Virtual Reality. VR. Oculus and so on. It's one of the biggest topics in the tech world and, particularly, in the dedicated gaming scene. Or perhaps that should be the enthusiast scene. I've read headlines saying 2016 is the year of Virtual Reality, make or break time. Is it really its final chance? No, no it isn't.
Much of the conversation around Virtual Reality refers to its two decades of development and struggles to assert itself, and a narrative has emerged of this being some kind of last chance saloon. Cowboys wearing the Vive, Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR have apparently moseyed into view, staggering slightly and perhaps feeling a little dizzy, to convince the world once and for all that they're worth purchasing for hundreds of dollars. As far as I'm concerned, though, this is the first time VR has gotten serious; it's getting column inches and buzz that all those older units and concepts could only dream of.
My contention, though, is that we're a good few years away from a mainstream audience caring one jot for these headsets, if that happens. They're still ifs, buts and maybes, but I'm pretty confident that these units will be a 'success' in terms of shifting a few million units, and then reality will dawn and the companies will sink investment into the actual last chance for Virtual Reality - the next generation of headsets that are much lighter, less power hungry and more affordable.
So, I want to give my perspective - opening myself up for hindsight ridicule if the NX reveal has a VR component - on why I believe Nintendo's statements that it's not interested in the concept right now.
I've read some valid arguments that Nintendo's taken punts before on innovative experiences and control methods, but even disregarding the fact the company's distanced itself from VR, there are clear reasons why this is different. For one thing, it's too darn expensive.
When Oculus came out with a $599.99 price tag for its first commercial unit - for which pre-orders sold out, as there's a keen market of tech-heads - some gasped. It was a couple of hundred dollars higher than I expected, perhaps, but I always expected the thing to cost more than even the most expensive games console. The reasoning is simple, the technology is still young and a tad experimental. I remember trying the first dev model of the Rift and thinking it was a bit of a mess. The screen resolution was low - which doesn't help at all when trying to avoid nausea - and it was both heavy and uncomfortable. I feigned a positive impression to be polite as I was surrounded by web developers and tech enthusiasts - I was mildly impressed by the technology, but not the experience.
It's come a long way since then, as it's clearly been streamlined and has far better screen technology. Yet with that comes the cost and a hefty dose of reality. Sony and HTC are shying away from pricing their units as yet, probably because they've observed the reaction to the Rift and are frantically trimming features, negotiating manufacturing discounts and seeing how much of a loss they can swallow on each unit. It wouldn't surprise me if Sony tries to hit the $300-$400 area, to make it seem to consumers like they're actually buying another PlayStation console.
There are cheaper options, of course, but they come with their own limitations. The Samsung Gear is about $200 but requires specific Samsung handsets and related apps, so the overall cost of entry is higher and the experience limited. Those looking for a cheap and cheerful equivalent can always get a Google Cardboard for about $20; this is far more basic technology but is good for a gimmicky virtual video tour, for example.
So pricing is a problem, in terms of the high price that comes with the full VR experience as applicable to games, or from the perspective of cheaper systems that have limited scope for gaming. How VR works and engages gamers is the next, and probably most vital, issue at this stage. I think a good video report that shows what's exciting but also flawed about Virtual Reality was from E3 last year. One of the presenters for BBC Click looked at various options, was impressed, but at one point literally falls over while demoing PlayStation VR.
That sequence demonstrates the positives and negatives. There is undoubted potential, but the clunky headsets and the realities of interacting with empty space are tough to ignore. Even the nature of the demos and early games show an industry in its infancy, with set-pieces or simplified activities the norm. Forget talk of 20 years of VR, these are experiences that are experimental and rough around the edges.
The fun factor is also a problem, which will be at the very core of Nintendo's thinking. Besides a number of users reporting nausea or vision problems with VR, it's a clunky and isolating experience. It may be cool at an expo or within a development studio, but to make a mainstream breakthrough it needs to be sleeker and more convenient. Considering Nintendo's focus on multiplayer fun and including the full living room in playing games, this counteracts all of those instincts. Nintendo of America's Reggie Fils-Aime also talked about it at E3 2015.
We have knowledge of the technical space, and we've been experimenting with this for a long, long time. What we believe is that, in order for this technology to move forward, you need to make it fun and you need to make it social.
I haven't walked the floor, so I can't say in terms of what's on the floor today, but at least based on what I've seen to date, it's not fun, and it's not social. It's just tech.
Of course, Nintendo may try to utilise VR in its own quirky ways in future, when it's affordable or can be tackled in innovative ways. In 2014 a particularly off-the-wall patent from the company was focused on glasses that could make 2D images appear 3D (which is sort of how Google Cardboard works) and to have other devices deliver a more literal portrayal of 'virtual' reality. We're talking peripherals that blow air in your face or project light to reflect the game, but as it's a patent it's a mere fantasy - or a prototype if we're lucky - until shown to be otherwise.
With Nintendo always keen to be inclusive and encourage multiplayer, that patent at least seems more likely than a chunky VR headset. There's also the possibility that Nintendo will consider other emerging technologies, with augmented reality also on the rise in the technology entertainment sector. Ideas that change the way games are experienced which can also be enjoyed in a group seem to be more Nintendo's style.
Virtual Reality, ultimately, may have a mainstream future, not just in games but in communications and how people consume entertainment such as TV - though if 3D glasses are a hard sell, headsets will be even tougher to promote. There's notable enthusiasm in the development space, too, with this year's GDC survey showing more and more studios working with the technology. The day may come where owning a VR headset is the equivalent to an extra controller or a Wii Balance Board, and we may regularly pop a sleek and light unit on for a bit of immersive gameplay.
Yet that day isn't quite here, due to a combination of factors including price, execution and the prototype nature of the technology. If it's not affordable and practical Nintendo will likely put it in a 'maybe' pile- something to revisit in the future.
Which brings me to my final point. I've seen the Wii cited as evidence of Nintendo taking a punt on newly immersive technology. Yet the key point is this - the Wii Remote used long established and affordable technology in clever ways. That's partly the reason - along with the modest power of the system itself - why the Wii could be sold for less than its competitors at launch. Cheap technology was used in an innovative way - the idea was cutting edge in terms of the impact it had on gaming, but the Wii Remote's innards were relatively simple and off-the shelf.
Virtual Reality isn't well established, efficient or affordable technology, at least not for immersive gaming. It's not yet ready for the Nintendo treatment.