Why the VR waiting game is great for those who dare to dream

Sit back and enjoy the wait

How's that Steam Machine under your TV doing? The wait for virtual reality to become the future is proving quite torturous really, especially since it's already been 25 years.

And it's been delayed once again, with the Oculus Rift looking like it's even further away than we thought.

Maybe it'll scrape in this year, but don't put money on it. As for the competition, yes, the HTC Vive is still scheduled for a few months time, but… well, two words: Valve Time.

But maybe the wait for VR to arrive isn't a bad thing. With technology, this is often the best part - getting to dream, imagining how great things are going to be, without pesky realities getting in the way.

Rift

Space: not the final frontier, just the next one

Imagination game

What was the best Wii game? Some might say Mario Galaxy, others Smash Bros, but secretly, none of them had half the playtime of Imagining How Awesome This Will Be When They Make A Lightsaber Game.

That lasted pretty much the entire period from release to realising the importance of haptic feedback to do anything but thrash around wildly and terrify the cat. Virtual Reality has no shortage of similar hold-ups to take the shine off it.

Lightsabers

A decent lightsaber game still seems far away

That's not to bash VR, not at all. I'm really looking forward to it getting its shot. I have an Oculus DK2 myself. I've enjoyed playing with it and absolutely plan to get the consumer version, or the Vive, or whatever one seems the most interesting and I can plug into my PC.

Headset for change

Using it though reinforces how quickly the miraculous fades, and how frustratingly fast the minor flaws get in the way. The foul smell of the foam around your eyes and the heat of it.

The screen door effect (being able to see the gaps between pixels, which on the DK2 makes it look like you're seeing the world through a veil). The need to retrain your eyes so that you move your head to look around instead of glancing over to the side and seeing the edge of the screen or chromatic aberration added to help turn a 2D screen into 3D. Little things like that.

Oculus Rift DK2

Oculus Rift DK2 - ironing out the kinks

Over time, yes, they'll be fixed. Wrap-around views, eye-tracking, lighter equipment, all that. But there'll always be something, something to get in the way - some little niggle that takes the result from magic to merely a cool toy, and then keeps clipping away.

Magic faded

It's perhaps the most frustrating part of human psychology; to always want more, and to so quickly stop seeing the magic in a thing. I remember feeling that when playing Planetside 2 for the first time, which finally created the massively-multiplayer war that players had been craving for decades, offered it up pretty much for free, and had that marvel completely over-written by arguments about the price of sniper rifles or whatever.

Planetside 2

Planetside 2 almost got it right

Or going back a bit further, the Metaverse concept, popularised by the novel Snow Crash. From pretty much the start of the internet, that was the Dream - the Holy Grail of interactions.

One day, promised early technologies like VRML (Virtual Reality Modelling Language), we would no longer merely click upon flat screens to order our VHS tapes and Pogs, but stride as digitally perfect avatars through realms of Cyberspace, pausing our shopping sprees only to fight black ICE and try not to die in a game (for to do so would mean to die in real life).

Disc world

Even magazine cover discs got into the action, with 3D towns as menus and similar. Whole virtual worlds like There and Second Life sprouted up to offer that democratised future… and, ah, I'm willing to bet five virtual pounds that you got here by clicking/tapping on a web browser several generations more advanced, but functionally little removed from Mosaic/Netscape/Web Explorer.

Second Life especially, while full of amazing user generated creations, is now pretty much synonymous in the public consciousness with weird porn, with all the original ideas of people attending virtual rock concerts and symposiums and otherwise merging the boundaries between worlds a long, long distant memory.

Second Life

Second Life: up there with weird porn

Reality is such a buzzkill like that, so often. And yet at the same time, when things do work, we never really appreciate them. Look at GTA V for instance - to be more exact, the city, and how quickly it goes from being a stunning artistic achievement to simply the background for mediocre shooty-bangs.

Or the internet itself, where 'has democratised and liberated the entirety of human knowledge' is a bulletpoint located somewhere between "Free porn!" and long arguments over who would win in a fight, Optimus Prime or Arya Stark.

It's only really before we get our hands on things that they can reach their full potential; a thing to idolise and pour hope into, to imagine and to salivate over. In the case of virtual reality, I suspect it's largely helped by the fact that even in the 90s, when the first machines started appearing in arcades, it only ever felt like the tip of the iceberg. Games like VTOL and Legend Quest weren't The Future, just an exciting glimpse of it that cost a few pound (or dollars) a go if you were lucky enough to stumble into them.

The dream was having that experience in the home, on real games like Doom (okay, technically, that came two years later, but sssh) and being immersed in our favourite games that weren't being run off a crappy Amiga. Sure, you could buy the equipment that would let you do that, but only in the sense that technically you can buy a tank on eBay - you can, but you're not going to.

Older and wiser

25 years later, we're older, wiser and more cynical, but still secretly still holding those childish excitements born of being given only tantalising glimpses of what could have been, never enough to get bored and dissatisfied.

With the possible exception of anyone unfortunate enough to remember CyberZone, the futuristic gameshow that introduced itself with cyberpunk flourishes only to set a third of its games in a crap 3D recreation of a boring English town. With duck-shooting mini-games. What were they thinking?

And yet despite having spent several hundred quid to get hold of it, my Oculus DK2 is still sitting idle most of the time, unless I want to impress people with a demo like Sightline or Shufflepuck Cantina or Radial-G. The future is exciting, the present… by its nature, it just is. The magic trick loses its power when you've seen it done before. A moment of revelation can only come once. The first bite of cake is always the sweetest.

At least by recognising that, we can enjoy the waiting game for what it is - technology unencumbered by reality, just like we secretly want. And when it's out, there's always going to be something else impossible to lust after, isn't there?

It wouldn't be any fun otherwise…