My first exposure to virtual reality came courtesy of an aggressively mediocre Disney movie.
In the 1996 film "First Kid," a Secret Service agent played by Sinbad tracks his ward — the president's son, who has run away from home to rendezvous with a stranger he met online — to the Tysons Corner shopping mall outside of Washington, D.C. The First Kid pays $10 to hop into a real VR device called "Virtuality," which looks not dissimilar to the present-day Virtuix Omni.
He dons the world's ugliest headset to play a first-person shooter game called Dactyl Nightmare. The game looks awful even by mid-'90s standards, a time capsule of that decade's failure to commercialize VR, and is mainly there to add tension to the fact that the First Kid is being stalked by a kidnapper, Timothy Busfield in a creepy mustache.
But here's the thing: That one cheesy scene is practically the only thing I retained from the movie, as I realized when starting this article. Much as "The Lawnmower Man" did for moviegoers a little older than I, "First Kid" buried the idea of easily accessible VR games in my memory: "Wouldn't it be cool if…?"
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Now we're in another VR hype cycle, and headsets like the Oculus Rift are nearing ready-for-consumer models. One of the biggest problems with Oculus' most recent prototype, dubbed Crescent Bay, is a logistical one: The company has figured out how to make users feel like they are walking in a virtual space — some Oculus Connect attendees said they cried after their demo — but the impressive technology still requires a space to walk in, and a hefty cable connecting the headset to a powerful computer.
Although the business model of the videogame arcade followed '90s VR into death, a return of the arcade could fix that logistical problem. Just as the Virtuality attendant ushers the First Kid into the machine, businesses eager to capitalize on consumer curiosity about VR could entrust that person to safely guide users into and out of VR; for what it's worth, every one of the more than 20 demos I've done of the Oculus Rift has been guided by an attendant.
The arcade idea comes with its own share of problems, however.
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In a recent interview with Re/code, Atari founder Nolan Bushnell said Oculus' improvements over past VR technology means "previous failed attempts can now be a reality." But he said he's "a little nervous" about the arcade idea.
"Public spaces need to maintain very sanitary conditions," Bushnell said. "We're used to our hands being dirty, and wash them, [so] people don't get sick from joysticks. But what about lice on the headset? I'm very skeptical of that, without tremendous resources centered around making sure everything is sanitary."
VRcade founder Jamie Kelly said his company has never received a report of any rash or infection while testing its (custom, non-Oculus) headset on "thousands" of people. But he acknowledged that it had to create a removable sweat-blocking liner for comfort reasons.
"When you hand it to someone and it's wet with sweat, that's a problem," Kelly said. Without preventative measures, he added, someone would need to wipe it down after each use, and making the headset wet with cleaning products is no more comfortable.
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As with any new technology, there are also going to be questions about the health effects of VR — particularly on the traditional audience for videogame arcades, children.
Here's what Oculus has to say about the issue in its latest Best Practices Guide for developers:
This product should not be used by children under the age of 13. Adults should monitor children (age 13 and older) who are using or have used the Headset for any of the symptoms described below, and should limit the time children spend using the Headset and ensure they take breaks during use. Prolonged use should be avoided, as this could negatively impact hand-eye coordination, balance, and multi-tasking ability. Adults should monitor children closely during and after use of the headset for any decrease in these abilities.
That warning previously said the Oculus was only for children above the age of seven. Kelly said "there's not enough conclusive evidence that says that 3-D images are harmful to the development of kids," but that there's "plenty of research to be done."
At a talk at the Game Developers Conference in March 2013, Oculus co-founder Palmer Luckey explained in detail why there are, in fact, some real concerns that too-early exposure to the Rift could "potentially screw up" a young child's vision.
"IPD is your Inter-Pupillary Distance," Luckey said. "People on either far end of the [IPD] scale, they'll often have problems with stereo content, because it's so out of whack with how they see the world. … A six-year-old child isn't fully developed. Their eyes are pretty close together. They have a pretty narrow IPD. Putting them in a Rift isn't a good idea because the lenses are so far off-axis from where a six-year-old's eyes are gonna be, that software isn't going to be able to fully compensate."
However, he also said a fix that makes the Rift usable for young children is possible.
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"In theory, going into the future, we want to have a far more adjustable IPD, where you can actually adjust the optics to match a person and be able to report it in software," Luckey said. "That way, in the game, it can say, "This is where their eyes are. This is where the lenses are. And this is where the image in the game needs to be. You can render those in-game cameras to perfectly match their eyes."
At the time of this writing, the version of the headset currently in developers' hands does not have adjustable IPD.
There has been one mainstream test of the VR arcade idea already — sort of.
Earlier this summer, Chuck E Cheese announced it would put an Oculus Rift game, the Virtual Ticket Blaster, in 29 locations. Shortly thereafter, though, the machines were pulled, which according to one gaming blog was "because of the possibility of seizures or epileptic fits."
However, Chuck E Cheese Communication Director Michelle Chism said health concerns were not a factor.
"We ran a test in select markets and the test concluded. That's it," Chism said. "We're still looking forward to working with Oculus in the future."
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Sources tell Re/code that, in fact, Chuck E Cheese backed off of the Virtual Ticket Blaster under pressure from Oculus, since the headsets being used were only development kits and not designed for public use, much less business use. No consumer version of the Oculus Rift has yet been released, though a wireless mobile VR headset, the Samsung Gear VR, is slated for consumer launch this year.
In any case, VR headset makers will no doubt be on notice as the technology makes its way onto more and more consumers' heads until they can fully recommend their devices for a broader age range. The funny thing is, even though it looked primitive, we're still a ways off from the day when jumping into VR is as convenient and reliable as the VR arcade in "First Kid."
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