Friday, November 16, 2012

Why PC gaming HMD (Head-Mounted Displays) have an hard time breaking into the mass market

John Carmack, one of the creators of Doom, Quake and Wolfenstein, also reputed to be the "father" of 3D gaming, is supporting the successful Kickstarter project "Oculus", by announcing Doom3 BFG Edition being compatible with it.

Oculus is intended to be a low-cost HMD whose goal is to leverage the PC gaming experience by providing superior immersion, something that has been so far the main pillar of Virtual Reality, and to be honnest, so far the developer edition seems very exciting and promising, with 1280x800px stereoscopic 3D graphics and a motion sensor for head tracking for an anticipated price point of about only 300-400$USD, which would make Oculus one of the cheaper as well as one of the best PC gaming HMDs to ever hit the market. Furthermore, the most interesting and unique aspect of the Oculus is without any doubt its superior FOV (Field Of View) of 120 degrees, instead of 40-45 degrees like all it's competitors, even the Sony HMZ-T1, which is expected to be released in 2013 too at twice the price (799$US). A wider FOV means a better immersion, and a less present "see light at end of the black tunnel" effect.

However, game developers must develop specific extra coding in order to fully support the peripheral. As an example, because of the way they created the wider FOV, there reportedly needs to be FOV correction algorythm at software-level. While developers will obviously need to make the jump sooner or later to high-quality VR, this additional compatibility limitation is definetely not in their advantage right now. Doom3 BFG Edition and Hawken, even if those are very nice games, will most probably not be enough to convince early adopters to invest 300-400$ in this new peripheral -if the price is maintained; else it will be even harder for them.. and due to hardcore gamers complaints that have not even tried the peripheral yet, the Oculus team are already talking about improving the resolution, which will most probably boost the price considerably-. Unless more developers jump aboard, which I really hope so, Oculus may not encounter proper success at launch (2013, if not delayed, which is likely to happen...).

I believe there are a few things to consider, as well as a few ways to make it more interesting and cheaper.

While 3D stereoscopic graphics are a real plus when talking about immersion, I firmly believe that the most interesting feature is still about the gameplay possibilities head-tracking is technically allowing.
Seperated head-tracking and arm-traking working along together can bring a very rich gameplay experience in First-Person games, like all those First-Person Shooters (Call Of Duty, Battlefield, Medal Of Honor, Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, Doom, etc.). In 99% of all FPS games released up to now, the aiming crosshair is always in perfect center of the screen. Imagine being able to detach it from the center of the screen. I mean, imagine looking forward in a direction, and still being able to aim and shoot at something or at an enemy you don't even see on-screen; that is the level of immersion real VR is all about. I was personnally subsided by Quebec government to lead a R&D team in 2004-2005 about this. We used the CryEngine1 (FarCry) to conduct those tests, and we succeeded (well, I succeeded :P). At that moment I was mainly a 2D/3D artist (sometimes freelancing) and had very low programming capabilities. But since then I learned 9 different programming languages intensively (some targetted at gaming development, like C# under Unity3D). I would be perfectly able, today, to code this feature for a game, so I imagine we can expect that a reputed coder like Carmack will understand and develop this, too, for Oculus. He turned down an offer to go program for NASA, after all.

That said, I am pretty sure it would be possible to create a very interesting PC gaming HMD that costs as low as 170$-220$USD, and that pricing will really help to democratize VR. Because gamers are tech-savvy, and price point is a determining factor. I think that hard-core gamers who are willing to afford a 600$-1200$ HMD with high-end specs are not conscious enough that democratization of a technology is a key factor for its success; without an interesting userbase, developers don't have the same level of interest in supporting new hardware/technology. Development is expensive, and the risk of bad or even negative ROI (Return Over Investment) is too big. When a HMD manufacturer will understand this and find the sweet spot between innovation, quality, compatibility and price, VR gaming on PC will finally take off in good health. It will also need at least one killer app, and I highly suspect that it won't be related to gaming. Movies will help, but social "telepresence" with some deeply-integrated geolocalization features seems more probable.

What do you think?

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