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E3 gadgets offer a different view of reality, but will they become the next Wiimote?

By BRIAN BOWERS | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 22, 2015

Amid the flashy software showcased at the E3 Expo were a few pieces of hardware offering a different kind of reality.

Virtual reality headsets were highlighted at both the PlayStation and Xbox press events earlier this month in Los Angeles. In the future, Xbox One and Windows 10 gamers will be able to play using the Oculus Rift. And PlayStation gamers will have the Project Morpheus. In addition, several other companies also were showing off systems of lesser and greater complexity.

In most cases, VR headsets feature stereo-view goggles that track your head movements to determine what images to show you. You can spin 360 degrees and take in all of your surroundings. Most also are equipped with headphones or small speakers, which helps immerse you in the setting. All of this can get a bit clunky but does a good job of dropping you right into the game world. Most VR systems use some sort of a controller, but some can use gesture tracking as well.

Taking the immersion even further is the Virtualizer by Cyberith. This is basically a full-body VR setup. In addition to the headset, you strap yourself into a contraption that holds you upright while you walk, run and jump while wearing cloth booties that slide along a smooth platform. Sensors in the platform, waist ring and pillars of the device track your movement. Some of its games also included a gun simulator.  It looked pretty cool but definitely wouldn't fit in my living room.                       

In addition to a "traditional" VR set, the Xbox showcase offered a demonstration of Microsoft's HoloLens. This augmented reality device creates a holographic image that's visible to the person wearing the headset. It was demonstrated in conjunction with a special edition of "Minecraft." As the developer onstage manipulated his digital building blocks, his creations appeared to rise from the table in three dimensions. (A special video setup allowed the audience to see what the VR operator was experiencing.) The holographic play set was like something out of a "Star Wars" movie.

Other companies showed off more modest VR sets. One even had a headset that allowed you to place you smart phone into a mounting so you could play certain games in virtual reality.

Most of the VR games demonstrated at E3 looked pretty cool in short bursts. However, few looked like something that a gamer would want to spend hours playing. Many were reminiscent of the collections of mini-games that made up most Wii titles during that console's heyday.  Admittedly, most were "proof of concept" software that could lead to more impressive material down the road. But it does raise the question of what kind of game would be enjoyable for hours if you're wearing a clunky headset.

Judging from the glimpses offered at E3, it seems that the VR sets that are tied to major console manufacturers have the best chance of success. Personally, I had trouble learning to use a new handheld controller as well as a new visual interface. It's much easier to add a new component to a familiar controller. In addition, they often seemed more gimmicky.

It's hard to say whether VR will lead to a true revolution in gameplay or it is simply the latest fad gadget. The Wii was incredibly popular for a couple of years and people had big hopes for 3D television and Kinnect, but none proved to have the staying power of the traditional handheld controller.

bowers.brian@stripes.com

A visitor tries out the Virtualizer by Cyberith at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles earlier this month. The system combines a virtual reality headset and a pressure sensitive platform and support frame.
BRIAN BOWERS/STARS AND STRIPES

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