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Get ready for the virtual reality platform wars

Or don't, I guess

At some point around mid-2013, most of the people I knew started talking through what was theoretically a very serious choice: Xbox One or PlayStation 4. There were points in favor of each — Sony didn’t have Halo, but Microsoft forced you to buy the Kinect, and so on. But it never felt like a momentous decision. You might miss out on a few games or spend a little more money, but you were fundamentally getting the same experience. For a little more than the cost of a phone, you could even buy both.

In mid-2015, I’m going to start having a similarly serious conversation with a much smaller group: Morpheus, Vive, or Rift? And unlike the next-gen console debate, the virtual reality platform wars are going to be a complete nightmare.

Each major console has a few exclusive titles, but the vast majority of games are released across both. It’s not clear whether VR games will follow suit, at least in the early period. It’s way too soon to tell how many games will even support each headset, let alone be exclusive to it, and several have publicly announced cross-platform partnerships. The VR world in general is far from bitterly competitive. But this is one of the few cases in which exclusivity makes perfect sense. Even with some major studios on board, a lot of the funding and support for VR games is coming straight from headset makers themselves. And the same game might feel very different on each platform.

There's a lot to keep track of

I can barely tell the difference between the Big Three’s screens, but the optics aren't all that matters. Microsoft and Sony might add a few distinct features to their consoles, and one controller might feel better, but the actual games usually involve hitting the same buttons in the same order to make the same things happen. That’s not true of VR systems. They can track slightly different ranges of motion, and the controllers each have distinct differences. Oculus wants you to play with a basic Xbox One pad, until the moment it releases its futuristic half-moons that can (to some extent) track individual fingers. Sony has the slightly awkward but time-tested Move stick. Vive gives you surprisingly precise miniature trackpads. Then there are the practical concerns — I can probably set the tracking Oculus camera on my desk, but I have no idea where to put Valve’s room-scanning laser beacons. There’s a lot to keep track of.

What I really want, obviously, is all of them. If it were just headsets, that wouldn’t be impossible. But add in the cost of upgrading my computer, buying Oculus’ new controllers, finally getting a PlayStation 4, and it looks more like I’d be paying thousands of dollars to turn my one-bedroom apartment into some kind of panoptic corporate mind-prison.

Right now, the medium is still limited to highly committed enthusiasts, so it doesn’t matter yet. I already have an Oculus DK2 and five ancient laptops stacked around my living room, so I’m not all that worried about stuffing it with even more electronics. But I want everyone to want a VR headset. Not Google Cardboard or a plastic case for their phone. A powerful, sophisticated piece of hardware with great controllers, real location tracking, and a high-resolution screen.

This isn’t the upgrade obsession of telling everyone that House of Cards would look so much better on a 4K screen. Top-notch VR isn’t just a difference in quality, it changes the entire experience. Using an external tracking camera dramatically improved my VR motion sickness. A better screen helped me see fine details and words that were previously blurry. Motion controllers aren’t just for playing with guns and swords, they’re a way to interact with your environment in more complex and varied ways than staring and clicking. That’s not to say high-end VR is always better, in the way that a laptop isn’t better than a smartphone. But we don’t treat those as interchangeable, either. Oculus already draws a line between its mobile Gear VR and the more powerful and expensive Rift. At some point, we might have reflect that split more clearly in the catch-all term "VR."

For now, if somebody asks me about trying out this new virtual reality thing, I’ll probably end up giving an incredibly confusing answer. I’ve given it my best shot in flowchart form, but the truth is that it’s still an incredibly confusing question. The best-case scenario is that these exorbitantly expensive first-generation experiments will generate enough interest to quickly follow the path of many other gadgets — becoming cheaper, simpler, and more accessible.