Why I’m not interested in Virtual Reality

For many reasons, I ought to be interested in VR. For one thing, I work in the computer graphics field, and there’s a ton of excitement around developing new content for VR. And also because I was a game programmer for 25 years.

But I’m not. And I’ve recently started to realize why.

Peripheral Vision

For many years I did not own a television — I watched Netflix and DVDs on my laptop. Then last year, I bought a large LCD screen.

Now, many people claim that that larger screen is a better, more immersive experience. And this may be true for them. But for me, the main advantages of the large screen is (a) I don’t have to wear my reading glasses, and (b) it’s more comfortable not having to hold the laptop.

Despite the fact that the large screen covers more of my visual field and stretches into my peripheral vision, the experience isn’t actually more immersive for me. The reason for this has to do with a quirk of the way I experience movies: I get so wrapped up in the characters, story and the concept of what’s happening on screen that I stop noticing the visual spectacle.

This failure of mine to be able to experience the full grandeur of a large screen happens even in highly effects-laden action scenes. When I see a giant robot punching another one, or a school bus drive off a cliff, I’m not thinking about how great the textures and reflections are; I’m thinking about the physics of large quantities of metal slamming together, or the g-forces experienced by the people inside.

(In fact, for many recent movies, the effects are so dense that I am no longer able to parse what’s going on — my brain just shuts down and I experience a kind of visual aphasia, where it’s just lights and colors with no meaning.)

I don’t know if this is an ADHD thing or if it’s something else. But the pixels displayed on the screen create an image within my brain, and the quality of that image isn’t tied to screen size. As long as the picture quality is high enough that I can resolve minor details, having a screen that fills my peripheral vision doesn’t add much value for me. (I kind of wonder about those directors who say that their work was “really intended to be seen on the big screen”. It kind of reminds me of people who fuss about the various vintages of wine which are indistinguishable to the rest of us.)

This is also why, when I go to a movie theater, I tend to choose the ‘standard’ rather than the 3D option — because after the first 5 minutes I don’t notice the 3D effect any more. I’ll take the lower cost and additional brightness over the illusion of depth perception.

So in some ways, VR is just like having a bigger screen — except one that’s grainy and pixelated.

Passive Experiences

One of the things that I learned during my time in the games industry is that there’s a difference between interactive and passive experiences. Interactive experiences are ones where the viewer is continually called upon to make choices; passive experiences are ones where the viewer is just along for the ride and is not controlling anything. Games are generally interactive (except for cut scenes) while movies are passive.

Moreover, there’s kind of a rift between these two modes of experience. In passive media the author is completely in charge, and can bring the full power of storytelling to bear. Active experiences, by contrast, put the player in control. And they can’t both be in charge at the same time — one or the other has to determine what happens next.

Because a VR headset requires the viewer to choose which direction they are looking at, the experience is no longer completely passive. The viewer is now required to continuously make decisions.

In fact, I find that I experience a mild kind of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) anxiety when using VR — I’m worried that if I turn my head the wrong way at the wrong time, I’ll miss out on some important detail. One of the nice things about watching movies is that I know that the cinematographer has carefully curated the visual field so that everything that I need to see is presented clearly on the screen.

This complaint is really more about VR movies than VR games. In a game, because the player is typically in control of the pacing of the action, they can take their time to look around and only decide to advance when they have fully surveyed their environment.

Body limitations

I like the idea of entertainments that encourage people to use their bodies rather than just sit on a couch. At least, I like that idea in theory. In practice, there’s a lot to be said for couches.

Because of long-standing back injuries it’s difficult for me to stay standing for extended periods of time. So one concern I would have with a fully-immersive VR experience is that it would be painful for me.

AR (Augmented Reality) is slightly more interesting here, in that it has the potential to encourage people to go out into the real world and use their bodies there. Sadly, many of the current AR offerings leave you tethered to a specific location — you can’t go too far from your infrastructure.

Conclusion

I won’t claim that these problems won’t be overcome. But so far, every VR experience I have tried has been a temporary novelty — interesting for a few hours perhaps.

At my company, we have several VR headsets around the office, which no one uses — they mostly sit in corners gathering dust. Will this be the fate of VR in general?

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