Every new technology has cycles of hype and disappointment before it eventually enters the mainstream. Thanks to the Oculus Rift and “Pokémon Go“, there is no doubt that both VR and AR are currently firmly in the grip of a hype phase. Recently, however, there are have been signs that we may be edging towards a bust: sales of mobile VR headsets have been disappointing, and key AR products appear to have overpromised. So where do we really stand with these two technologies, and are either of them the future of mobile gaming?
Certainly, the potential of both technologies justifies the hype. The promise of VR is nothing less than full immersion in alternate game worlds. We can imagine a future in which we enter VR, and all our senses are transported to a fictional universe to battle a dragon or compete with friends’ avatars in gravity-defying ball games. With AR, the future vision is one in which digital objects blend seamlessly with the real world. We can expect ghosts to invade our homes, games where we take the role of detective in our own neighborhood or 3-D chess matches in our living room against a friend in another country.
From a mobile perspective, the first thing to notice about the VR vision of the future is that VR, in its final form, is not really a mobile technology. If all your senses are immersed in an alternate world, the last thing you should be doing is wandering around the real one.
VR is currently available as a mobile technology mainly because modern phones contain three components that VR requires: a high-resolution screen, motion tracking and a powerful computing device. By leveraging these, platforms like Google Cardboard need to be little more than a frame to hold the phone in place. Rather than selling consumers an $800 device like the Oculus Rift, which also requires a powerful computer that few own, you can sell them a $100 device like the Samsung Gear VR, which only needs one of several popular phones to operate (lately, Samsung is truly making their phones multifunctional, adding a Dex Station to their Galaxy S8 that mimics the desktop workstation).
AR, on the other hand, even in its most futuristic form, is mobile-native. Its entire premise is based on moving around and interacting with the real world. In the long term, AR is the future of mobile, while VR is more the future of consoles.
That’s the future, but what’s the reality right now? In terms of hardware, VR is more mature than AR. In the mobile space, we’ve had several editions of Gear VR, and Google recently released Daydream, its second-generation VR platform. But the technology is still a long way from full immersion. You are able to move your head to look around an environment and also interact in a limited way, often through a single button, but not much more. The headsets can get uncomfortable quickly, and side effects range from headaches to actual vomiting. In addition, although the mobile headsets are relatively inexpensive, the phones they require are still high-end, costing many hundreds of dollars. It’s not hard to speculate on why sales of VR headsets are falling below expectations.
On the other hand, AR doesn’t really have any specialist hardware available to consumers. The closest to market is Microsoft’s HoloLens, which is currently available to developers for just over $4,000. Its demonstration videos seem to show the future of AR has arrived, but the reality, though still impressive, is that there is still a way to go, most significantly in relation to the field of view, which is limited to a letterbox in the center of your vision.
In a sense, however, the most compelling element of AR’s hardware is and will always be the real world. Even without the next generation of AR devices, the best current AR games, like “Zombies Run!” and “Pokémon Go,” create absorbing experiences by motivating the player to explore their environment and compete with other real players.
However, look more closely at the creative state of mobile AR games, and current hardware limitations are exposed. “Pokémon Go”, although wildly successful, is just the latest iteration of a number of very similar games, from “Shadow Cities” to “Ingress”, stretching back almost seven years. Increasingly, new AR ideas seem few and far between, and AR elements often appear added to a game just because it’s the latest must-have. Games such as “Night Terrors,” which try to push the technology closer towards a vision of the future, fall victim to technological limitations.
In comparison, VR feels more like a technology where the hardware is mature enough for game-makers to genuinely start exploring an exciting new space. “A Chair in a Room” and “Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes” use VR as an integrated part of their creative concept, and, in general, there are more and more VR games that leave you with a feeling of excitement for the future of VR as a whole.
The promise of both VR and AR is so compelling that it’s hard to keep expectations in line with reality. In its current state, AR hardware is limited and is leading to something of a creative stagnation in mobile AR games. Meanwhile, VR hardware has reached a level of maturity that offers genuine new creative possibilities to game makers, though it also still has issues. VR, however, in its final form, removes the player from the real world, making it a difficult fit for mobile games, while AR enhances the real world and will certainly contribute to the future of mobile gaming.