Why Virtual Reality Gaming Headsets Remain A Bad Idea

Why Virtual Reality Gaming Headsets Remain A Bad Idea

Anyone who subscribes to an online hi-tech gizmo newsfeed can’t have failed to notice a certain preoccupation in the past couple of years on the part of developers to bring viewers close to the action of TV, films and computer games through virtual reality. Every other day, it seems, we hear of yet another allegedly ground-breaking solution in the quest for “immersion”.

Picture: Janus Sandsgaard

The next person to claim to have invented a Star-Trek-like Holodeck is going to get a Vulcan neck pinch from me.

Frustratingly, this marketing hype actually seems to be working so well that virtually reality headsets, be they binocular, biocular, or monocular (such as Google’s Glass), have become a “must have” item. Even in traditionally sceptical and risk-averse sectors such as defence, aerospace, energy and education, they are fast becoming de rigeur in training exercises.

Many other technology observers, from swooning journalists to corporate futurologists — a good too many of whom appear to believe everything they read or see online — are also fuelling the rush to invest in a holodeck.

It seems inevitable that large investments will be made with little return, giving some of us a distinct sense of déjà vu.

Adjust headset to ‘history’ view

We were first exposed to the “wonders” of head-mounted displays in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, when we were told that they would revolutionise virtual reality and telepresence. Even then, head-mounted displays were by no means a new concept. A patent filed as long ago as 1960 described the Telesphere Mask, a stereoscopic “television apparatus for individual use” developed by the late, great Mort Heilig — best known for his later Sensorama “kiosk” with its canned stereoscopic films, artificially-generated smells and vibrating seat experience.

A year later, Philco, the US electronics company famous for providing NASA with its early Mission Control consoles, announced Headsight, a single cathode ray tube “telepresence” head-mounted display and in 1968, Ivan Sutherland’s Sword of Damocles, a ceiling-linked, mechanically head-tracked stereoscopic device, enabled users to look around a simple 3D graphic as if it were “floating” in the room in front of them.

But it wasn’t until the late 1980s that commercially available products such as VPL’s EyePhone, LEEP’s CyberFace, Virtual Research’s Flight Helmet and the unbelievably unwearable Virtuality Visette, with its patented “Ergolock” head restrainer, captured the attention of the press, thus heralding a decade of false promise, high expenditure and end user disappointment.

Big names like Nintendo, Olympus, Phillips and Sony all came, experimented and retreated, either disgruntled at the poor domestic market uptake or concerned about the possibility of litigations over so-called cybersickness.

Sony’s withdrawal of its early Glasstron product range came about, allegedly, as a result of health and safety worries yet it is heavily involved in this latest hypefest with the rather expensive HMZ “Personal Viewer” series and, more recently, the Morpheus for the PS4 games system.

I’ve used most of the devices produced since the 1980s and, indeed, have even been involved in the sale of many since the 1990s. Today, my own “Headset Hall of Shame” lecture now consists of four PowerPoint slides with thumbnail images of most (but certainly not all) HMD devices ever to reach existence.

Won’t somebody think of the humans?

And that’s why I think the cult status given to the latest generation of virtual reality headsets simply beggars belief. We’ve had more than decades of developments with no real breakthroughs made. And with the possible exception of the defence sector, there has been little evidence that the actual needs and limitations of the end user have been taken into consideration when these devices are being designed.

Since it took the world by storm by achieving a $2.4 million cash injection on Kickstarter, the Oculus Rift has become the leading example of how over-hyped marketing and inflated statements by celebrity gaming personalities can influence a generation of potential adopters. We managed to obtain three Rifts for student projects and academic research and it soon became obvious that we, too, had inherited cult status, simply by the gasps and stares that greeted their every appearance at open days. Yet, almost without exception (the exception being a very small handful of hard-line gamers), those who donned the Rift were either unwilling or unable to continue with its use after two minutes or, in many cases, far less.

The Rift is certainly more comfortable than its 1990s ancestors but its image resolution is still limited, it still blurs pixels and it still offers an inadequate field of view.

Users continue to report disorientation and eyestrain, making it hard to imagine how the device can possibly be recommended as an “essential” interface for gamers or anyone else.

In March of this year Oculus was acquired by Facebook for the staggering amount of $2 billion. Many of the people involved in the development of head-mounted devices believe this to be a step in the wrong direction for a variety of reasons — some moral, some technical — but the floodgates have been opened, whichever way you look at it. The frenetic race to beat Oculus at its own game, even with the features of its promised DK2 and consumer editions, is now on.

Technologies come and go but the human user remains the one constant factor. No matter how good the specifications become, it will be some time before a display technology is developed that satisfies the majority of the end user population and it may never happen at all.

