Virtual reality is going to make everyone sick — including companies that dump billions into it

The awe you feel will be cut fairly short. Photo: Sergey Galyonkin/CC

The awe you feel will be cut fairly short. Photo: Sergey Galyonkin/CC

When my kids and I walked into a coffee shop one sunny day last month, we were greeted by a row of tables holding laptops with gaming demos.

My son gravitated toward the biggest display, a huge TV screen with a giant, face-obscuring set of goggles set in front of it. This was the Oculus Rift, the latest fad gaming device that places two stereoscopic images in front of your eyes to simulate virtual reality.

He slid the massive black eyewear onto his face, picked up the connected Xbox controller, and started moving his head around. The rest of us could see the game on the TV — an abstract shooting gallery in three dimensions, with my boy at the center, first-person style.

After about five minutes of waving his head around and pressing buttons on the controller, my son pushed the goggles up and off his head and said, “Dad, I think I’m going to be sick.”

Indie fave Oculus made a lot of noise among game developers with Rift, the first truly workable virtual-reality goggles. The volume increased when Facebook acquired Oculus for $2 billion, an unheard-of sum for a gaming hardware company. Sony jumped into the fray with its own VR headset, Project Morpheus, at the Game Developers Conference in March. Hell, even Samsung is making a go of it.

The problem is that all these companies — and many more, judging by the flood of emails we’ve gotten about VR gaming at next week’s Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles — have poured billions of dollars into yet another gaming fad.

What makes gaming compelling isn’t necessarily the visual gimmickry you can throw into the mix. Sure, high-definition video makes current-generation gaming more compelling in some ways than the abstract pixel shapes of yesteryear’s arcade games, but that kind of upgrade only goes so far. Without innovative design, compelling storytelling and an unabashed concentration on fun, any new game — no matter how advanced the technology — is doomed to the dustbin of boring crap nobody wants to play. High-tech lipstick will not turn a digital pig into awesome entertainment.

After my son got sick of the Rift, I decided to try the headset myself. Sliding the heavy, view-obscuring goggles on was a little scary. (Who wants to block out their entire visual field? Not this guy!) But once I had them on, the game opened up before me. I stood inside a giant courtyard made of white square structures, with red hovering robots ready to attack. I truly felt like I was inside the game.

I had a moment of awe, and then I moved my head.

Things got blurry and nauseating pretty fast. The scenes changed a bit slower than my head moved — it was a little like being drunk, without the fun part. I can’t see myself sitting with one of these things on my face for hours of gaming. It’s just too weird.

Take a deep, steadying breath. Photo: CC by Wikipedia

It’s time for virtual reality fans to take a deep, steadying breath. Photo: Sergey Galyonkin/CC

As my son realized, virtual reality is just another fad, like motion controls and, to an even greater extent, 3-D gaming. The first brought Nintendo back into the spotlight with its Wii remote, and the second lasted all of a year. No one focuses on 3-D gaming any more, and even Microsoft concedes that its Kinect motion sensor — which some devs are using in tandem with the Rift to create “full-body VR” — will take up valuable processing power.

Virtual reality might be the future of gaming, but it’s not here now, and all the fancy headsets in the world aren’t going to make it a current-generation reality. It’s an exciting time for game makers who are exploring the outer limits of playability, but the technology hasn’t caught up to developers’ dreams.

Even uber-gamer Notch, creator of outrageously successful indie game Minecraft and a believer in virtual reality’s gleaming possibilities, sees that the technology is only a game-changer for the future. Virtual reality is not quite ready for prime time. (The Rift even made Notch nauseous.)

So, as companies both large and small head into the Electronic Entertainment Expo next week, fervently clutching their hopes and dreams in the form of VR helmets, headsets and the like, let’s pause a moment and remember where we really are.

This isn’t a realization of the virtual reality promised in the 1990s, where you would just “jack in” to the Internet and walk around data structures. Nor is it a recreation of Star Trek’s holodeck, a lifelike game filled with characters that act just like people.

