hesitant to buy a new headset if there’s only a small selection of great experiences on offer; why spend the money on a headset to play a few games when you could spend it buying dozens of games on your PC or console?

This boils down to a core problem and solution; collaboration between hardware manufacturers and game developers is absolutely crucial. By working together to create enticing VR experiences before headsets launch, these companies can help drive user adoption and pave the way for a thriving VR ecosystem.

I believe Sony has done an incredible job of achieving this, particularly with the release of their PlayStation VR2. This headset itself is absolutely awesome, with some of the most robust features seen so far packed into a single VR device. PS VR2 features eye-tracking, adaptive triggers, and haptic-vibration capabilities, all while maintaining a single wire connection and eliminating the need for an external camera, features the first iteration struggled with.  But it's not just the hardware that's impressive—Sony also launched the PS VR2 with a substantial lineup of games, and confirmed over 100 high profile projects that would be arriving on the headset. The high cost barrier was certainly a part of the conversation, but many in online forums were discussing how “worth it” the purchase was due to all the cool games they’d be able to play. 

These games, by the way, are beyond “cool". There’s a curious discussion with VR that centers around the idea of “you cannot understand it until you try it.” I’m inclined to agree, as the first time I tried out VR, my senses were tricked way beyond what I was expecting. Once your brain gets accustomed to the digital environment, you begin toying with the interactive world in a fundamentally different way, expecting the environment to be significantly more interactive than a standard flat screen gaming experience. This changes the way game designers have to think about their experience from the ground up. The principles of traditional game design get flipped on their head.

A quick fun example to explain what I mean - there’s a famous game you’ve probably heard of called Skyrim - a classic role playing experience. When Bethesda ported Skyrim to VR, they didn’t make any base changes to the game engine, so it was effectively the same gameplay experience as playing on a flat screen. One of the mechanics in the game is the ability to steal things, based both off of your character’s sleight of hand skill, and an NPC’s sightlines and ability to see you doing it. So once Skyrim was playable in VR, players discovered they could pick up anything, including random pots in shopkeepers stores. Inevitably, players would pick up the pots, place them over a shopkeeper's head, and steal absolutely everything because the NPC couldn’t “see” them doing it. Like I said, everything becomes interactive once you feel like you’re actually in the space. 

Perspective also plays a significant role in VR experiences, as players can view the world from a variety of angles not always offered on console or PC games. Jumping, crouching, dodging side to side - these are all physically done by the player now, whether you programmed a “crouch” option into your game or not. This all requires developers to think way beyond traditional design, focusing on creating truly immersive environments that can be explored from any vantage point, inside and out, top-to-bottom.

In my opinion, this is the single most exciting question to ponder about where the industry is going, and I’m always excited to see when studios try to find an answer. We are, in essence, in the “Atari days” of VR, presumably extremely early in the timeline of what this technology can become. Headsets are becoming more accessible, and the game design is beginning to grow more experimental. The leap from thinking like a flat screen game developer to a VR developer is a big one, and we’re still figuring out ways to cross to the other side. But so many exciting projects have begun taking greater advantage of what the VR environment can provide, and with several successful recent headset launches, the  industry seems full steam ahead on brainstorming excellent new ideas.