from the lean-don't-walk dept
We've talked before about how the booming field of virtual reality may start with better VR headsets and displays, but requires additional pieces of tech to truly meet its full potential. This week, we're looking at one such piece of tech that tackles the most critical VR challenge of all: the VRGO chair for controlling movement in a virtual world.
There's one fundamental challenge that has plagued the world of VR from its inception: how do you move about the virtual world? Of course, you can just do so with a joystick or directional pad like any other game, but that's extremely immersion-breaking in most cases, reminding you at every turn of the one thing VR is supposed to make you forget — that you're playing a game. At the other end of the spectrum, some have built multi-directional treadmill rigs that allow you to walk and run in place, but these have their own list of problems, such as the fact that they are very big and very expensive. Plus, it's not always appealing to exert the same amount of physical energy to play a game as you would if you were actually the superhuman action hero you control.
The VRGO offers a new solution. It's a sleek, compact chair that is carefully calibrated to detect your leaning and turning, and translate these movements into game controls. It offers the sort of direct, intuitive control that VR needs without requiring a dedicated room for all your gear or a budget of thousands (it clocks in at around $300 USD, which is hardly eyewatering) and while keeping your hands free. It's wireless and portable, and works not only with PC/Mac but with mobile devices (where a lot of VR experimentation is now happening). Plus, you get to sit down. All told, it may be the single best solution to the problem of movement in VR, especially if price is a factor in that determination.
Videos of the VRGO in action tell us it looks good, appears to be responsive and makes users smile — but as with any such device, the ultimate test will be using it yourself to find out how it feels. Does your brain embrace the immersion and forget about the chair, or are you permanently aware that you're rocking back and forth on a plastic egg? And how quickly does this transition happen? Questions like these are why it might be tough to shell out money for the first model, unseen and untried, rather than waiting for some testimonials and hopefully a shot at trying it out somewhere. Still, if the VRGO lives up to its apparent potential, it (and the inevitable imitators, some of which may even improve the design) could become the go-to standard for VR gaming rigs.
While it might actually be fun to try the VRGO out all by itself for certain kinds of normal, non-VR games, obviously the real point of this device is to combine it with, at minimum, a VR display like the Oculus Rift or a smartphone in a Google Cardboard headset. Then there's a rapidly growing world of additional components: Wii-style handheld motion controllers, Kinect-style cameras, tactile feedback gloves, 3D audio systems... And this raises what might be the key challenge for VR as the technological kinks are ironed out, the price comes down, and it becomes mainstream: getting everything to work properly in concert and deliver an overall satisfying experience. In time there will surely be some companies selling comprehensive VR rigs with everything included, but for most gamers (PC gamers especially) their rig will be assembled from multiple different devices. Even assuming there are no strict hardware compatibility issues, there's an interesting question of calibration and optimization — will all these devices feel good together? Will the sensitivity and responsiveness of your VRGO harmonize with that of your motion control camera, or will it create a looming sense of physical dissonance? This isn't just a hardware challenge, but a software one too, and we'll see lots of action on this front as more developers build games with VR in mind as a (or the) primary use case. As the technology for VR comes into its own and the games proliferate, we'll have to move beyond answering each individual question of how to interact with the virtual world, and start focusing on marrying all these aspects into a harmonious, fully-immersive experience.