What we’re going to see next week is the first baby steps toward a potential future in which we interact with video games in a more immersive manner. Nothing more, nothing less.

After his first experience with the Rift, my son took a few steadying breaths at a quiet coffee table. I went over to him, sat down and rubbed his back.

“Do you want to try that other game on the Rift?” I asked.

“Nah, I don’t think so,” he said, walking over to a different laptop to check out a fantasy MMO in development. We haven’t tried any VR goggles since.

  • T Sheehan

    Author is a Notch fanboy and hipster trying to be “edgy” who isn’t up to speed on any current developments with the Oculus.
    Feel Free To Ignore Article.

    • BarryDwight

      The author here is an uninformed, knee-jerking bloviator who CLEARLY hasn’t researched anything about oculus in 6+ months, or possibly ever.

      “Booo! Boo this man!”

      • Adam E

        Truly uninformed. The technology is in such infancy it’s rediculous to make any predictions, let alone call it a fad! Visual gimickery??!! If he thinks visuals are not an important part of gaming, he should go back to playing his Atari. Plus, gaming is only but a tiny fraction of what can be achieved with VR.

        Here’s a quote that the author of this article will probably agree with given his massive amount of knowledge and foresight:

        “Television won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night,” Darryl Zanuck, 20th Century Fox, 1946.

      • T Sheehan

        Greatest quote drop ever, Adam.
        I wonder how he feels now that thousands of people are raving about DevKit 2 and some of it’s early playable games at E3. Well, probably the same. He needs something to call “mainstream gimmickry” for validation. Shame his son got dizzy though, my son did on DK1 as well, but adjusted after a day of passionately cruising through Titans of Space. Hopefully the lad gets his head into a DK2 or at least the Release version when it comes around, then tells his dad to stop being a cafe douche.

  • Greg Lanciotti

    wow what a tool. I think some people secretly get really pissed off when they think they get too sick in the rift. They get jealous of others who don’t get sick. Yeah, this article is so biased its unforgiving.

  • Eric James

    Why not write a 2 year old review on the iphone 5 never having accurate fingerprint scanning? Dev kit 1 was released around the same time as the iphone 5. Article would have been more valid in 2012 but proven wrong in 2014.

  • delay

    Motion sickness is eliminated in the newer developer headsets coming in July. Apparently there will be even more improvements before consumers see it released.

    • Patrick Bauer

      I’m sorry, but thats not right. Motion sickness in induced by percepted motion (with your eyes), without the real motion being there. People who get car sick will also get VR sick, its the same principle, just reversed. BUT: The DK1 has many problems like the resolution and the motion blur which enhance the motion sickness, so it will get better with future versions. Palmer Luckey himself stated, that in the near future it won’t be possible to completely eliminate the VR sickness. We’d have to wait for things like GVS, the Galvanic Vestibular Stimulation :)

      • Jerberjer

        Well, here’s the thing. there are a lot of causes for VR sickness; not just one. while it’s true there won’t be 100% solved, the problems addressed in this article (screen blurring and drunken movements) are INDEED solved and they would have had a better experience with the newer models

      • Patrick Bauer

        Never said another thing :D
        Just, that it won’t be eliminated completely like stated in the comment before :)

      • Patrick Bauer

        2:
        And believe me, nobody is happier about this than me, because I get sick as hell in the Rift DK1 ;)

    • jameskatt

      Since virtual reality systems are tuned for male visual systems – which are different from female visual systems, any attempt to reduce motion sickness won’t address female vision. Current virtual reality systems make females nauseated and sick since they are male oriented. Even gay men have problems with these systems.

      • Da St

        You get points just for using “nauseated” instead of the author’s incorrect “nauseous.”

      • OhYeah!

        You seem to be inventing all sorts of stuff there. The is no male/female visual system. There is the HUMAN visual system. I have had men and women try my rift and there is not a difference between the groups in how they experience it.

  • OkinKun

    It sounds like they tried the DK1 from last year, and are basing their experience on that. It was a developer prototype, not a consumer product. So of course it’s not that great, they were a small company back then.

