Is VR and Oculus Rift really the next big thing in gaming…again?

VR has very recently become a buzz word but have we not been here before? Back in the nineties the promise of immersing yourself in a magnificent world that up until then could only be experienced in its flat 2-dimensional format  was incredibly appealing.  No wonder people sat up and took notice of the next big thing to hit the press. Virtual Reality technology had arrived.

Who can forget movies such as TRON, Lawnmower Man or even the Star Trek Holodeck? Virtual worlds were hot news and the public were excited at the prospect of the fantasy being within their grasp for the first time.


The classic VFX-1

I have had quite an interest in the concept of VR, in fact it was how I got started in this videogame industry in 1995. My grand plan was to set up a videogame cafe for LAN gamers and get the general public enthused about the concept of multiplayer gaming as a form of entertainment. Trying to sell the idea to the average Joe, most who had never heard of games such as Doom, was always going to be a hard sell.

Enter  the lure of virtual reality. I scraped together funds to import the best commercially available VR headsets at the time, Forte’s sleek looking VFX-1. This VR gear looked the part, it was futuristic and I knew it would make people sit up and take notice of the new business venture. The idea worked, the cafe was opened and even the press were getting excited, not so much with the idea of LAN gaming, but the fact they could stick on some futuristic headgear and wander around a virtual world.

Back then the VFX-1 was the best piece of kit on the market and the fact that it supported games like Quake, Doom, Descent, MechWarrior and even flight sim EF2000 was pretty amazing. Sure, the resolution was not great and the game visuals were nowhere near today’s standards, but it did feature head tracking and even had a very cool motion tracking hand-held puck. The VFX-1 was a great piece of kit for around a rather expensive $1000 mark at the time.

Having kitted out four booths where players could stand and rotate a full 360 degrees with the headset on, it all worked rather well but something happened that we never expected, something that has been mentioned but skirted over a great deal in recent articles about VR. Motion sickness.

Now you may think only big girls’ blouses get motion sickness but I can assure you that it’s very real and rather unpleasant. Through the five years we ran the headsets hundreds of gamers tried the kit in games such as Doom and MechWarrior. Rather worryingly around 85% would suffer from the sickness. Symptoms included severe nausea, giddiness, collapsing and even vomiting. Thankfully most made it out to the pavement before they chucked up.

I remember one afternoon a few lads came in to try out some deathmatch on Doom and within a matter of minutes we had two customers throwing their guts up outside the cafe. After a nice sit down for ten minutes or so they were starting to feel a little better but there wasn’t much colour left in their faces.

Having used the headsets myself hundreds of times over the years I would still suffer after any period longer than 15 minutes. In fact, we had to set a limit of no more than ten minutes per session, any longer and we would risk an accident with a customer.

oculus rift

The Oculus Rift

So here we are in 2013, things have gone full circle once again and the Oculus Rift is the VR toy of the moment. I was interested to read feedback from a recent press event by the guys over at PCGamesN  who commented:

“Valve’s early tests involved just nine people, and seven of them wanted to stop after just 20 minutes of play. One thing that Valve have found that helps is a process of progressive acclimation. Starting a new group of players on a week-long regime of increasingly long play sessions got most of them over the worst reactions, but Ludwig is still concerned that it’s going to be an obstacle.”

With such a small testing group, you can see that VR will cause nausea, even with today’s improved resolutions and displays. Oculus are right to be concerned, very concerned in fact.

Based on my experience and the massive testing pool we had over the five years of running the VFX-1, Oculus users could be in for a sickly surprise. As to resolving the problem by gradually increasing use, I would say that’s very optimistic.

I’ve not tried the Oculus, and it does feature vast improvements over the VFX-1, but the fact that motion sickness has been highlighted as a potential problem should be of concern for anyone wanting to jump on the VR bandwagon.

I will go as far to say that VR is not the way forward for gamers, the novelty is fun but it‘s just that, a novelty. You will never be able to compete against others using a standard monitor, it’s just too disorientating.

While the Oculus has not gone as far as the VFX-1 (this does surprise me), which had a motion tracking puck device, it means you are still bound to the mouse and keyboard so there isn’t quite as much immersion as there was with the old VFX-1.

My four VFX-1 headsets are now in my collection of gaming paraphernalia and should be recognised as a great experiment in gaming that never really caught on. Oculus has said that a VR kit would cost you “tens of thousands” in the nineties but this wasn’t the case, for around $1000 you could have had a pretty tasty VR headset. The VFX-1 and many other competitive products all had a good stab at VR, and while the resolution on the Oculus is superior to what was available at a similar price back then,  it could suffer exactly the same fate as its older cousins. Is it going to change the face of gaming any time soon? I don’t believe so.

I contacted Oculus to comment on the motion sickness problem with the Oculus Rift but up to the time of publishing this they remain silent on the matter.


