Oculus Rift has already won the hearts and minds of geeks everywhere, without a finished product on shelves. At trade shows like CES and E3, the chance to get even a brief demo of the virtual reality headset has spawned endless, snaking lines of near-Disneyland proportions. There’s no doubt that the Rift has the potential to change entertainment as we know it, but it’s a step in the wrong direction that will further divide gamers from the mainstream.
Gaining ground for decades, the convergence of video games with home entertainment has nearly arrived. Millennials have been ‘cutting the cord’ for years, an idea now catching on en masse. People are tired of $100+ monthly cable bills, and tiny streaming boxes like Apple TV, Google Chromecast and Amazon Fire TV are surging in popularity. All three devices offer light gaming capabilities, and future versions are likely to include beefier hardware for a legitimate alternative to consoles. Consumers are increasingly choosing these all-in-one home entertainment devices, and may start to view the cable box, the Blu-ray player and even the Xbox as superfluous. Between new streaming devices and the ubiquity of mobile phones and tablets, downloading and enjoying video games has become a casual, noncommittal and ultra-simple process. Video gaming’s barrier to entry has never been lower!
In stark contrast, Oculus Rift pushes gaming away from the mainstream, into a deep dark niche occupied by only a small subset of ultra-hardcore g4merz. Console gaming has the power to bring groups of people together in the living room, while PC gaming is firmly relegated to the den or office, despite minor headway from Steam Big Picture. Playing a game with a VR headset strapped to your noggin means that only you can see what’s happening, only you can enjoy the view, only singleplayer experiences are possible.
Case in point: my twelve-year-old nephew can be entirely, 100% engrossed by the simplest of games on his iPod touch. Given access to a realer-than-real gaming experience like the Rift, he might actually forget to eat food… or breathe air. Similarly, while it’s alluring to explore a world in three stunning dimensions, those around you become outsiders with no chance of participation or contribution. The experience is inherently asocial. “You can wait your turn.”
Even if the launch product is affordable, with compelling software, sexy hardware and not a single migraine reported, the Oculus Rift will always be a device that separates players from their peers, their surroundings, and potentially even from reality. Surrounded by friends, my best gaming moments involve red-spark-powerslide victories in Mario Kart 8 and miraculous, across-the-stage arrows in TowerFall. Even singleplayer epics like BioShock and Mass Effect are nearly as entertaining to watch as they are to play. But with the Oculus, the rift between casual and hardcore gamers will deepen.