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Circuit Breaker

If there’s nothing to do on a new VR gadget, don’t buy it

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The new hardware wars are all about software

James Bareham

Last week, I went to see a virtual reality headset called the Dlodlo V1, made by a Chinese startup. The V1 has an attractive concept behind its hardware — it's a super-thin headset that fits like sunglasses, instead of requiring a headstrap. But while it actually didn’t fit (at least not on my face), the real problem was a lot bigger: hardware, on its own, just isn't the most interesting part of VR anymore.

A few years ago, consumer virtual reality was all about gadgets. What you were actually doing in VR was secondary to the technology that let you do it, whether that was a custom accessory or a whole new headset. Every day saw some new startup offer a different flavor of immersion: all-in-one headsets, omnidirectional treadmills, gesture sensors, datagloves, pupil trackers, and full-body harnesses, to name a few. It didn't matter that most of these were shown off with only one or two mini-games, because there wasn't that much to do anywhere else either, and the vast majority of people would only find VR at special events anyway.

Then, headsets like the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and Samsung Gear VR went on sale, and the medium started quietly growing up. People started making long, compelling, thoughtfully designed experiences. We got hardware that, even if it wasn't perfect, was stable and widely available enough to support selling software. Nobody would say VR is mature, but the quality bar is set much higher than it once was.

This is great for the industry as a whole. But it means that I’m having less and less fun playing simple demos and clunky ported games, even when they’re on moderately more interesting hardware. If my choice is between two generic shooting galleries, one with some kind of full-body motion capture suit and one with standard Vive controllers, I’ll take the suit. Increasingly, though, it’s between a generic shooter on a prototype system and a creative, well-constructed little Vive title like Selfie Tennis; an hours-long Rift game like Chronos; or a Gear VR app featuring music videos and live sports. More importantly, developers on all these platforms have proven that you can use them for hundreds of different tasks — something that’s hard to predict from a few proofs of concept.

At one point, it was fine to put out a device with the assurance that developers would see its potential, then build or customize experiences for it. But the more creators buy into existing ecosystems, the more unreasonable that assumption is, and the more we should expect hardware companies to show us what we can do with a product before taking orders for it. If a VR accessory like a glove or treadmill can’t demonstrate a full-fledged use case that’s worth the purchase price (and preferably, a lot of them) right out of the box, then it’s in danger of becoming a useless gimmick, no matter how cool it sounds. If a consumer headset can’t natively support a big slice of the apps, games, and video portals that are already in development, it’s probably not worth buying unless you’re a developer yourself.

This doesn’t mean everything needs to have a catalog the size of Steam or the Oculus Store. But it needs to either broadly work with another platform, or be able to justify its existence with a few really good experiences. Desktop headsets, for example, can be built to support SteamVR games. Custom controllers can either focus on a specific genre (like a gun that’s compatible with many shooters) or support a single piece of software with a long lifespan, like a custom peripheral for using VR game editing tools. Companies with a single core technology can license it to a company with a more complete platform, something hand-tracking company Leap Motion is already doing.

There are a few devices so unique that these rules don’t apply. Headsets like HoloLens and Magic Leap promise something that’s not remotely comparable to virtual reality. Academic research labs are experimenting with ideas that won’t make it into consumers’ hands for years, if ever. The vast majority of products you’ll see on Kickstarter or a convention show floor, though, are variations on a few increasingly established concepts, showcasing the same genres you’ll find on every mass-market VR system. They’re not forging new ground, they’re playing catchup with big competitors like Sony, Oculus, and Valve, all of which stopped being pure VR hardware developers long ago.

It’s great to see startups showcase quirky, offbeat little creations; it’s one of the things that makes VR so interesting compared to the world of phones, TVs, and game consoles. But in the end, a piece of hardware’s job is to take the best software out there and run it beautifully — then get out of the way.