This was always going to be the year of the 3D headset. It seems that the fully immersive virtual experience is finally coming of age, and those wishing to be first in the queue are already in the process of pre-ordering their precious new kit.
I am not amongst that number. To begin with, the cost is prohibitive – I can neither afford, nor justify the expense. However, even if these things get to be as cheap as chips, they’re simply not high enough on my wish list to merit real consideration at the moment.
Maybe if I was into gaming, I’d think differently, and that’s where I think the real 3D VR market lies – high speed, action-filled, hyper-realistic games. And, in every respect, not one of those descriptions really applies to SL.
Try this little experiment: Pay a visit to a typical and popular sim – one with a few people scattered about. Turn on the mini-map and ‘look at’ targets… Now, observe for a while. I’d happily bet that very little changes over the course of your visit – avatars will tend to remain fairly static or, if they do move, will take their time and cover only a small area; similarly their attention will be caught by relatively few points of interest, and apart from the occasional glance at particular items, there won’t be much in the way of wandering eyes. This is typically how avatars experience SL: slowly, and deliberately.
Compare this with the typical sort of game experience likely to draw the attention of 3D gogglers… Fast-paced, first person perspective scenarios, involving rapidly evolving interactions across a quickly shifting field of view. Here is the domain of high frame rates, live action head mounted displays, verbal communication, and action-packed movement – an environment perfectly suited to 3D headsets and a world away from the average users’ needs in SL. Headsets are designed to be highly responsive to rapid head and eye movement, such as those required for dodging bullets and annihilating enemy snipers in first-person shoot-em-ups; they are designed to enable the user to vicariously experience the thrill of car chases, crashes and sweeping powerslides around your favourite rally stages… What they are not designed for is clothes’ shopping at your favourite SL stores, inworld camp fire chats with virtual friends, or dancing the night away to the local music scene. If anything, complete virtual immersion in such scenarios could be horribly disorientating, headache inducing and even bad for the health, if not downright dangerous.
The last thing that your average SL user wants is a severe case of whiplash as a result of turning their head to greet a friend arriving at the club; neither do they want to suffer the nausea of sea-sickness, as the screen bobs up and down in time to them nodding their head to the beat of the music, and they certainly don’t want to be fumbling for the glass of wine that they know is somewhere next to their keyboard, but can no longer see! I’m also pretty sure that few people are going to want to remain stock-still in their seats, just so they can make sense of the chat scrolling up their screen, or to make out exactly how much that must-have pair of boots is priced. Throw in the unrealistic frame rates that VR headsets will demand of SL, and I think it’s safe to say that the reality is that SL residents are not the primary market for the new technology.
That isn’t to say that immersion won’t work inworld in some specific scenarios. Used to explore a well-crafted roleplay sim or art installation, I think that headsets will offer an unparalleled virtual experience, but in everyday interactions, where badly proportioned avatars populate badly proportioned builds, on laggy, congested sims, the benefits are rather dubious.
3D is great, so is immersion, but for either to work well it must complement the means by which it is experienced, not jar with it. In real terms, this means designed from the bottom-up with such a purpose in mind, and whilst we should applaud developers for creating ways and means by which SL users can experience the new revolution, we should bear in mind that that is not how our virtual world was meant to be and, in consequence, it will never quite work in the way that we would wish when we try it.
I will, of course, avail myself of a headset at some point in the future, but even then, I doubt I’ll be using it much for SL.