"So, what are you going to do?" a voice asks as I look down at my cards. I'm holding a pair of 8's and as I thumb through the decision in my mind, I look up and see the person asking the question staring at me. Even though he is more than 1,000 miles away, the man is sitting just across the table from me, and I can see him moving his head stoically, waiting for me to make a decision that will determine this game. "Hmm," I say quietly as I look at the river card that was just flipped. It's an 8, and I no doubt have a strong hand, but there's a lot of chips on the table and thus, a lot of risk. This tension I feel is unlike anything I've ever felt with virtual poker, and I can't help but feel that VR is adding to the feeling…
A New Arm of a Dominant Technology
There's no doubt that online poker has taken the world by storm over the past decade and a half. The game is very popular, and companies like PokerStars, 888, and bet365 have dominated the traffic in recent years. At any of those big sites you'll find a bunch of players, countless styles of games, and online tournaments that can offer huge prizes. In recent years though, the numbers of online players have dipped in multiple spots, and some have speculated that the game is wearing a bit thin. Some could say that the games need a shot in the arm.
VR poker is possibly that shot in the arm. The technology is still effectively in a beta stage, but the results thus far have been impressive. The platform I tried, Casino VR Poker on the Gear VR, is well-designed and seems to do a great job with the technology. When you start the app, you're transmitted into a high fidelity poker room with any number of backdrops. I was playing in front of a high rise skyline, complete with at least two other poker tables that I could find around me. You assume the role of an avatar that you can customise to your liking, and you're put up against real life competition that are also donning VR headsets. You use a controller to simulate a hand, which lets you peek at your cards, reach into your chip stack, and make decisions (fold, call, check, etc).
The socialisation aspect of the game is fantastic, with players able to speak in real time to each other. I had a set of Bluetooth earbuds in and was able to interact with all of the different players in the room. Conversations ranged from general events to the game itself. Interestingly, most of the time when I was speaking to someone, I ended up actually looking at them. It was as if I was having a real-life conversation. It was times like this where I forgot that I was even in VR, although that quickly faded after several seconds.
An Opinion From a Non-Expert
I'm no poker pro. I don't tend to have the patience to play for long periods of time. I don't know a ton about the strategy, either. So what I tell you about this game comes with a big grain of salt. With that being said, I feel that the VR technology we're seeing could lead to something bigger down the road.
There are many aspects to VR that need to be adjusted for it to go mainstream. Tracking issues, potential for motion sickness, and graphics all need to be improved for players, and the price of headsets needs to come down substantially. Wearing a headset for extended periods can cause headaches or become heavy, which is another obstacle.
Still, the technology we're seeing today behind apps like Casino VR Poker or the SlotsMillion VR Casino are promising. Both are giving us a semi-polished look and feel, and if it continues to be developed correctly, it could definitely have a place in the mainstream in the coming years.
"Your time is almost up, man," says the voice again as I weigh my three of a kind hand. "What are you going to do?"
Smiling to myself, I look at the virtual avatar across the table in his digital eyes and give my answer. It's almost an allegory related to the hand I have, as much as how I feel about VR poker moving forward.
"All in," I say, putting all my chips on the table.