• Tech

In 2016, Did Virtual Reality Experience a New Dawn or a Massive Flop?

7 minute read

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of a discussion about the current state and possible future of virtual reality between TIME games critic Matt Peckham and executive editor Matt Vella.

Peckham: Before we get into the weeds, shall we acknowledge virtual reality (VR) as a millennia old phenomenon? Counting stuff like drug-induced states and dreaming and meditation?

I just mean that as a buzzword, it’s really been a thing for much longer than these headsets, occurring along a spectrum of imperfection that’s curving toward brain jacks or trans-humanist fantasies or whatever. The virtual reality we’re talking about in 2016 is incredibly crude by comparison to the real thing: only two senses, plus the ghostly edges of a third. Putting on a headset today is analogous to being a head and arms. You’re nearsighted, your arms are numb asleep, so that all you feel are little vibrations when you whack into things. And virtual objects held up for closer scrutiny all smell the same–like plastic and palm sweat.

Vella: Ahhhh, yes. Rec rooms. Dorm rooms. Vision quests. Altered states. Maybe VR is a part of a continuum. Either way we’re depressingly far from nirvana, let alone mere diversion I feel.

What I’m saying is I’m disappointed in the state of VR at the moment. Having looked forward in anticipation to the arrival of three major headsets since last summer—well actually a lot longer than that; I bought a Virtual Boy with my paper route salary—I feel that the reality of virtual reality as of today is sadly lacking.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why. But I’d describe my experience with all the headsets as a “double aha moment.” It’s “Aha!” when you realize this is finally it, VR that works, and is decently immersive. Followed by an “Ahhhhhaaaaaaaa…” when you realize there’s not that much to do in VR, let alone keep me engaged for more than novelty’s sake. I mean to say that it’s been fun to put my PS VR headset on friends and family when they come over but, at the end of the day, I’m not compelled to put it on myself the way I might be to play a few rounds of whatever game is interesting at the moment.

I guess what I’m asking myself is, is virtual reality a flop?

Peckham: I’d call it a compromise in 2016 and probably out to at least the next decade. If we’re defining success as mainstream mania, like what happened with smartphones and tablets, then yes, a flop. But if we define it in terms of the much smaller demographic I’d argue it’s knowingly aimed at, then we’re still waiting on sales figures. And if we define it in terms of personal expectations, I guess it depends on the game.

Everything I’ve played in virtual reality so far that’s been a developer jamming VR into an existing thing, I’ve hated. Fallout 4, Doom 4, you name it. This idea that virtual reality is triple-A franchises plus headsets feels all wrong. Those games look awful in VR, for starters. And then you’re wrestling with input that feels janky because the game was developed with completely different visual and tactile assumptions.

Games like Drool’s Thumper are the opposite of this. I play that game in VR, and it’s a rhythm-racer that demands insane concentration, and I’m topping leaderboards. I play it outside VR, and I’m a twitchy, offbeat mess. There’s a focus and perspective thing going on there that the headset clearly enhances.

Vella: I find it interesting that you think the triple-A titles you’ve tried don’t do much for you. I thought Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham VR was rather compelling, though mostly as a showcase of what “might” be possible. (Yes you get to put yourself in Batman’s shoes, but it turns out you can’t actually go anywhere in them…) I think you mean that just wrapping a standard, 3D game in VR isn’t going to work.

Much the way early television ads were simply still shots of road-side billboards, early VR seems to still be grasping for its own visual and narrative language. Admitting that you may have had some compelling, moderately lasting experiences in current-gen VR, do you think we’re anywhere near having that language? And if not, how far off is that?

Peckham: Today most of why you’d want to engage with virtual reality is the novelty of bridging the disconnect between observing a 3D world at a remove on a 2D screen and feeling authentically “present” in one. It turns out the novelty wears thin pretty fast if you’re not a dyed in the wool VR enthusiast. We’re asking a lot of people, to clamp on clumsy helmets and fumble around with crude interfaces surrounded by relatively primitive graphics.

To your question about VR’s language, it seems like a chicken-egg of inputs wrestling with outputs. Today’s optically wraped, screen-driven VR uses all these ancient input ideas. Like your neck is now your wrist, and your eyes are your mouse pointer. Or your hands are Wii-style motion control wands. Or you’re futzing around with mid-1990s gamepad controls. That’s the gamut. And I think it tells us little about where we’re headed. I think how we interface with virtual worlds in a decade or more is going to have much more to do with the eruption of augmented reality. I think making the real world malleable is going to lay out the roadmap for how we’ll eventually interrelate to these imaginary ones.

Vella: You mention the real world. I wonder, in the wake of the phenomenal success of Pokemon Go, if the industry is actually turning away from VR and towards augmented reality (AR) as the “glorious future.” It’s odd that a mobile phone game that requires no special hardware in effect made the most compelling argument for AR yet. During a recent debate I hosted at the Web Summit, the most interesting argument was that the closed, PC-dependent headsets are actually not going to be around very long. They’re a technological blip, in other words, on the way to something very different.

Do you think there’s a big swerve coming?

Peckham: That sounds right to me. It’s the extensibility thing, right? If smartphones weren’t already relatively unobtrusive telecommunication devices that snapped the landline leash, you’d have no platform for stuff like Google Maps or Pokemon Go. Those things (and so many others) thrive because there’s a cardinal function these devices already perform. The argument goes that Google Maps is already a form of augmented reality—call it version 1.0. The question, thinking about silent running ventures like HoloLens or Magic Leap or the next version of Google Glass, is what 2.0 looks like.

Vella: So we really haven’t answered our initial question. Except if “it depends” is an acceptable answer. (It’s not!) But, seriously, I think your final point is as close to one as we’re going to get. We’re living in a 1.0 world far as VR is concerned. And that means we have a long way to go.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Matt Peckham at matt.peckham@time.com