Oculus Rift: The Consummation of Second Life or yet another fad?

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).

What Oculus Rift will most probably look like as a finished product. Image: Paste Magazine

What Oculus Rift will most probably look like as a finished product. Image: Paste Magazine

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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13 thoughts on “Oculus Rift: The Consummation of Second Life or yet another fad?

  1. I’m sorry. I reject your view. You present the same argument and references as Will Burns. Ergo, you must be his alt ;-).

    Seriously, pretty much hitting the nail on the the head – as has Will & saying something close to what I’ve been wanting to say.

      1. LOL.

        Mona was recently accused of being my alt on the basis of similar posts blogged by each of us. As such, I couldn’t resist making an (admittedly small and very inside) joke.

  2. 1) The grade of innovation is not an indicator for a product success. You need to develop a product to a point that the consumers are convinced by its advanteges. Saying that the Rift cannot be successfull because there have been VR-headsets before is like saying the ipad could not have been successfull because there have been tablet computers for 20 years. But the ipad was successfull.

    2) The Rift is a product for gamers. Most gamers play in their own room. When they play with friends, then no one will care if they are in front of one screen or wearing several pairs of vr-headsets. If your argument that there are not enough people with a retreating space would be valid, then how do you explain that the gaming industry is as succesfull as it is.

    3) When talking of success, it is important to separate between the success of the Rift and its influence on SL. All my previous arguments have NOTHING to do with SL. Also I do not expect the first shot for an LL/SL user interface to hit the aim. But it’s important that they are part of this endavour from the start. There will be games that develop good UIs for the Rift. It’s important that LL or a 3rd party viewer will get inspired by the best solutions and implement them. I see this as a process.

    4) Who cares if there are headphones on the vr-headset? If the sound is coming from the stero speakers or if you wear earplugs? It makes no difference to what you are hearing and to the immersive experience. I dare to say that with good speakers, the stero system will provide the best immersion with a VR-headset (plus you hear someone entering the room or approaching you and you can take off the headset when necessary). I would at the contrary not by a VR-headset with integrated headphone…

    5) Now to an exclusive SL problem: It is absolutely possible to type without looking at the keyboard. I have written this hole comment without looking at it once. All 10-finger typing systems teach you not to look at the keyboard. Yes it takes some effort to learn this, but in my humble opinion it is even less effort than learning the SL user interface (for noobs). And it is never the effort that holds people back, it is the lack of motivation. If the experience with a vr-headset will be overwhelmingly great but you can only stand there, will you throw the headset away or will you invest some 10-20 hours to learn 10-finger typing? Come on! People invest much more time in much less motivating things. And hey, there is voice!

    Bottom-line: I have no idea how the Rift will turn out. But the main success indicator will be the user experience. If this experience is good enough (graphics, immersion) people will be motivated to find solutions to the doubts you are formulating.

    1. 1) Oculus Rift is marketed as innovative. It’s not – it’s been done before, it didn’t catch on and there’s a certain stigma because of this.

      2) Oculus Rift is marketed as a product for gamers, but in and by itself it’s nothing more than a display unit. As for people not really having retreating space, most middle-class people don’t have a dedicated playroom or gaming room, because (i) their homes don’t have this kind of space, (ii) making this sort of space would cost more than their finances and their lifestyle can justify, (iii) in the current economic-political climate, the (much-maligned) middle class is becoming a proletariat, which means less spending power for expensive gadgets like the Oculus Rift.

      3) For “total immersion” VR gear to be successful, it needs to offer solutions for the following issues: (i) presentation – check, (ii) input/UI – you need something like Nintendo’s Power Glove or a similar device for this, and Oculus Rift simply does not offer it, (iii) communications/audio – Oculus Rift doesn’t offer a solution here. Whereas not offering comms and audio would be forgivable, the fact that Oculus Rift doesn’t offer a solution for input and control cripples it. You can’t make VR gear successful without offering both a display solution and a control input system; these things must go together.

      4) A decent stereo system always beats cheapo headphones hands down. Still, a complete VR system has every reason to offer this feature as well.

      5) Typing for chat is not exclusive to SL. In fact, there are thousands of games that rely on keyboard commands and shortcuts. And while you may be a good touch-typist, you cannot assume that everyone is. Demanding that the end user be gifted with such skills dramatically narrows down the potential customer base, with obvious results.

  3. 1) You forget the fact that no other VR solution has the tracking or the FOV that the
    rift has. This is innovative and anyone that has used VR before would agree. Most headsets feel like a 19″ monitor strapped to your head 20 feet away. This is in your face at all times. Plus everyone keeps talking about the dev kit wait till the unit comes out and then you can give opinions on it. I have the dev kit so I know what its like I don’t make assumptions.

    2)If you make this argument then a computer is no more a gaming platform than the rift. It offers no display so you cant see anything. It offers no sound you need speakers. It even offers no input what a piece of sh…. I never thought of it that way.
    As for the space you only need a chair nothing more. You don’t have to stand and run around like a fool to have fun. I would rather not use things like the omni because I really don’t want to have to run for a block to get my stuff. Interfaces like Razer Hydra are really fun but waving my arms around gets tiresome. I like keyboard,mouse, or controller.

    3) not true you don’t have to have everything right of the start. I love the way it gives the feeling of space. Racing in Iracing with the rift I shaved time of my laps
    the first time just because I could tell when the corner was coming sooner. There are many many things that are made better by the rift in its current state and will just keep getting better.

    4) No everyone gripes about price of VR. so how do we make it cheaper. Well everyone has speakers now. Sure its not a lot of cost but everything helps. There is
    no reason for a Display Vr Headset to offer controllers let them focus on the display and tracking other people will come up with ways of controlling it.

    5) The point was its not to hard to put your hands on w and the mouse then
    have a great time. Sure it would be nice to have a brand new control but ask yourself how old is the mouse? How many times has it changed None. At this time
    the keyboard and the mouse are just the best input devices. I sure hope there will
    be something new but I don’t want to have to run over to a keyboard in Vr Pick it up and type in the air.

    Your arguments are fine but in no way mean thats the way it has to be done. I think we all just need to wait and see because no one really knows I just go off of me having one and how it makes me feel.

  4. Good to read some realistic comments about VR

    But I also like it to realise it will take some months and then some potential interesting developments will come to the consumer already

    I’m also watching these:

    Oculus Rift in combination with Omni

    http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1944625487/omni-move-naturally-in-your-favorite-game

    Seems very nice in some situations: training / running, especially now they have solved the de-coupling of looking and moving together in different directions

    There are things going on with let’s say building with a 3d glass, see meta

    http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/551975293/meta-the-most-advanced-augmented-reality-interface

    in combination with Gamedraw3d
    http://mixeddimensions.com/gamedraw

    Maybe some more advanced voice activation added, like Siri which will come to the Mac platform also I think
    Because you won’t always stay or waving your hands: that would be terrible

    Ha, interesting times, indeed

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