    Also, there are good experiences in VR, and bad experiences.. And maybe they tried one of the bad ones? Some of the good experiences, are amazing, even on DK1.

    The DK2 is vastly improved, in comparison, and the Consumer version will be even more improved. Most people who’ve tried DK2, don’t get sick anymore unless the game involves roller-coasters or flying a stunt-jet, which would make you sick IRL.

    If they tried the DK2, they’d instantly change their tune.. It’s converted many skeptics into believers. ;D

  • http://www.ahles.nl/ Patrick Ahles

    And how is Apple involved in this, given that this is Cult of Mac (that’s Mac at the end)?

  • Morgan King

    As everyone else has said, every problem raised here was solved a year ago. The dev kits are unfinished prototype hardware in a constant state of revision and do not represent the final state of the device, in this case not by a long shot. This article might have had some merit a while ago, but it’s easily dismissed today.

    • BarryDwight

      No merit regardless. VR, whether it’s oculus or not is coming. And it will change pretty much every media type immensly. This author should be fired. Immediately. He sounds more like a soccermom than a tech blogger.

  • Will

    Where has journalism come to these days.. Taking time to write a moderate article without even trying to look a few things up about the subject..

    Of course your own experience counts, but you ignored the fact (probably didn’t even know) that what you tested was a VERY early prototype of a product (only for developers) that won’t be released for at least another year on the consumer market. The issues you described have been significantly reduced (or even dissapeared) for the second prototype (for developers) that’s being released in July.

    Good game man, good game..

    • Rene Stein

      Are you seriously coming to Cult of Mac with an expectation of journalism? This is a tech tabloid rag meant for fun and flame bait articles. It’s even at the low end of Apple tabloid sites.

  • Richard Tracy

    I like how you state “We haven’t tried any VR goggles since” like it’s some kind of achievement. That statement is you openly declaring that you are ignorant and that your opinion should be taken with a grain of salt.

  • andcore

    Are you a tech writer, sir?

    I’m embarrassed for your ignorance,you probably don’t have idea of what means “prototype”, you clearly don’t know anything about the DK2, so…
    why do you think to have the right to write on a informative and technology website?

  • Madhusudan Banik

    I guess the author is getting what he seeked for and that is page views….Writing positive may not have gotten it any views, but writing negative is certainly working…

    • BarryDwight

      Doubt it. Everyone I know interested in Oculus eat up every article with the name in the headline. People who aren’t interested simply aren’t, because it’s not on the shelves at Best Buy yet. All Rob achieved here was getting a hell of a lot more (vehement) negative response than usual, and probably giving his employers pause as to his merits.

  • Lopan

    I had to re-read the top of this article; I figured it must be from June of 2013….. but nope, 2014. Outdated and completely biased. Higher rez, low persistence OLED screens, positional tracking… just a few of things developed in the last year that make VR sickness just about completely non-existent anymore. The first Oculus developer’s kit made me sick as well….. the new developer’s kit? I can stay inside for hours (well, to be honest, i have only spent a total of a 1-2 hours inside, they are not publicly available yet) without feeling a tiny bit of sickness. All reports say VR sickness has been completely fixed… Now, if you are prone to motion sickness and you are doing barrel rolls in a fighter jet inside the Rift, then your stomach might drop out and you may get queasy, but that is what makes the thing so awesome… it’s immersion. The author of this article must have some ulterior motive, because everything he writes is so misleadingly negative. I’m not saying everyone has to be fan of VR, but Jesus, be a little fair and balanced and do a little research.

  • Fidget

    You acknowledge that E3 is next week, yet fail to acknowledge the countless impressions of the latest Rift technology with development kit 2, which every tech geek besides you has heard about or even tried first hand. You can’t expect to be taken completely seriously by being completely dismissive of where VR tech is heading if you choose to pretend that you don’t know. Placing your profound ignorance on display through this article means that no one in their right mind will trust anything you write in the future.

