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Gaming Industry Pushes Virtual Reality, But Content Lags

An attendee at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles plays Sony's Project Morpheus London Heist video game with a virtual reality headset and Move controllers.
Lucy Nicholson
An attendee at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles plays Sony's Project Morpheus London Heist video game with a virtual reality headset and Move controllers.

Video game makers are in Los Angeles this week showing off their latest releases. Along with updates of big franchises like Tomb Raider, game developers are showcasing immersive virtual reality games. But virtual reality may not inspire love at first sight when it starts hitting the consumer market.

Even if you haven't played a video game, it's likely I could describe it to you pretty vividly because you've played other video games. But with virtual reality, there isn't much out there yet to try.

The most I can do is describe an experience while I'm having it, like drinking a virtual soda: I can pick up a can and put it to my mouth and put it down. Or I can land on a virtual planet and shoot virtual spiders.

It's cool, because you put on these goggles and no matter which way you turn, even if you look up, you're in this 3-D world. But me getting a thrill may not be enough for you to go out and drop real money on a virtual reality headset, says Tony Christopher, CEO of Landmark Entertainment Group.

"You're in a store and you're looking at a display, and here's all the head-mounted displays and then it costs $200 or $300," he says. "Why would you ever buy it when you don't know why you're buying it? You wouldn't."

Christopher says this as someone who is very interested in virtual reality. He designs entertainment experiences for theme parks and he thinks virtual reality would be a great addition.

But to get consumers interested there's has to be something good to do with it. Christopher says it's like the early days of TV. At first, no one was buying. "Because it was news; it was like the radio," Christopher says. "It wasn't really anything exciting. And then Milton Berle created the show Uncle Miltie and put it on television."

Uncle Miltie turned Texaco Star Theater into the first must-see TV — and got more people to buy televisions.

A lot of people at LA's Electronic Entertainment Expo, called E3, are hoping for the equivalent of Uncle Miltie for virtual reality.

"We need a lot more content," says Raymond Wong, an analyst for Mashable. "Everything I've seen so far on any VR headset is basically a tech demo and tech demos are not finished products."

But the pressure is on. Last year, Facebook spent $2 billion buying Oculus VR, maker of the Oculus Rift headset, and venture capitalists have spent tens of millions of dollars investing in virtual reality.

Yet the first VR headsets are due to hit the market as early as year-end. And there's still a lot to work out. For example, some of what was shown off lends itself to standing up and moving around.

But with your head in goggles immersed in another world this can be a problem. Kate Kessler, who works for Oculus VR, says the company tells game developers to try to keep players in their seats because "you really feel like you're there, so you want to move around and if you're not seated it could be a dangerous thing. So our recommendation is having [people] seated."

Game developers are still working it out. Dan Herd, with the game company Playful, says virtual reality can be so real it can get scarier a lot faster than a regular game.

"Some people might want that extreme experience, but I wouldn't default that to somebody putting on the Rift for the first time," he says. "That would make them feel gross and then they'd come away and say, 'Ah, it's all about shock and it's OK but I don't really want to play that a lot.' "

Herd admits this is one of many discoveries Playful's developers are making as they learn how to create virtual reality experiences. And when the first headsets hit the market, customers may not want to be virtual reality lab rats.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laura Sydell fell in love with the intimate storytelling qualities of radio, which combined her passion for theatre and writing with her addiction to news. Over her career she has covered politics, arts, media, religion, and entrepreneurship. Currently Sydell is the Digital Culture Correspondent for NPR's All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, and NPR.org.
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