This story was published more than 6 years ago.
As I sit on a Skype call with Alea Gaming's Alexandre Tomic to discuss virtual reality (VR), I can't help but think that he holds a romantic point of view on the topic.
A call that I expected to be fairly straightforward related to VR in the gaming industry has evolved into a full on discussion about the theory of self, and how a new entertainment medium has the chance to change our lives.
"For VR to be successful, we need to bring people together. That's the most important thing."
According to Tomic, this isn't about something as trivial as putting someone into a slot parlour where they can look around and see shining lights; it's about finding new ways to get punters to connect with other people in new ways, to create something new that we haven't seen before. It's so much deeper than the various tech demos we've seen over the past few years.
Simply put: VR could be an important part of the future of online gaming as well as playing an important role about questioning our existence and role in the universe.
Virtual reality has been teased as being feasible for decades. Arcade owners and game development companies have teased the ability to leave our world in favour of something truly immersive. Instead of just pretending to be a brave knight on a flat screen television, you could be that knight in VR, allowing yourself to live out his life and having the chance to save the princess. Unfortunately, those claims were optimistic and unrealistic, as hardware at the time simply wasn't up to snuff. Many people considered virtual reality to be a pipe-dream that wouldn't be achievable at any point in our lifetimes.
Things changed seismically in 2011 when an 18 year old VR enthusiast named Palmer Luckey pieced together a prototype unit that he called the Oculus Rift. The device caught on with a developer named John Carmack (who programmed the Wolfenstein and Doom games at Id Software), and the two worked together to create a better prototype, which was showcased at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in 2015. It became an immediate hit.
Since that time, there has been a lot of development in the world of VR, as companies including HTC and Sony have jumped on board to create their own headsets. Mobile groups like Samsung have also latched onto the technology, making their phones VR compatible, and now several million people around the world have access to the technology in some respect.
Finally, the dream of VR became, well, a reality.
Once VR began to become adopted by consumers, it didn't take long for casino groups to start researching how they could integrate the technology to create a new vertical to draw in punters. Today, heavy hitters like Microgaming and Net Entertainment are working to see how they can develop games that allow players the opportunity to play in simulated environments while the reels spin in front of them.
Alea's SlotsMillion Casino was the first major online betting site to adopt VR, and they have the software available for download right from their website. Officially the VR casino only supports Oculus headsets, but players have found ways to play with both the HTC Vive and Playstation VR headsets plugged into PCs. Once you get things working, you log into the casino with your SlotsMillion credentials and are presented with a lounge of sorts, which is decked out with an array of gaming machines. Using a controller or a keyboard you can walk around and take in the sights while also walking up to a machine and playing for either real money or for fun.
Tomic admits that the casino has a long way to go until it really becomes something special. Going through the lounge you'll often times be completely alone, or joined by only one or two other players, with whom you cannot interact. "Even when I go into the casino there's usually only one or two other people in there," Tomic said.
But you have to start somewhere, and someone has to take the first steps to try to develop technology so that it can get better over time. This is something that Tomic knows, and is quick to point out that the software is a work in progress. "The current version of the VR casino is essentially a DK2 (the second beta test version of the Oculus headset)," he says. "It's something that we're still working to improve."
Hearing Tomic say this, it's clear that he wants to see this succeed. In it's current state, SlotsMillion VR is more of a gimmick or curiosity, meant to drive attention toward the casino brand. Still, the operator is looking to improve the product as they plan to implement slot tournaments and live dealer games down the road to broaden the appeal.
As Alex continues to give his opinions on VR as a whole, we discuss what it's like to spend an extended period of time in a body that's not ours. "When you take off the headset after a period of time, sometimes only ten minutes, you get the feeling that the life you've known since birth isn't exactly the same," he says.
He's right. Having spent a lot of time with my headset on, it's always surreal taking it off. Things just seem to be slightly off. This could prove to be an issue with a VR casino, where players already can feel immersed and drawn in. As I wonder about how a player could maintain more of a sense of their normal lives, the topic of allowing for socialisation comes in.
Eventually, Alex would like to see it possible for players to connect within SlotsMillion's VR floor. You'd be able to sit next to your buddy and converse while you play at a blackjack table, or you could gather around a room with other punters who purchased a lottery ticket. Those are the things that really excite him, and they give you the best of both worlds: you can choose to show off the person you want to be, and it also gives players the ability to stay grounded in their normal lives if they choose.
Making SlotsMillion more of a social experience rather than a gaming one is perhaps the most talked about topic during our conversation, and if this thing is going to work out long-term, it's going to be built on the ability to interact with others.
"Bring the people together. That's the most important thing," Alex says.
Although Alex waxes poetic about how great VR is (at one point we discussed Plato's Allegory of the Cave, the Matrix, and the Tower of Babel), there are certainly many steep challenges facing the technology before it's adopted by the mass market. First, there's the issue of the high-end hardware needed to run the systems. In order to get VR to run smoothly you need a fairly powerful setup, with entry level VR-capable PCs costing about $1,000. That's not even counting the headsets themselves, which run between $399 and $799.
Thus far the most successful VR headset is Sony's Playstation VR, which has sold more than 1 million units since its launch in October 2016. Even with a fairly large base, implementing a VR casino into Sony's platform would be a challenge, as they won't allow real money gambling apps in their store. This would require Alea to develop a social experience, which is a hard sell to your investors when you're a publicly traded company. Fragmentation is a real issue in the VR industry, and its success as a whole will depend on the various groups coming together and having a platform that will easily allow ports between competing standards.
These are the main challenges facing the technology, but if groups like Alea Gaming can work on the kinks and continually improve their products, there's a good chance that VR could play a prominent role in online betting at some point not too far down the road.