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Virtual reality's biggest challenge? Not even the developers can sell you on it

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Explaining VR is impossible, you have to try it for yourself

Valve and HTC recently showed a collection of games coming to the Vive virtual reality platform to the press, and the platform has an impressive collection of games on the way.

The press and developers gathered near the end of the event to talk about their enthusiasm for the hardware, and even people who seemed skeptical at the beginning of the event were impressed by what they had played.

Reading my own coverage of the event, however, I asked myself how many of these games would interest me had I not played them myself. The regrettable answer? Not many. It's hard to explain why playing mini-golf in virtual reality is so much fun without actually doing so. Many of these games are based on simple ideas that become magical when paired with the Vive, but it's tricky to explain that to people who have yet to try any modern virtual reality, much less the Vive itself.

"You sound like a crazy person when you try to explain VR to someone who has never tried it," Job Simulator developer Alex Schwartz explained. "I used to say it's like strapping the Narnia closet to your face."

"When I explain Tilt Brush to people I use my hands a lot and I say you are using the controller and you’re painting like this across the sky," Google's Patrick Hackett told me, gesturing expansive over his head. I had asked him to try to sell my readers on both the Tilt Brush painting program and the Vive itself. He was skeptical he could do so.

"They say OK, but I tell them no, it exists and you can walk around it, and occasionally people are like 'Wow, that’s neat,' but it still takes using it," he continued. People are naturally skeptical when you try to describe the act of drawing in the air using a virtual reality platform before walking around your creation. "You just have to try it," he repeated.

Joel Green is the producer and audio director The Gallery, a virtual reality adventure game. He said it would have been impossible to make the game without virtual reality. The ability to physically get lost inside the environments and directly interact with the objects in the world isn't a bonus, it's the entire point of the experience.

"We could have made some kind of version of it, for sure," he said. "But in terms of what’s in the heart of the game, the idea of letting the player have an adventure in another world in a way they’ve never been able to do before, and really be in another place? That part couldn’t be done with a screen."

It's not about solving puzzles, although that's a part of it. It's about the act of literally going somewhere else. "We want people to come home, get the headset, and go to another world," he explained. "That’s what we’re trying to give them."

But that's hard to sell via text or even video, and that's a major problem with technology that's going require a high-end PC and a significant amount of space, and that's before you factor in the cost of the Vive itself. So how do you sell someone on taking the jump?

Almost every developer I spoke to was honest about the fact you can't. "I think most people are going to get into it by seeing other people playing it, and seeing them enjoy it, so I think that’s the way to go," Joachim Holmér, founder of Budget Cuts developer Neat Corporation told Polygon. "It’s very hard to just convince someone by words how it works. That would be my suggestion, get people to find friends who have VR and try it out."

You sound like a crazy person when you try to explain VR to someone who has never tried it

That act of inviting people over to try VR if you buy the hardware is something many developers are including, and social VR is already taking off in the development community and among those with dev kits.

"I focused on how to play with multiple people in the room," Dylan Fitterer, developer of Audio Surf and Audio Shield, said. "I picture people buying this and showing their friends so you want to have a party mode or a hot seat way to enable party competitions." But trying to explain the experience has proven impossible for him.

"It’s one of the really difficult things right now," he said. "And the best way is, of course, to try it. So hopefully you can find somewhere to go ahead and play it."

No one has a good answer for how more people are going to try the technology, outside of the early adopters inviting friends and family over for demos and gaming. Until that happens, however? Convincing people who have yet to try the technology that it's as good as it is remains an impossible challenge.