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  • nasarius

    Very interesting. I suspect better head/eye-tracking technology will help alleviate the problem of disorientation as you look around, but that still leaves you with the issue of your character moving forward while you’re actually sitting or standing still. VR headsets alone probably don’t have much of a future, not without an omnidirectional treadmill or some other way to involve the rest of your body in the simulation.

  • Salina

    No I don’t think it is the next big thing. I think it will be the next big money sink from marketeers but I don’t think the uptake will be there. I think the motion sickness will put people off. Anyone who has had motion sickness won’t buy it and many others will worry that even though they don’t suffer from it they may with the VR headset as it’s expected that something like that could cause it.

  • Oli

    I have to say Doom is a really bad example when looking at motion sickness. I suffered very badly when playing doom for prolonged periods back in the day and it was found to be caused by gun sway at the bottom of the screen. You’ll note in, most FPS games since the gun sway feature has been removed. I almost guarantee this was a major factor then when using old school VR. I’m not denying that the disorientation element was no doubt a factor too but the extreme level would have been partly down to the game itself.

    As far as VR not taking off I’d concerned, I disagree. Initially, due to motion sickness/disorientation of moving whilst sitting still this technology may be restricted to slower-paced exploratory type experiences rather than fast paced FPSs but at the end of the day, who won’t want to experience just looking and walking around an entirely different world? Even in its early form without proper interactions this represents a truly compelling reason to put on a VR headset even if the proper gaming aspect needs developing with multi directional treadmills/ glove/ wand peripherals etc.

    In my view it is the Everyman not the hardcore gamer that this is likely to impress and I think once consumer ready, people will want to experience it for themselves.

  • Rushster

    You are right, is the “everyman” wanting to try it that will be a selling point which is why back in the nineties I used it to bring in customers. The “real gamers” on the other hand didn’t have much interest in it after a try. It’s not immersive enough to make you feel like you are actually there which I think gamers really want to feel.

    Gun sway may have been a factor in Doom, but of the many other titles I used, the problem was the same. Motion sickness just came on a little slower.


    I agree with Oli. What we have here is a misinterpretation of what VR can be. I think that the initial reports are that people are just happy to walk around and explore, not even engage in the action of the ‘game’ in which they are transported. This is important because it relates that this medium calls for something different. Just as people don’t want to browse the internet on a TV. Nor do they want to flip channels on a 105′ projection. There is a new language that needs to be communicated and this will found quite quickly in the next couple of years. This crowd sourcing approach will do well to speed up how VR will be used among a small elite crowd then once adopted and refined, it will make it’s way to the culture at large. If someone could create a google map/minecraft type replication of say…Paris, Thailand, Rio then I’d be happy just to walk around and take in the sights.

  • Elly

    It’s a nice idea and it’ll catch on with a niche (more so than the previous attempts) but it won’t go mass market.

  • McFatandGLasses

    I disagree with this being a niche and the idea that it will fail because of motion sickness. You aren’t taking into account that problems associated with motion sickness are linked to the high speed of movement with modern games being used on the device. An example of this is in Team Fortress 2 and the fact that the scout class moves at around 40 miles per hour. They will need to develop games were your character moves at a realistic speed. Also at this point there is no positional tracking which is also known to cause motion sickness. This is something they are working for the consumer version.

  • Elly

    Well if they are also expecting developers to create special games or special modes in their games so people can play them slower they have even less chance of going mainstream. Even if a developer agreed to make a mode in their game for people who are playing with the VR on what gamer would use them when it puts them at a distinct disadvantage being much slower than those playing with a monitor? You simply wouldn’t be able to play against those players, you would be restricted to playing against other Oculus users.

    It’ll be like pitching a PC gamer against a Console gamer in a shooter.

  • Cymatic Bruce

    I recognize that motion sickness is and has been an issue of VR. But lumping the VFX-1 with the Rift just doesn’t work. The latency was significant with 90s headsets like the VFX-1. Also, the FOV of the VFX-1 was only 45 degrees.
    We are talking 110 degree FOV and 30-40ms latency for the Rift. The execution of the technology is simply better. Also, the tests that Valve did involved TF2, a fast-paced first person shooter (not designed for VR) in which the slowest character still moves at super human speed. Heavy’s walking speed is about 11 miles per hour, while the scout moves at 40 mph! And even then, people were able to adjust with time. I don’t think VR will be the answer for every game genre, but relegating the Rift to novelty status? Not when it is executed this well in the Development Kit stage.

  • Rushster

    I agree Cymatic Bruce to a certain extent. FOV is an issue when it comes to motion sickness, however, anecdotal evidence suggests that even with an increased FOV in the Rift, sickness is still an issue so it’s more than just FOV or resolution that’s causing the problem.

    Also, creating games ONLY for the Rift is not realistic, they won’t make money so developers are not going to jump on it. The perception being given by Oculus is that the games we all love and play today are enhanced by the Rift, which really can not be the case.