Former Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aimé has been mostly out of the gaming spotlight since parting ways with the company in 2019, but, with a new book set to release in May, he’s been making the rounds to share his thoughts on the digital entertainment industry at large. While throwing some constructive criticism at Facebook and Meta during a SXSW keynote in mid-March, he raised eyebrows by questioning the future of virtual reality hardware such as the popular Meta Quest 2 headset.
In the talk, recorded by Bloomberg, Fils-Aimé says his skepticism with VR is tied to the cumbersome and exclusionary nature of the headsets themselves. “I say this as a person who has tried just about every VR device and just about every VR experience, I don't think it's ready for primetime yet,” Fils-Aimé argues. “Doesn't mean it's not going to get there, but I don't believe it's going to be an experience you're going to be doing with 100% of your time, or even 100 percent of your entertainment time."
Instead, the ex-Nintendo leader sees more opportunities with AR as an alternative. “There's a lot of examples of successful AR today,” Fils-Aimé reminds his captive audience. “Pokémon Go is AR. Nintendo 3DS had AR capabilities. I think the idea of wearing a light set of visuals, glasses, and using that at different points of your day to interact with a digital experience I believe in the end is going to be much more compelling.”
In that sense, while Fils-Aimé sees an eventual melding of our physical and digital worlds, he envisions it happening in a slightly less all-encompassing fashion than VR-focused outfits like Meta might want. “For me, the metaverse is a digital space where you interact with your friends in a social and, I believe, gaming type of environment,” he says. “It's social. It's digital. And there's an ability to really interact with friends and people who have the potential to be friends."
He looks to games like Fortnite and Roblox that have essentially transformed into digital playgrounds backed by a centralized virtual currency, for inspiration. The worlds themselves may be digital, but they don’t necessarily mandate a VR or AR headset to enjoy. But, because AR is more focused on adding a technological framework to the world we know, Fils-Aimé views that as a winning model in the end.
Could Reggie be right?
As someone who’s spent quite a bit of time in VR with my recent purchase of an Oculus Quest 2, much of what Fils-Aimé says in his keynote makes sense to me. When it works, there’s no denying just how enthralling a great VR experience can be. Games like Job Simulator and I Expect You To Die can be a lot of fun in short bursts, but that enjoyment comes with some obvious tradeoffs.
The most obvious of these is the unrefined nature of even the most modern VR headsets. Over time, even the most comfortable of setups start feeling heavy on your head. And, because the vast majority of VR experiences lean on motion controls for added immersion, it’s that much easier for the average person to tire of VR play very quickly.
Then there are, of course, added accessibility hurdles for those who live with major and minor medical conditions that may hinder one’s enjoyment of the product. Even for those who wear glasses, the solutions offered today aren’t perfect. If you’ve got dexterity issues, you may have trouble adjusting straps that are sure to come loose through average wear. If you’re hard of hearing, you may be annoyed to learn that very, very few VR games feature subtitles that allow you to understand what’s going on.
Some of these shortcomings can be fixed with clever development solutions on the hardware and software front, but the reality is that AR seems like the most reasonable solution for everyone. It leverages tech that we’re already familiar with, like smartphones and game consoles, and, at its best, its optional headgear is light and doesn’t separate you from the world you know. Instead of fiddling with finicky straps, taking part is as easy as putting on a pair of sunglasses that won’t fog up every time you take a breath.
The way I see it, VR will continue to find a home almost exclusively in gaming, as those consumers are keener to want complete immersion in a digital space. AR, on the other hand, will continue to find applications in gaming, social apps, the workforce, and more. VR will touch on some of these areas too, of course, but the AR implementation is likely to be more welcome to a wider audience. Participation in the metaverse needs as many participants as possible for the concept to work, and AR simply has more avenues to allow players in without major concessions.