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Why virtual reality is better than augmented reality for gaming

Hayden Dingman | Jan. 23, 2015
Microsoft's HoloLens Minecraft demo got people excited for augmented reality games, but that might be premature. 'Specific games under specific circumstances' is the unmentioned asterisk.

microsoft hololens rgb

Let's get this out of the way: I have not tried out Microsoft's new augmented reality HoloLens device yet. That means it's extremely dangerous for me to write this article. There's a chance I come to regret all the words I'm about to write--that in twenty or thirty years some poor child with HoloLens eyes looks up at me from the ashes of the apocalypse and says, "Old man, what's the dumbest article you ever wrote?" And I'll say, "The time I wrote that HoloLens (and augmented reality in general) is not great for gaming."

Regardless, I feel very comfortable saying that augmented reality is not great for gaming. And I don't even think this would even be a conversation, except Microsoft had to go and show off its new AR-powered HoloLens running an adapted version of Minecraft, dragging this pesky subject into the spotlight

microsoft windows holographic 3d minecraft
IMAGE: SUSIE OCHS. Here's Microsoft's mocked-up version of what the Minecraft demo is like for users.

I'm not against augmented reality in general. In fact, I was one of the few people who really wanted to see Google keep working on Glass, not because I thought the original hardware was great but because I wanted to see what twenty years of iteration could accomplish. Some of the demos Microsoft used with HoloLens--rewiring a light switch, working on 3D models--sound great. Others--walking on Mars--sound like they'd be about equally good in augmented reality as virtual reality.

Gaming? That's where it breaks. 

AR versus VR
While I haven't used HoloLens yet, I have used two other AR headsets--CastAR and The Cortex--which are presumably close in execution, if not actual hardware and performance, to HoloLens.

Every augmented reality game I've played has been generic and lame, once the initial "Holy Expletives!" shock wears off. Why? Because they need to be. It's how augmented reality works.

microsoft hololens family room rgb
Another "recreation" of that Minecraft demo.

In virtual reality, developers create and control the entire environment. It's basically a video game, right? You're constructing a virtual world for someone to inhabit, meaning you can--for instance--tell him or her a story by precisely placing various trigger events, controlling lighting, controlling characters, et cetera. Players navigate this virtual world via some sort of input, but sit or stand in a single place in the physical world. 

Let's run through a simple scenario. You're a soldier and you have to make it across a paramilitary island base to rescue your daughter from a dude who looks like he's wearing chainmail. (Yes, this scenario is the Commando video game I've always dreamed of.) As a developer, I can not only create this entire island paradise exactly to my specifications but also make sure that, for instance, as you run past this one set of houses it will always explode. Or that there will always be a final confrontation with a boss enemy in a steam room I built, and you know this just as surely as you know that Mario will always encounter a mushroom and a Goomba at the start of World 1-1.


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