Research (summarised in an MoD-sponsored human factors document) has shown that as many as 56% of individuals between the ages of 18 and 38 have one or more problems which can compromise their binocular vision. Individuals with stereoscopic or binocular vision defects cope by exploiting monocular depth and distance cues, such as motion parallax, light and shadows, focus, geometric overlap (interposition), aerial perspective, relative size and size/shape constancies. Even if it becomes possible to screen out users with binocular deficits, this may still not be sufficient to prevent usability and “cybersickness” problems with head-mounted displays.

One of the well-known human factors issues with 3D displays is the mismatch between visual accommodation and convergence. When observing a real-world scene, your eyes will both converge on objects in the scene and re-focus to keep the imagery sharply registered on the retinas as your view changes. But when viewing 3D virtual environments via a display, your eyes begin to behave asynchronously. They converge on the virtual object, but the focus remains more-or-less constant as a result of the fixed position of the plane of the screen (or, indeed, the structure onto which the screen is mounted).

This mismatch can rapidly promote visual fatigue, discomfort and disorientation — three of the key precursors to cybersickness.

The concepts of virtual reality and total immersion are, without doubt, as powerful today as they were when they first appeared in the late 1980s. Of that I have little doubt, and the interactive visualisation and training domains have much to benefit from the real-time interactive quality of today’s virutal reality software toolkits.

But meaningful content design really needs to happen before virtual reality headsets can come anywhere near meeting the high bar being set for them at the moment. Despite ridiculous claims to the contrary, we are sadly nowhere near the day when we can walk into the equivalent of Star Trek’s Holodeck and experience a truly multisensory computer-generated reality without having to endure the cumbersome, and often malaise-causing technologies we are being encouraged to buy today.The Conversation

Robert Stone is Chair in Interactive Multimedia Systems at University of Birmingham. He receives funding for human factors research and consultancy projects from UK Research Councils (EPSRC), the Ministry of Defence (Defence Science & Technology Laboratory) and corporate bodies including BAE Systems and QinetiQ.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


  • The Rift is certainly more comfortable than its 1990s ancestors but its image resolution is still limited, it still blurs pixels and it still offers an inadequate field of view.
    Something that’s been fixed in Devkit V2, and will be a lot better by the time it’s released to the public.
    This mismatch can rapidly promote visual fatigue, discomfort and disorientation — three of the key precursors to cybersickness.
    Something that’s also been improved in Devkit V2.
    The concepts of virtual reality and total immersion are, without doubt, as powerful today as they were when they first appeared in the late 1980s.
    Yeah, no. Nintendo’s was a red screen. This is way past that.

    Like it or not mate, VR is the way of the future. It’s going to revolutionise everything. The technology in the 80s wasn’t good enough. It is now. Deal with it.

    • Like it or not mate, VR is the way of the future.

      That’s a pretty bold statement, VR has a place in the future, yes, but it certainty is not the way of the future.

      As long as people have motion sickness VR will not have the massive uptake it needs to become “the way of the future” i think of it more like 3D movies (with the glasses) and games, it’s something that is there for people who want it, but it has not taken over 2D movies or made them obsolete nor will it.

      • As long as people have motion sickness VR will not have the massive uptake it needsA lot of the old issues people had with VR have been reduced in the DK2, and will potentially be gone completely in the consumer version. I have terrible motion sickness issues (on a 30 minute train trip to work I often have to get off part-way and recover before I can go the rest of the way), and I have had no issues whatsoever with the Oculus Rift DK2. I did have a little bit of vertigo on one of the simulated fair ride programs, but I would have gotten that on the real ride too.

    • Yep, DK2 is reportedly better – no I haven’t tried it out – but I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss Robert Stone’s view with a “Deal with it”.

      I too have seen a number of HMD’s over the last 2 decades, lots of $$’s spent on tech that lasts maybe 2-3 years if your lucky and never really gets a production ready status. It definitely get’s a “wow” for newcomers, but that’s about it before it makes it to the history book.

      Whilst OR might be overcoming some – not all – of the technical challenges, I still see the human eyesight problem and suitable content questions unanswered.

      A good comparison is 3D TV – how well has that penetrated day to day life? Maybe the occasional blu-ray movie?

      Perhaps the porn industry can make it mainstream, after all they have the content that can fit within the 2-3 minutes of system usability 🙂

    • Yeah I have to agree. Once the writer mentioned “resolution” I just zoned out thinking “Here we go, another early adopter thinking the alpha is representative of the final goal…”

      There are genuine problems with VR headsets right now, like how do you move in VR without requiring huge amounts of equipment or space? These kinds of problems are real and need real solutions. The lacklustre pixel count is a problem that will be fixed with 2K/4K displays. Heck, most scientists are saying that 8K per eye is all that is needed to fool it!

