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Does Nintendo Have a Virtual Future With The Oculus Rift?

There hardly seems to be a day that goes by without the Oculus Rift making the headlines. From drawing board to the workshop, the once fantastical idea is becoming a reality faster than you can say, “Beam me up Scotty.” The joys of holo-decks and virtual realities are the things of science-fiction that gamers can only dream about. . . and coming faster than we think.

The VR bandwagon is hardly just a daydream to big business. Companies across the industry are opening their wallets to the notion of bagging the latest new crazes and console makers are among them. Sony and Microsoft are already making their moves towards their own versions if the hype can be believed. Meanwhile, Nintendo’s time and place in the virtual tech race is a blank check, for better or worse, that a few people have been willing to bet on.

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It wasn’t too long ago that Virtue CFO Asif Khan made one very bold proposal of his own. “Nintendo has a great opportunity to take a minority stake in Oculus VR, or buy the whole dang company,” Khan wrote in an article on Games Industry International. “Either way, this is an example of how Nintendo could acquire innovation and show that they are still a brand that can wow people. Even if they don’t acquire the whole company, supporting and developing games that use Oculus VR’s innovative tech would be a great way to differentiate Nintendo from Sony and Microsoft.”

It’s goes without saying that one voice doesn’t represent everyone’s, but the brings up an wild enough talking point worth considering. Nintendo itself has certainly been the popular talking point as of late ever since their latest Wii U numbers rolling out to the public last month. There’s certainly been no shortage of advice being dished out to the company in recent weeks and it should be mutually agreed that the Wii U itself is far from damning Nintendo to an early grave by now. Survival isn’t a question that Nintendo need consider now or anytime soon. Nevertheless, most agree on one thing: Nintendo needs to be looking for something new. Could the Oculus Rift be that next game-changer, or fool’s errand?

Zelda VRAt present, the Oculus Rift stands is an invention on the cheap. The Palmer Luckey created device has already snatched up $91 million in funding thus far, $2.4 of which was earned through crowd-funding via Kickstarter. It should further be no secret to that Nintendo’s literally sitting on a pile of its own savings, namely $11 billion to be precise. With that kind of capital in the bank, picking up the Rift would be ridiculously easy. As conservative of a company as Nintendo is, though, it’s still doubtful that an outright purchase would happen so much as a stock buy-up, and nothing more than that might be necessary or even likely. Taking the Oculus Rift under its wing as an investment rather than a blind purchase is probably a smarter move, carefully spoon-feeding the Rift as it grows in scope while able to bail out at little cost if not akin to its own approach to free-to-play.

More than that, the Oculus Rift is a device with momentum behind it and already done a few incredible things. Everyone from Gears of Wars’ Cliff Blezinski to Nintendo’s own Masahiro Sakurai has given the Rift a go. Even Hollywood’s gotten in on it with late night comedian Jimmy Fallon donning it on air. Speaking about his time with it at the Tokyo Game show last summer, Sakurai expressed his own confidence in its potential: “I experienced the ‘Oculus Rift’ VR goggles. You’d have to experience it for yourself to understand, so I won’t say much here, but I’m certain it’ll be a hit in the near future. This, too, is a difference in [the nature of] media.”

Kokiri Forest Oculus Rift

Could the Oculus Rift finally “link” us to the 1st-person Legend of Zelda we’ve always wanted, Skyrim style?

Nintendo’s always been a company that’s been as reliant on its inherent amount of nostalgia as it has on trendsetting. Microsoft and Sony may have given us the Kinect and Playstation Eye, both could be seen as reactionary to the Wii’s own motion control. If necessity is the mother of invention, that begs the question: Do we need VR at all?

There is, of course, the difference between revolution and fad. If VR is a miracle waiting to happen, it’s very much only one in the making. With its wide, seven inch cyborg-style goggles and view master-like device, it’s not hard to conjure up memories of the ill-fated Virtual Boy. That said, it also throws a wrench into Nintendo’s own pushes for local co-op gaming. After all, is it a family activity not to technically see one another playing Mario Kart? That doesn’t even cover the eye and neck pain involved with involved with lugging a headset strapped to your head for several hour long game sessions.

Gaming’s evolved from 2006, though, and VR could be the testing ground for what changes our definitions of gaming as well as our experiencing it. That said, the Oculus Rift doesn’t mean it’s a part of what gaming is now. Being ahead of your time doesn’t pay the bills and it’s the “now” factor that matters to fitting into what’s bleeding cash. Creating a new space for VR now is as costly an endeavor as game development is already, maybe more so. VR may very well be a niche idea that wouldn’t make successful mass market and more realistic in it’s own proprietary design with it’s own system apart from consoles to max out the tech.

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As the money keeps rolling in for the Rift’s ongoing development, so has the competition. Sony and Microsoft have held back no reservations as of late about plunging head first into the VR pool in light of their respective patents. If the whispers that blew through the town of rumorville last fall can be believed (and why ever not?), Sony already has a VR headset on the way with a prototype to be shown off for the PS4 by early 2015 with Microsoft already deep in development with a similar gadget of their own. It’s clear that both smell new money in the air and both are just as eager to strike while the iron’s hot, or better, before it’s even warm. Shoehorning the Oculus Rift into the fray now amidst two other giants might not be terribly productive when the company’s already balancing two pieces of hardware that just happen to be called the Wii U and 3DS. If Nintendo’s not even begun to make moves this late into the starting bell, then it’s unlikely it ever will and for the better.

What problems a Nintendo Oculus Rift may have is timing. Palmer Luckey himself has gone on record claiming that VR, and more specifically the Oculus Rift, aren’t particularly inviting on consoles. Convincing, immersive VR programs requires hardware able to render high resolution 3D imagery at far more than 60 frames per second. You can scratch off last-gen consoles from that options list. Even developers have struggled to produce 1080p performances. While the PS4 seems to be the only possible option in the current market, its pre-locked specs can’t possibly anticipate the inevitable jump in VR tech over the next five years, making the more moldable specs of Pcs its more arguably attractive (and feasible) future.

Mario Mushroom 2D/3D

When retro hits the innovation button.

If VR is the invention we deserve, it’s still not the one we need, or at least right now as it is. Developers aren’t necessarily lacking in visual technology, just on creativity within the software itself and not the hardware. Innovation and design creativity is the way to a better gaming future and there are better and equal ways of fostering innovative design beyond just peripherals. Nintendo shouldn’t be one to ignore the benefit of risks, but taking calculated ones is not only more becoming of them, but wiser. Maybe nothing will happen with the Oculus Rift, or maybe everything about the future of gaming will depend on it. What can be certain is that there’s no room for anything in between.