  • Scott Landis

    So even if we ignored the fact that the author’s son used a developer preview version, and that motion sickness is something that is actively being addressed, we’re still left with the fact that the author based his opinion entirely on the experience of ONE (presumably) young kid. It’d be like if our kid went on a roller coaster, that was in a testing phase, got sick and then we told everyone that all roller coasters will make everyone sick.

  • Dillon Robinson

    This is one of the worst and most ill-informed blog posts I’ve ever read. Get a new hobby buddy.

  • Bob Austin

    “Sliding the heavy, view-obscuring goggles on was a little scary” Weak ass pussy. How do you go to sleep at all knowing that the boogey man is in your closet rob?

    Also, you’re a quitter. While you’re at it, quit writing articles. You clearly do no research.

  • Michael Martinez

    The author of this piece does nothing to make Apple users look any better. “uses a pair of stereoscopic images to simulate virtual reality”… really… he said that.

  • George Pepper

    I don’t get motion sickness. Started flying with my dad in our Cabin Waco at 2, deep sea fishing in a 21′ i/o by 6, and just don’t get affected by it. Sorry you and your son are evolutionary dead ends. Doesn’t mean Oculus Rift is a fad.

  • peteo

    Really, why the click bait? First the dk1 is a dev model. That would be like saying ios 8 sucks because beta 1 crashes all the time. Dk2 that comes out in July, works hard to solve issues with motion sickness (not every one gets motion sick btw) most people who have tried it out say that yes it does do away with it, but this one will also be a dev model. The final oculus will not be out until fall, or first half 2015. By that time the display and other tech will 100% elimate this for 99% of people. So please stop click bait crap articles.

  • Guest

    I’m sure, when Apple comes out with their own VR HMD, it will be a) ground-breaking b) first of it’s kind c) have none of these problems d) look great e) work only with Apple products and Apple-sanctioned content f) price out-of-range of anyone outside the ‘Cult of Mac’ and g) further proof of Steve Jobs’ genius. And then Apple will sue everyone else.

    • BarryDwight

      you’re clearly obsessed with apple more than anyone i know. #fact

  • Peter Hoogers

    As mentioned in the comments before; Uninformed and no research done whatsoever. It’s like doing a test drive in a 2004 Chevrolet prototype and because the suspension was way off, deciding that all Chevrolets will have this flaw and therefore will be crap cars. Also, quoting Notch who only abandoned his support in Oculus because he personally dislikes Facebook is neither here nor there. But kudos on the buzz you created, which I guess was your intention.

  • jameskatt

    An even bigger problem for virtual reality is that they are tuned for the visual systems of males, not females. Females are universally going to be nauseated and sickened by virtual reality gizmos today. And if some males also get sickened, then virtual reality is doomed.

  • http://ascii.textfiles.com/ iPadCary

    And I love how this douchebag says:
    ” … walked into a coffeeshop.” and “… rubbed my son’s back.”

    First of all, of COURSE he went to a “coffeeshop” ….

    Number two: who the fuck takes kids to a fucking coffeeshop?!?

    And lastly, rubbing his son’s back?!?
    Awwww, did the big, bad VR HMD cause SOOOO much pain & hurtfulness to this poor, indefensible waif that he needed to have his back rubbed?!?

    This dope who wrote this article is an ass on wheels.

  • OhYeah!

    My DK1 doesn’t even make me sick and the final version will be miles better than that. What a useless article clinging to the past.

  • YOUR NAME

    Ok now take into concern that some people suffer form motion sickness. not everyone. your sons one of the unlucky one’s who can’t enjoy the fruits of oculus’s labor. that doesn’t mean write an article saying how “everyone sick”.

About the author

Rob LeFebvreAnchorage, Alaska-based freelance writer and editor Rob LeFebvre is Cult of Mac's Culture Editor. He has contributed to various tech, gaming and iOS sites, including 148Apps, VentureBeat, and Paste Magazine. Feel free to find Rob on Twitter @roblef

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