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The future of gaming is full of VR, nostalgia, and potential

By Evan Wade / September 25, 2014

The future of gaming is full of VR, nostalgia, and potential

For a long time, gaming was kind of a barometer of where the rest of the tech world was going. Consoles and peripheral hardware would bring high-end hardware into the home as cheaply and efficiently as possible, and the rest of the tech world would start playing the catch-up game. That trend wasn’t always the case–some gadgets, like Sega’s ill-fated VMU, never really found other real-world use cases–but the industry moved in that direction often enough to give gaming as a whole some serious heft in the tech world.

Those days are gone now, mostly taken over by the mass proliferation of smart devices, but make no mistake about it, gaming is still an industry worth following. By virtue of the cool peripherals on the market today (or on their way), there’s still plenty of cool stuff to keep gamers and non-gamers alike looking towards the future.

Oculus Rift

It’s hard to call a gadget that hasn’t seen full consumer release “revolutionary,” but the Oculus Rift hits both those notes. With a backstory that’s everything from a wildly successful Kickstarter, to the hiring of industry uber-legend John Carmack, to an acquisition by a decidedly non-gaming company (Facebook), the device’s rollercoaster prerelease ride could end up being the least exciting thing about the product, and that’s definitely saying something.

Take Oculus’s latest hardware revision, apparently codenamed “Crescent Bay.” Dubbed the “most impressive virtual reality device yet,” the device oozes promise. Anyone who salivated over the idea of “scaling the wall” ala Game of Thrones earlier this year will be excited to hear this current revision is even more powerful, comfortable, and generally useful than the one the GoT-themed software ran on.

Even more exciting, the Rift and its PC-based variants aren’t the only VR hardware from the Oculus crew we’re bound to see in the near future. Samsung’s Gear VR, announced at the Korean tech conglomerate’s Unpacked event earlier this month, runs using Oculus technology powering most of the experience; combined with the Note 2’s screen–aka, the only mobile device that’ll work with the headset–and you have something that effectively mimics standing feet from a gigantic (think 100-plus-foot) screen, all with a relatively cheap required hardware setup.

Less clear is Facebook’s role in all this newfangled VR craziness. While we aren’t as upset about the acquisition as much of the gaming world was when the purchase went down, it would appear that some of the company’s corporate culture is already leaking through: The above-linked TechRadar review notes that the company has been a little more cloak-and-dagger about their internal specs/hardware than usual, indicating at least some move away from the openness and general eagerness-to-please the company showed in its pre-Facebook days. Still, Oculus is a company worth being excited about, both for the hardware they’re producing today and whatever end products eventually hit the market.

NVidia Shield

It may not have the brand recognition it should, considering some of the technology it packs under the hood, but the NVidia Shield is still one impressive piece of hardware. Designed to give gamers the best of mobile and PC gaming, the Shield does just that, in addition to support for all the small-scale, super-addictive titles on the Play Store. Gamers can also access their home PC gaming libraries through some crazy streaming technology NVidia has implemented, effectively giving PC gamers the full PS4/PS Vita experience without need to buy the console or connected handheld.

In fact, it’s that second point that makes the Shield so intriguing, at least from a why-aren’t-gamers-adopting-it standpoint. Here we have a piece of hardware that lets gamers play their PC libraries anywhere they have Wi-Fi connectivity (basically anywhere), an advancement that should be industry-bending in and of itself. Cloud-based streaming has been a big thing since the days of the ill-fated Phantom; soon, we’ll see a time when most gamers leave it up to companies to “rent out” powerful hardware instead of dropping dough on internals themselves.

Retron 5

From the new school to the ooooold school, the Retron 5 is a gaming device designed to bring all sorts of old-school consoles back to life for the umpteenth time, but with a slightly unfamiliar twist. Instead of relying on software-based ROMs (electronic copies of old-school games, run themselves on software called emulators), it requires the user to provide actual, honest-to-god cartridges to play the old-school games they know and love.

You read that right, cartridges. NES, SNES, Genesis, and several Game Boy versions (among many, many others) of cartridges. And while we certainly see the possible frustrations here–not everyone wants to pay for a new copy of a 30-year-old game in order to play it–there’s definitely also some charm involved. Who can forget the satisfying thunk of popping a cartridge in a slot?

The throwback fun doesn’t stop there. Besides supports for two original Retron 5 controllers, there are also ports for some of the internalized consoles, allowing you to hook up your old hardware and play your old favorites exactly as intended. Toss in HDMI and a whole host of other, newer features, and you have a box perfectly designed for a certain subset of the old-school gaming crowd: the subset that wants as close to the retro experience as possible, without sacrificing quality.

The Virtualizer

If the host of headset-based products hasn’t convinced you that VR is booming, look at side products like the Virtualizer. This strange, circular enclosure comes tasked with providing gamers an “easy to use virtual reality device that allows the user to walk through any kind of virtual environments in real-time.”

We’re honestly not sure what to think here. While the product seems to be moving full steam ahead, with favorable reviews popping up just a few days ago on reputable sites like Engadget, we’re wondering just how much the average gamer is willing to invest in VR–both from a financial and a fundamental-change-to-the-way-games-are-played point of view.

Here’s the thing about motion controls: as products like the Wii/Wii U seem indicate, they’re not the best for games that require quick, precise movement (ie competitive shooters). While we’re sure plenty of games will be built around the concept, existing genres will also have to make the decision whether to invest more of their own resources in supporting it. Gamers will have to make a similar decision–choosing whether they want a handset, a headset, a headset with a motion virtualizer, etc.

Still, there’s no denying that the Virtualizer is a cool concept, or that some ideas it brings won’t end up in newer, smaller products later down the line. For now, we’ll keep our eyes on the headset aspect of home VR, and give the rest at least a little attention while we wait.

Where will gaming go?

Right now, VR probably has the most exciting implications for gamers, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t already some cool stuff on the market. As gadgets like the Shield and Retron 5 show, there are all sorts of gadgets to meet an endless stream of specific needs among a set of highly vocal gamers. We’ve said it before about mobile, but it applies to gaming just as well: The future is exciting, but the present is plenty bright. Stay tuned.

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