UPDATE: Shortly after I published this post, virtual worlds expert Will Burns also presented an even more in-depth and technically-oriented analysis of the whole Oculus Rift overhype situation, which I highly recommend. You can find it here.
Lately, several influential Second Life bloggers have been going ga-ga over the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset that follows in the footsteps of the Virtuality from the previous millennium. The hype around this headset reminds me of the days when every
ragnewspaper and/or magazine in the world was paying lip service to Linden Lab, telling us that Second Life would be the next phase of the web (file that one under Famous Last Words). Back in May, I had blogged about it and, even then, although I do believe that Second Life would be a “killer app” for Oculus Rift, I didn’t share the extreme enthusiasm that fills blog posts about it.
Now I’m going to rain on the parade, and not because I want to play the role of the Devil’s Advocate, but because there are some basic flaws both in the device itself and in the mentality that runs through the way people blog about it. So, let’s start getting things straight a bit… Mind you, I’m not alone in my skepticism w.r.t. the (already overhyped) Oculus Rift. Will Burns has expressed doubts about it, so has Garrett Martin of Paste Magazine.
Oculus Rift is neither pioneering nor innovative
This is really hard to swallow, but it’s not the first VR headset in computing history and it’s not the only one on the market. I mentioned Virtuality (from the ’90s!) in this post’s opening paragraph. Vuzix is another company that makes VR equipment. And as far as I can tell, with proper support for 3D glasses (like the ones offered by many TV manufacturers), Second Life and other virtual worlds could offer better immersion to their users than what we get from our monitors alone, although 3D glasses don’t isolate us from the outside world (which may or may not be a disadvantage, depending on how you look at it).
Oculus Rift’s immersion experience is incomplete
“But… How? It isolates us from the outside world, and we’re steeped into the virtual world!” Yeah, but a complete virtual and/or augmented reality experience also offers auditory stimuli – preferably in some form of surround sound (good luck raising the cash to pay the necessary licences). As you can see from the picture of what the finished product will be like, it doesn’t have headphones or a microphone at all. So, what are you supposed to do? Put a stupid set of in-ear ‘phones? load your head up with the headset you use to chat with your friends on Skype
while the NSA listens on top of the Oculus Rift? That’s a rather klutzy proposition, if not daft.
Oculus Rift can’t replace your typical SL (or OpenSim) experience
Let’s be pragmatic here: While Oculus Rift (and other such devices) does have its uses (such as architectural visualisation, as Jon “Keystone” Brouchoud had explained), after the first “wow” moments as you look around, you realise you still need a controller and a user interface to do everything else: move your avatar around, move your camera around, etc. Garrett Martin wrote:
There was a slight disconnect in the form of a controller. I had to use a standard Xbox 360 controller to walk, and although I could look around my surroundings I still had to use a joystick to orient the game’s camera in the direction I was moving in. Walking and pulling a shoulder trigger to launch the ice ball didn’t break the Rift’s spell, but for some reason having to move that camera with a joystick slightly undermined the experience.
Now, with no way to see the keyboard, how exactly is a Second Life user going to go about such things as changing windlight settings, editing stuff, etc? The way I see it, at least in this stage, Oculus Rift in Second Life is all about standing and looking around; well, unless Linden Lab (the reigning kings of overpromising, underdelivering and “that’s somebody else’s problem”) come up with a way for the user to actually use some sort of user interface while having the Oculus Rift, as they’ve announced – Rod Humble basically promised a “triple-A experience” (skip to 3′ 08″ here), but, as a “veteran” and rather jaded SL user, I’m not holding my breath on it.
Let’s be a bit blunt here: most of the interaction we enjoy with our current mouse-and-keyboard (especially if you add a 3D mouse to the equation) setups gets thrown out the window the moment we strap any VR headset on to our heads. Kiss changing windlight goodbye, kiss changing debug settings goodbye, and so forth, unless LL somehow manages to allow you to have some sort of usable user interface.
VR headsets just plain aren’t the “silver bullet” they’re made out to be
Sit down and think for a moment: If VR headsets are all they’re hyped-up to be, then why aren’t we using them by default in SL, in OpenSim, in first-person-shooters etc already? Why haven’t they become mainstream? Is it because of “latency” or “low resolution? No. It’s because they’ve always been expensive, because they cut us off from any sort of user interface that doesn’t require a huge room or idiotically bulky and expensive equipment to be implemented (like VR gloves, motion capture gear to enable us to walk in the virtual environment) and the kind of big dedicated room that most middle-class (OK, the sociopathic Randroids that have been let out of the trash can where they belong and allowed to run the world have effectively killed this all-important class) people either don’t have or can’t justify making in their homes. So, they’re niche products, with very specific applications, a very specific (and limited) audience and I can’t see how they’ll change the way we use SL.
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