E3 expo highlights virtual reality’s never-ending challenge: to get real

Todd Stoudnor tries his hand at a virtual reality game at E3, the nation’s largest video game convention. It wraps up Thursday at the Los Angeles Convention Center.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

When Elizabeth Ching took off her headset, she was panting.

She had just finished playing a new virtual reality boxing game called “Creed: Rise to Glory” at E3, the nation’s biggest video game convention, and she’d knocked her computer opponent out cold. With the exception of a few boxing classes she’d taken, this was the closest Ching had come to fighting in a boxing match.

“It seemed almost real,” she said with a laugh as she tried to catch her breath. “The sounds were impactful, and my punches seemed like they landed properly.”

Beyond the new game announcements and software improvements, if there’s anything that this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo confirmed, it’s that virtual reality in the $116-billion worldwide gaming industry is here to stay. The platform is in its infancy — it’s been available for sale to the masses only for about two years — but it’s continuing to take giant steps.


With showings from VR makers such as Facebook’s Oculus and Sony’s Playstation VR, developers are banking on VR’s growth. Sony alone showcased 14 games for its VR device at the conference, which wraps up Thursday at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

An E3 convention visitor plays a virtual reality game from Bethesda Game Studios.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times )

But developers and analysts acknowledge that VR gaming has a challenge: As developers experiment, their ambitions move faster than the technology.

“In VR, you’re basically coming up with everything from scratch, everything’s brand new,” said Michael Hampden, lead game-play designer for the upcoming Playstation VR shooter “Blood & Truth.”

“Obviously there’s a lot of challenges around making sure the experience is comfortable,” he said. “We’ve got our work cut out for us, but it’s been an opportunity so far.”

Lewis Ward, a video game analyst at market intelligence firm IDC, said VR headsets haven’t met sales predictions so far, but as the experience improves, sales will go up.


“There’ve been several million of those headsets sold globally, which is probably not what people expected,” Ward said. “Overall, it’s a steady slow burn toward sales rather than an immediate pickup.”

Things like moving and traversing, we can now reinvent for VR.

— James Oates, “Blood & Truth” senior producer

Development is getting faster, Ward said.

“We’re at the beginning stages of a long-term investment in VR. The technology is finally at a place where you can deliver a pretty solid experience at an affordable price point,” he said. “What needs to happen moving forward is taking time to figure out how to take advantage of the capabilities of VR and see what it can do.”

Incorporating VR into a game affects everything: the way players interact with the game, visuals, storytelling and more. What worked when developing flat-screen games may not always work for VR games, some developers said.

Aside from the 360-degree view, playing in virtual reality is an attempt to bring the player as close to the real feeling as possible.

Looking around requires actual head movements rather than the flick of a joystick, and in the case of “Blood & Truth” holstering a pistol calls for moving your hand toward your waist rather than simply pressing the X button; reloading a gun makes you reach for your ammo on your chest before placing new rounds in the weapon.


Because players are more physically immersed in a game than ever before, these smaller motions represent a fresh opportunity, “Blood & Truth” senior producer James Oates said.

“Things like moving and traversing, we can now reinvent for VR,” Oates said.

“What we found is that people like the action and the VR is amazing, but some of those drama scenes where you’re one on one with a character makes the ‘cut scene’ — something you may want to skip in a traditional game — so much more immersive,” Oates said.

With many VR games designed as a more immersive first-person experience, Hampden said developers have to get creative with storytelling.

“One of the main challenges is that we can’t control where you look,” Hampden said.

“Imagine if you’re making a film and everyone in the audience had their own camera and can point it wherever they wanted during the film. It’s the same kind of challenge we’ve got, so we’ve got to find ways to draw attention and draw your eye,” he said.

Jason Rubin, vice president of content at Oculus, said that as VR gaming grows, new issues arise both in the technology and in game development.


“VR has this new problem that really no one has solved,” namely how interactive to make a game, he said. “We’re going to run out of excuses for tackling the issue of ... ‘how come I can’t interact with the characters around me, and even if I can, why don’t my actions affect the story?’”

The technology still has pitfalls.

For instance, playing VR games for extended periods is still nausea-inducing for many users. Fixing that is one of the industry’s top priorities, Rubin said.

Developers and analysts concede that VR is far from perfect, but the technology is young and the room for growth is massive.

“VR is only 2 years old,” Rubin said. “It’s going to take a long time for us to get to the point where we have a language that makes sense.”

Twitter: @MillmanEthan