Virtual Reality is already one of the hottest technologies and topics in videogames, with both the Oculus Rift and Project Morpheus promising to revolutionise the way we experience our favourite hobby. The ability to enter our videogames, to be immersed and surrounded by them, is intoxicating - and we've been excited about VR's potential despite a fair few hurdles facing the fledgling venture.
Now that I've finally got to grips with Oculus Rift courtesy of Private Eye (the psychological thriller, not Ian Hislop's mag), both my greatest hopes and most worrying concerns about the resurgent technology have been set in stone.
VR is absolutely incredible, a huge leap forward for videogames and revolutionary new forms of interactive entertainment... but the very things that make it so amazing are likely to keep virtual reality out of the living room.
Project Morpheus may have a bit of a fight on its hands.
We're going to gloss over the boring common-sense arguments surrounding cost and convenience. Yes, buying a headset for your entire household is going to be rather pricey. Considering the laughable uptake of 3DTV over the last few years, it's clear that most of us like to consume our entertainment without wearing silly glasses, let alone strapping a sweaty plastic peripheral to our faces - thus making it a niche product for hobbyists on paper. These tedious issues can eventually be overcome as attitudes change and costs come down, but there's a far more fundamental problem facing Virtual Reality when it comes to cracking the lounge.
VR is incredibly immersive. Oculus Rift puts us directly into videogames, shattering the barriers between players and the game world, but does so by literally creating a new reality specifically for the wearer. It recreates environments, characters and sound in an unprecedented and intimate way, but to work, it has to totally and completely shut out the real world. As such, Oculus Rift is a perfect fit for a study, games room or bedroom, where players can isolate themselves in a world of their own.
It's fabulous, but also uniquely antisocial. To maintain immersion and illusion, players not only have to be totally cut off from reality in terms of what they can see, but also in terms of what they can hear. A decent pair of headphones or surround sound is required to ground us in virtual reality - with any talking or background noise completely ruining the experience. At best, your friends or family chatting pulls you out of the world that the developers have strived so hard to create, and at worst it can exacerbate the effects of simulation sickness. If you're supposed to be travelling at speed, yet you can hear people talking a fixed distance away from you, your brain is likely to start doing horrible things to your stomach in an effort to make sense of the conflicting signals.
In a bedroom or study? No problem. But in the lounge, the focal point of family life and the room with the most footfall in the house, it's likely to be a dealbreaker.
There's a more fundamental point, too, in that people around you will have trouble interacting with the game you're playing unless they have a headset themselves. Or, more importantly, you can't easily share it with others. Again, VR's main strengths also make it incredibly antisocial, a bespoke new reality that's shattered if you're reminded about the boring mundane one in which we actually live by the people in it. I absolutely agree that there's potential for asymmetric multiplayer, wherein several players interact with a VR-equipped friend using Morpheus' TV-out functionality, but having to pass around a headset isn't going to be much fun - even the Wii U hasn't made it work to any great degree beyond Nintendo Land. Let's face it, everyone's going to want to be the lucky one wearing the visor.
Perfect for a large comfortable chair upstairs, but not for the lounge.
That's not to say that VR can't be social. Hell, Facebook wouldn't have flashed the cash if it there wasn't a wealth of potential applications. People on other sides of the planet can directly interact with each other in a single virtual space, whether a casual lounge or hectic shooter. It's tremendously exciting -- I'm all for it, frankly -- but yet again these online social features shut you out from the real people physically sat next to you on the sofa, or in the room. We'd likely continue to use our smartphones and tablets for social networking most of the time, free to chat to our mates and folks in front of the telly, before then retiring upstairs to hang out with an old friend on a different continent, or get involved in some VR multiplayer.
Personally, I believe that Virtual Reality is going to revolutionise the way we play any number of genres (from flight sims to strategy games, survival horror and shooters - though traditional FPS games probably won't work without significant control retooling and major gameplay rethinks, an article for another time), and become a thriving PC scene. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that traditional PC monitors could be replaced by headsets in the not too distant future, especially if operating systems embrace the tech. Just imagine being surrounded by all those Metro tiles. Even in the absolute worst case scenario, if VR never quite breaks the mainstream this time -- there'll always be a next time -- I guarantee that it's going to remain a relevant and well-supported niche.
I'm so ready... yet for the forseeable future, I just can't see it in my lounge. Or indeed anyone's. And I worry about what will happen if both Oculus and Sony try to aggressively push their wonderful devices into a room that, perhaps, they don't really belong.
But I'd dearly love to be proven wrong. Never underestimate the imagination and resourcefulness of developers in uncharted territory - so hopefully I'll be eating all these words soon enough.