It’s fair to say that virtual reality hasn’t yet captured the public’s imagination in the way many observers expected it would earlier in the decade. Issues with cost, comfort, and convenience have placed obstacles in the path of mainstream adoption, causing VR to be increasingly favored in specific niches like FPS gaming.
There have been no such issues around augmented reality. Following the breakout success of 2016’s Pokémon Go game, companies are falling over themselves to offer AR functionality on mobile devices and gaming rigs alike. Its popularity is even benefiting virtual reality since AR and VR share a great deal of DNA. But how are these computer-simulated environments being adopted by games consoles and software developers, and are they in danger of becoming segregated across fixed and portable devices?
A small console-ation
Games consoles represent arguably the last great hope for VR’s long-term success, with the sit-down-and-tune-out nature of gaming well suited to immersive headsets which restrict free movement. Google were early adopters back in 2014 with their Cardboard project, and a console kit launched just last month still bears a strong resemblance to Google’s pioneering hardware. The Labo VR kit for Nintendo’s Switch is a brightly-colored cardboard system that resembles an old 1980s Viewfinder toy. The basic Labo VR kit costs less than $100, though dividing the Switch’s 720p screen between two separate eyeholes delivers a low-res experience lacking in immersive realism.
A more conventional games console application of AR and VR involves Sony’s PlayStation VR pack. With a headset that looks like a Peacekeeper’s helmet from the Hunger Games films, this PS4-exclusive hardware now offers over 150 VR games and experiences. However, many of these titles require the use of PS Move handheld controllers which are covered in unintuitive buttons and resemble a very strange television remote.
Sony’s arch-rival Microsoft lacks AR and VR compatibility for its Xbox One console, so competition to the PlayStation VR is presently provided by the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. Headset prices have fallen in inverse proportion to their libraries of titles, though both are PC-powered rather than console-based.
A wizard idea
The growing symbiosis between computer games and live action is reflected in HBO’s recent Game of Thrones AR experience. Equally, the suitability of smartphones rather than games consoles for augmented reality could shortly be demonstrated by Pokémon Go’s developer Niantic. Their Harry Potter: Wizards Unite AR game is set to be released later this year, with players roaming around real-world environments looking for digital items while freeing iconic characters from various predicaments.
The Pokémon similarities are undeniable (some might say cynical), but Harry Potter’s sheer star-power is expected to see this RPG break sales and download records alike. It might also be the tipping point at which AR and VR become embraced by a critical mass of consumers, facilitating the type of price cuts already being made by both HTC and Oculus.