Consumer VR may have been… rushed.
Ridiculous as it may seem to consider something that took over twenty years to find its way into the hands of us mere mortals “rushed”, there’s one huge issue with VR that I feel should have been ironed out before introducing it to the masses, and that’s the movement problem.
The eyes are easy to trick. Show them each an image of a scene from slightly different angles, and your brain combines the two images into one, utilizing neural trigonometry and variable focus afforded by the muscles of our eyes to give you a sense of depth. The ears are similarly easy to deceive. Plugging them with a pair of high-quality headphones and using software to modulate the volume of sound channels delivered to each ear gives you a sense of the positions of sounds in a virtual world. Even the human somatosensory (pressure, touch, temperature) system can be fooled to some degree by haptic feedback as simple as an unbalanced motor like the kind you find in a PlayStation controller.
What’s not easy to do, is fool the vestibular system. If you ever spun yourself around quickly and then stopped, only to feel like the room is still spinning around you, then you’ve already been acquainted with what happens when you mess with it. And mess with it, VR does.
While the human body is terrible at perceiving constant acceleration, it is exquisitely sensitive to changes in acceleration, and the brain utilizes signals from the visual, auditory, vestibular, and somatosensory systems together to sense those changes. Unfortunately, all it takes to short-circuit this intricate balance developed over millions of years of evolution is for the vestibular system to disagree with the other sensory systems. Even people who don’t typically experience motion sickness can fall victim to it when their eyes and ears send their brain signals that their body is in motion, but their vestibular system begs to differ.
Sure, you can physically move around a virtual environment if you have a room-scale tracking system and a very large, empty space dedicated to VR in your cushy Beverly Hills mansion, but that’s not a luxury that many of us lower lifeforms can afford. The majority of us have a much more limited space to work with, and for us, VR developers have classically offered a paucity of options that range from bad to worse. Teleportation mechanics that ruin the feeling of “presence” in the virtual world, and a push-button-to-walk train named the Vomit Express.
VR systems are still under heavy development, and have experienced a sort of Cambrian explosion of different forms and functions. Some systems can now track the position and movement of your fingers with great accuracy, others can track the position and size of your pupils to help emulate the way human eyes naturally focus, and some come with a litany of sensors that you can strap to your feet and waist to allow full-body tracking: but none of that helps with the movement problem. So, what does?
The best option to approximate natural movement in a virtual world and help override the conflicting signals being sent to the brain is likely to be an omnidirectional treadmill or platform. Like more mundane treadmills, many of them are cumbersome, complicated, limit overall freedom of movement, and range from very expensive to ludicrously expensive.
At first, these rigs were only being offered and sold to VR arcades and boutiques, but it looks like they’re finally available to the general public – if the general public is cool with selling a kidney to buy one. A KAT Walk mini will set you back 2-3 thousand dollars, or roughly the price of a VR headset and a VR capable PC combined. You must request a quote (not a good sign) for a KAT Walk non-mini or Premium, though I have seen someone reselling the KAT Walk Premium for $18,000. Eighteen. Thousand. Dollars. That’s more expensive than a base model Chevrolet Spark, and for something that could basically boil down to a suspended harness and a slippery touchpad to slide your socks across.
For the time being it seems like consumer VR has hit a plateau. Adoption is largely limited to PC gaming enthusiasts with deep pockets and iron-clad stomachs, greatly hampering VR’s possibilities as a social platform. Before we’ll see wide adoption of VR tech and huge open-world VRRPGs with a functional player bases, prices still need to come down, and this movement problem needs to be solved in a way that’s not completely out of reach for the “working poor” who aren’t doctors, lawyers, or celebrities.
Until that comes to pass, the VR revolution will likely remain on hold.