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Why Oculus Rift and the latest attempts at virtual reality are bound to fail

Despite the soaring plaudits from professional technophiles, despite the growing support from the video game industry, the latest run at mainstreaming wearable virtual reality is doomed to be a commercial failure.

Yes, the Oculus Rift has reignited an interest in virtual reality goggles not seen in decades. And yes, the company behind the technology was purchased by Facebook for billions.

But ultimately the thing that the Oculus Rift delivers to users doesn't yet overcome the inherent inconvenience and cost of using it. And it still isn't the virtual reality millions brought up watching the likes of Star Trek and reading books like Snow Crash or Ready Player One, would expect from the technology.

The Oculus Rift is a black headset that straps onto a user's face like a set of oversized, opaque ski goggles and then plugs into a computer. Inside the headset, an OLED display and twin lenses show nearly matching images to your eyes, tricking your brain into thinking it is perceiving not a flat image, but reality. The latest version, Crescent Bay, amped up the resolution, lowered the weight, added built-in audio and the ability to track 360-degree head movement.

It is the closest thing yet to a consumer-bound product that can deliver what virtual reality experts call presence.

Oculus VR chief scientist Michael Abrash, a virtual reality expert working on perfecting the tech at Valve Software at the time, delivered a seminal speech on the topic in January, saying that compelling consumer-priced VR hardware is probably coming within two years.

"Presence," he said at the time, "is an incredibly powerful sensation, and it's unique to VR; there's no way to create it in any other medium.

"Most people find it to be kind of magical."

Presence is essentially the sensation of being there, in the game, on the edge of a cliff, rising alongside Game of Thrones' mighty Wall, even when you're not. The Oculus Rift creates the same sense of presence you might get from a remembered dream: a detached feeling of being there, but still not being able to move, at least not in the ways you would in reality.

So when I first strapped on an earlier build of the Oculus Rift in Germany last year I was suddenly sitting in a movie theater, an experience so real that I almost fell out of my chair when I went to lean on the nonexistent armrest.

It is indeed a powerful experience and the Oculus Rift looks to have nearly mastered it.

There's no arguing that the work Oculus VR has done on presence is an important step. Once ready for consumers, the headset could be one of the most important technological leaps to date in the field of immersive virtual reality. But it's not the end game, it's merely a move toward solving one of many significant problems facing the creation of true virtual reality.

Where the Oculus Rift could eventually deliver an experience that satisfies one of our senses, it does nothing for the others, nor does it deal with the very real problem of movement in a virtual world.

Ignoring the plethora of relatively smaller issues, like ridding the unit of a cable that needs to be plugged into the PC or perfecting a system that reduces motion sickness for all players, there are also these massive issues to be solved like how you deal with tactile feedback and how you allow users to move without breaking the experience.

Movement already has some options, but the best I've seen today involves purchasing what amounts to a circular treadmill and standing in the middle of it with tethers latched to your waist to protect you from accidental falls.

This isn't to say that what Oculus Rift is doing and hopes to do isn't worthwhile, but the buzz surrounding it and the expectations it is creating, especially among those not as technologically adept as the legions of fans the system has, are unrealistic.

When the system is launched it won't be able to deliver the sort of holodeck experience the most mainstream of users might expect.

Instead it appears to be more akin to the push the television industry made for 3D TVs just three or four years ago. As with Oculus Rift, tech sites enthused about the immersion of 3D televisions — CNET called it the future of TV — 3D TV channels starting popping up on cable, and it seemed as if we were all bound for a three-dimensional future. But then within a year or two the popularity peaked and demand dropped off a cliff.

Virtual reality seems to share some of 3D's potential issues. As with 3D, there hasn't really been a demand for virtual reality technology beyond hardcore tech lovers and early adopters. As with 3D, virtual reality can make people feel physically uncomfortable. And as with the television industry's push for 3D, virtual reality has its own champion in the computer gaming industry, which could benefit from a surge in PC hardware sales.

I'm not saying that virtual reality and the Oculus Rift are for computers what 3D was for televisions, but the over-amplified buzz certainly feels the same.

And I'm not the only one down on the possibility of Oculus Rift becoming a mainstream hit.

Michael Pachter, Wedbush Securities' managing director of equity research, is also skeptical of the tech taking off now, at least without more major investment from owner Facebook.

"I don't think VR can become a mainstream hit without software, and the incentive for developers to take development risk is really low without visibility into a large installed base," he said. "The acquisition of Oculus by Facebook might give developers more comfort, but direct subsidies from Facebook are likely required before any major developer commences on a VR project, similar to the guarantee provided for a console exclusive, but more expensive.  Developers can't risk $50 million or higher investments without some comfort that they will get payback, and without visibility into a 5 million or higher installed base of headsets, most developers will pass up the opportunity to develop VR software."

Pachter points to both Valve, which while vocally interested in the tech, still seems to be skeptical enough not to drive the push directly for consumer virtual reality headgear, and to Sony, which while playing with their own design for a headset, still refuses to confirm it will ever be released.

For Oculus Rift to be a success, Pachter says, Facebook will have to step up and invest a lot of money in the hardware business. Something he thinks Facebook is committed to doing.

"Yes, I do think Facebook is committed and yes, I do think they will spend what it takes to build a business."

But I believe even if Facebook does step up with massive investments in their purchase, what will be delivered to consumers will be more an oddity than something ultimately as ubiquitous as the smartphone or the tablet.

For this to work it has to do what all great mass appeal tech devices have done in the past: Deliver a benefit that outweighs the inconvenience of its use and prove that benefit is unique.

Right now, that's not the case. But check back in a decade.

Good Game is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Brian Crecente is a founding News Editor of Polygon.

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