Technology

VR 'disappoints' at E3 games show

StarVR headset Image copyright StarVR
Image caption VR headsets such as the StarVR are a barrier to the tech's success, it has been claimed

Virtual reality (VR) was supposed to get less virtual and more real at E3 this year.

Before the gaming expo got going, experts and analysts said they expected VR to feature heavily and for there to be demos of pioneering games that made great use of the technology. Those demos would be essential, they said, to convince people to buy what is likely to be an expensive chunk of hardware.

But it did not turn out like that.

In fact, VR hardly featured at all during the big news conferences. Sony talked about Project Morpheus for a couple of minutes during a presentation that lasted an hour.

There were passing mentions in other press events but VR was conspicuous by its absence. While it is true that some VR announcements came just before E3 got under way, there was little from the big game publishers and studios to show what they were planning.

"VR failed to stand out during the press conferences," said Wesley Yin-Poole, deputy editor at Eurogamer. "I put this down to the tech being a tough sell on a big screen. VR is better understood when used, rather than seen."

Image copyright CCP
Image caption Eve: Valkyrie was one of the VR games to be confirmed at E3 this week

The lack of mentions seems odd given that E3 is all about previews and preparing expectations for games many of which will be launched at the same time as those headsets are due to get in to the shops.

The one demo that did get people talking was Microsoft HoloLens system but that does not have a release date yet and is still firmly experimental.

So, where were those jaw-dropping videos that left people reaching for their wallets?

On the stands at E3, many firms were letting attendees try out demos and "experiences" to get a flavour of what the technology can do. Sony has 18 separate VR tasters on its booth and Microsoft's Halo Experience on its stand gives people a virtual guided tour of a dropship from the game but even these, said Mr Yin-Poole, do not convey its potential very well.

He said: "VR is a tough sell, and I haven't seen a VR game on the show floor that makes that issue all of a sudden go away."

"There are impressive demos that clearly benefit from the ever-improving hardware, but Oculus and Morpheus are still looking for their killer apps," he said.


VR games confirmed at E3

Sony Project Morpheus

  • Rigs - Guerrilla Studios
  • Battlezone - Rebellion
  • Headmaster - Frame Interactive
  • Wayward Sky - Uber Entertainment
  • World War Toons - Reload Studios
  • Summer Lesson - Bandai Namco
  • Godling - Solfar Studios
  • Eve: Valkyrie - CCP Games

Oculus Rift

  • Eve: Valkyrie - CCP Games
  • Adr1ft - 505 Games
  • Edge of Nowhere - Insomniac
  • VR Sports: Challenge - Sanzaru
  • Paranormal Activity - VR Werx
  • Damaged Core - High Voltage
  • Esper - Coatsink
  • AirMech - Carbon
  • Lucky's Tale - Playful

Valve VR

  • Paranormal Activity - VR Werx
  • Walking Dead

Piers Harding-Rolls, head of games research at analysts IHS, has tried out lots of the demos at the show and said he had noticed a shift in what people got to see when they slipped on the headset.

"The content is becoming more robust and commercial as we move towards the launch of the major high-end headsets during the next 12 months or so," he told the BBC.

The debate had moved on from simply impressing people to more in-depth talk about what counts as good VR content, how to interact with it and what the take-up rate is going to be. There was less hype and more realism, he said.

And, he added, just because there were not many VR games on show at E3, that said little about what would eventually be released.

"The traditional big publishers are generally taking a wait-and-see attitude, although all are experimenting in-house," he said. "There is little benefit for them being first to market when there is a broad expectation that adoption of the technology will slowly ramp up over time."

Image copyright Sony
Image caption RIGS is made by Guerrilla Studios, which is also behind the Killzone series of games

In addition, he said, it was not straightforward to just transfer a flat-screen game to a VR setting. Games will work much better when made specifically for VR. Studios will take time to develop the skills needed to make good VR games.

"However, he added, "a lack of big-budget content may also apply a handbrake effect to adoption. In this respect first-party content will be important in establishing the market."

For some though, the reluctance of the publishers and the cost of developing for VR do not spell delay, they spell disaster.

"It's doomed. Sorry about that," wrote John Walker from PC games news site Rock, Paper, Shotgun. "There just won't be the games to make it worth owning one," he said.

Few publishers are going to be willing to put down huge amounts of cash to develop a version of a game that few people would play. The technical demands VR makes on PCs and consoles and the extra development required to make games work in all-round 3D will scare them off.

Image copyright Sony
Image caption A reboot of Battlezone will be released on Steam, its developer has said

Given the audience, developers might try it, he said. But, so far, there is little evidence that people were signing up in large numbers.

"I believe the rule that people won't adopt a technology that's more inconvenient than what already exists will prevail, especially when there won't be the big-name games to encourage them to do so," he said. At the moment, flat screens have the edge and were likely to retain that advantage.

In addition, he said, the isolating effect of putting on a headset that literally cuts people off from those around them will put people off.

"Sadly, it's hopeless," he said. "No-one will acknowledge it when it happens of course - these things happen too slowly.

"Until it can work without a giant headset, making you look like a lost robot tourist, people will always prefer to sit at their screens."

You can follow all of the BBC's coverage from E3 2015 via the hashtag, #e3bbc

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