      Resolution is a problem that will easily solve it self over time, just wait if it is that much of a problem for you…

    • As someone who has been a developer for VR since the late 80s, I think a lot of this article is correct. Being immersed is both the attraction and the problem, and people hate wearing even lightweight glasses for any length of time.
      I will be very, very surprised if VR achieves mainstream penetration in the long term, I think it will end up like PC Steering wheels, PS Move or the Kinect as far as long term sales go.
      I think hardcore racing fans, flight sim/space shooter fans will get into it, and the tech will get better, but if you want it immersive it means lenses and wide screens and blocking out most of the light, so that results in something fairly instrusive on you face, even looking 10 years out.
      I got my DK2 last week, and whilst it is an improvement, it is still uncomfortable, the screen is still way to low a resolution and the FoV is actually less than the DK1.
      Even if all of those technical hurdles get, well, hurdled, it is still and experience that is WOW! in short bursts, but pales before too long, is difficult and costly to develop well for, and in an environment were games already cot too much to develop, and struggle to be profitable when you can sell to the entire gaming community, not just a HMD owning subset, I can’t see it being profitable as a games developer in the long term.

  • I double checked to make sure this was the official, lifehacker site. The reactions if this were posted on the US site instead of Au would have pages of entertaining discussion.

    I like that you toss in some nerd cred in the beginning with some random pop culture references (I’m actually not being sarcastic here), but then you quickly went down hill. The moment you mentioned the acquisition of Oculus being opposed by (totally unnamed and anonymous) people involved “in the development of head mounted devices” (holy vague, Batman) for not only technical but MORAL reasons, you completely lost me. I literally stopped and reread the sentence several times to make sure I wasn’t misreading it.

    Problems with just this one sentence are numerous. You don’t cite any specific people, articles, comments, nothing, for your incredibly broad and sweeping statement. And in the SAME SENTENCE, you bring up the acquisition being opposed by these nebulous people “in the industry” for moral reasons. What does this have to do with virtual reality being a bad or untenable idea? This seems like the kind of statement a person with a weak argument would make to add some filler, and to try to make their opinion seem more popular with others in the know.

    I’m not even arguing whether or not virtual reality has a future (it does). I’m pointing out that your argument seems.. flimsy. Not too well written. I believe in virtual reality and I could play devil’s advocate better than this. I highly recommend trying this article again. OR putting it on the US lifehacker or gizmodo sites. I would honestly enjoy the reactions and responses to that.

  • My views have been written as replies here already, basically that the author clearly hasn’t tried the DK2, and that they are close-minded enough to take the first “alpha” release of a product as an indication of the performance of the final.

    DK1: 800p split across both eyes, high persistence display and no positional head tracking
    DK2: 1080p split again, low/no persistence (OLED pixel switching, low persistence + time warping) and positional tracking
    CV1: Who knows! But certainly a product enough people seem willing to adopt that it’ll be commercially viable, the DK2 has ~50,000 orders, from people that accept it’s flaws, (if consumers) ignore Oculus’ warnings that they shouldn’t buy it AND are willing to wait 5+ months before the product arrives.

    The author’s major complaints seem to be fixed in DK2, people are spending 5 hours plus wearing the rift within GOOD experiences, like Elite: Dangerous (which itself isn’t released yet) without talk of eye strain etc etc.

    “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” — Thomas Watson, IBM, 1943

  • Don’t they need to figure out the controls for these things? Unless limited games, to sit down and say play a FPS on my pc. As familiar as I am with my keyboard and mouse, I will still need to be able to glance at it.

    Personally I think it won’t take off until someone invent one which isn’t taking up and blocking you’re entire field of field. Or even if it has a little camera and a defined field of view. So I can look up, side to side, but if I look down, I do get a live view of my hands and keyboard.

    As is, the only things I could see myself using them for, I don’t see how I could.

  • I’d like to see an enhanced version of the Google Glass: normal vision, but virtual data superimposed on your own HUD (Head Up Display). This allows eyes to focus at different lengths: real objects around you, or the virtual image.
    Set up a stage area, with distinctive marks on the walls, add cameras so the system can fine-tune your location, and you have the start of that holodeck. I’d go with IR (infrared) markers.

    It’s not “virtual”, it’s “augmented”.

    • I haven’t measured it, but it is less than the DK1, I can tell that when I try out both headsets one after the other. It feels like around 10 degrees less.

      I think Oculus should be working on creating input standards, without controllers and a standard for them, VR will get nowhere.
      A good example is the Omni, very cool, but already doesn’t work with the DK2 as it requires a fixed camera on the desk to work properly.
      It is a bit of a wild west on the input front, some standard would really help here, but there is a bit of a chicken and egg situation going on.

Log in to comment on this story!