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The Age of Encumbrance: Project Morpheus, VR and Wearables
by Andreas Walther on 03/19/14 06:48:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


On March 18th, Sony introduced their VR answer to the Oculus Rift. They have tentatively called it Project Morpheus, as it is only a prototype. In the announcement on the PlayStation blog, Shu Yoshida called virtual reality “the future of games”. Personally speaking, I have some concerns with this possible future. Do hear me out.

I am troubled by the notion of VR becoming the way of games. Perhaps this makes me into a reactionary, or a mere feeble opponents to progress. Especially, because the experience as such seems to be a fascinating and involving one. Adam Sessler speaks highly of VRPolygon's Michael McWhertor describes VR as "an astounding experience"

Rest assured, I do not doubt two things: First, VR is a fascinating and involving experience, I’m sure. Second, I do not expect VR to replace the conventional way of gaming (in front of a screen, with a controller in hand), in the short term.

In the long term, a more expanded vision of VR will almost certainly become the way we play videogames.

For the time being, stuff like the Oculus Rift, Project Morpheus, or Google Glass - and to a lesser extent, wearables like the Pebble watch - make me think that we may be entering an age of encumbrance

Technology - judging by the current trends - will come to encumber us physically and psychologically.

Like 3D glasses, Google Glass, the VR headset or the Pebble watch, are a physical encumbrance. They make technology a part of your physical body in an inextricable, encumbering way. The VR headset especially represents an extreme example as it covers your head and eyes. Which leads me to the psychological encumbrance:

In the case of VR, we will literally be buried within the screen. VR effects a separation from the outside environment and succeeds in digitizing almost the entire experience. Virtual Reality envelops our experience like a digital feedbag. Gaming already is a solitary, isolated activity. VR will turn videogames into masturbatory exercises in solipsism. Not that that cannot be fun, but is it the way we want to interact with art?

I know that my iPhone has long turned me into a cyborg. It is my diary, my social portal, my knowledge base. Yet its physicality is about as close as I want to get to my technology.

VR is something else entirely. Do we want to bury ourselves inside our screens? Do we want our experiences to become solipsisms? 

To some degree, VR will teach us what it really means to be alone, and I am troubled by that.

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Sean Lumly
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"Do we want to bury ourselves inside our screens?"

Short answer, yes. While I do believe that any technology if abused -- be it the iPhone, the web, facebook, the paper-bound novel, etc -- poses a threat to our social identity, physical or mental health, we shouldn't avoid them based solely on a grim prophecy. A better tactic would be to wait-and-see rather than giving into our insecurities.

I do feel that VR as a medium will yield a far deeper connection with art and actually may increase the likelihood of engaging in social acts with a much larger group, and in a much larger variety of activities.

Andreas Walther
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That's a very valid point. And I'm interested in the future of VR as well. Once it has surpassed forcing audiences to literally strap a screen to their heads.

Sean Lumly
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I also agree with your general point: I can see VR being horribly abused. The media will no doubt focus on cases of individuals found dead with headsets strapped to their heads. But it will be important to tease the truth from the anecdote, to determine if it really is a generally harmful medium.

Oh, and yes! It would be neat to have a holodeck like experience without requiring a headset. This technology already exists (eg. CAVE paired with an omni-directional treadmill) but is too expensive to be practical at the moment. But we're definitely headed in that direction and perhaps it could be an option for more adventurous (and wealthy) enthusiasts!

Shannon Rowe
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I think it's important to avoid focusing too much on just external perceptions of VR - e.g. seeing it from the outside as a set of encumbering, dorky-looking peripherals weighing people down and taking them away from "what matters" in the real world. That sort of judgmental perspective will no doubt generate lots of FUD and controversy as VR enters the mainstream. But we've seen that time and again: with the advent of every new technology - from TV to phones to games - there'll always be a vocal group of concerned parents and politicians ranting about how it's no good for the children.

Instead, and quite uniquely, VR is very much an internal experience. When you're in there, experiencing that world, yes it is a solitary thing (although as the field grows, no doubt we will get plenty of Metaverse-style social VR options) and the external world will drop away to be replaced with internal wonders. I don't see that as a problem. No doubt there will be extreme cases of VR addicts becoming shut-ins and generating media headlines. But you could make the same point about TV addicts, guys in Asia playing Starcraft for days straight until they drop dead, and the prevalence of thumb arthritis in phone users. The majority of VR gamers will spend some of their time in fantasy worlds, but then they'll take off the headsets and get back to real life. And that makes it a good thing, another evolution for society, not the end of it.

Nathan Fouts
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I guess because we generally perceive more of the world through our eyes than our ears this is different.. but is there anything to learn from headphones, covering the ears completely and filling them with artificial sounds?

Jeff Wimbush
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I agree some new devices are more physically encumbering, but I think the experience is worth the encumbrance that comes with it.

For example, I recently bought a TrackIR Pro. I had debated the purchase for a while, because I was worried that it would be too restricting. It includes some wired LEDs that attach to your existing headphones (which kind of negates the benefit of having wireless headphones) and I assumed I would have to sit still to make the head tracking work properly.

But the wire is not a real problem and there’s a hotkey to re-calibrate the head tracking (so if you move around or want to change the way you’re sitting, all you have to do is get comfortable and then hit one key) So this device does add some physical restrictions, but I think it’s worth it.

As for the psychological encumbrance, I love playing local multiplayer games with friends. Even when it’s a single-player game, it can be fun to watch, take turns and collaborate. So the idea of isolating myself with a VR headset doesn’t sound appealing.

But what the term “digital feedbag” really reminds me of is the Nintendo Virtual boy. Playing Virtual Boy was very isolating because there was no way for a spectator to watch the game on a monitor. It was strictly a single-player experience. But devices like Oculus Rift allow simultaneous display on your existing monitor, so at least other people in the room can still see the game.

I look forward to the day VR headsets will be as common as controllers and there will be no need for split-screen multiplayer, or for solutions like this: