VR is here to stay, but is this it?
VR and gaming have started to form a solid relationship. Since the emergence of the Oculus Rift, VR has begun pushing its way to video game glory, but just how far can we really go with it?
Virtual Reality gaming is like a child learning to ride a bike at the moment. In the past there have been falls and failed attempts but the emergence of the Oculus Rift were the stabilisers to help the learning process. Just like that, what was a feeble attempt to get moving has suddenly started pedalling off down the road by itself.
I’d say it’s a bit of stretch to consider virtual reality a standard commodity in households, however, it is readily available to anyone who is willing to part with their money. The Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR all available given the right corresponding hardware. Is it what we imagined thirty, twenty, even ten years ago? Well no, not really, but how often are predictions about the future actually right? I’m looking at you, Back To The Future 2.
Here lies the problem, if you take the current crop of hardware into consideration, VR is something worth experiencing. It’s a concept of gaming that for years was nothing more than failed attempts – yet here we are. We have consoles capable of letting you see the worlds that their games offer, first-person; through your own eyes. Is that it for VR though? Can we really take the next step and create a new reality out of virtual reality?
Let’s take a trip down memory lane…
When I previously mentioned that the Oculus Rift is like the stabilisers of the VR world, this doesn’t mean to say there wasn’t other attempts at VR. If you look back far enough, ideas and machines relating to VR started as early as the 1930’s, albeit not particularly relevant by today’s standards, but they were there.
Be that as it may, I’m not looking to delve that far into history as the actual correlation between the ideas then and now aren’t necessarily the same. In my opinion, the real Godfather of Virtual Reality was a machine that was famously know as The Sword of Damocles. This machine was the first mounted headset that produced graphics through its link to a computer designed for this purpose and not a camera or preselected video. Yes, it did utilise very basic wireframe graphics and it wasn’t convenient due to its phenomenal size, but this really was the first step into virtual reality as we know it today. A virtually created world that can be experienced through sight.
For a long period, no major steps were made with VR but flash forward 35 years and all of a sudden, things start to change, perhaps for the worse. Say hello to the Virtual Boy…
Yes, it’s hideous, and this was the world’s first commercial ‘VR’ headset released to the public. Designed by Nintendo and released in 1995, the Virtual Boy was one of Nintendo’s biggest flops in their otherwise prestigious history but to go as far as calling this virtual reality is a bit of stretch. The Virtual Boy only featured a handful of games that were displayed entirely in red and black – making every experience seem as if you were looking through the eyes of The Terminator. With a heavy price tag and several consumer complaints about headaches after using it, Virtual Boy’s short life came to a grounding halt, as Nintendo discontinued it. And that seemed like the end for Virtual Reality gaming. Commercially, nothing noteworthy was produced for a long time and it seemed as if the idea was flushed down the drain. It was a long 15 year wait until we saw the emergence of the Oculus Rift Kickstarter campaign.
Speaking of the Oculus Rift, let’s look at it critically for a minute. With all due respect to the Oculus Rift and its creators, how much has the design actually changed from 1995’s Virtual Boy? Limitations in technology have produced a standard for VR headsets, creating what seems like a mandatory template for style and design. With the obvious exceptions of graphical input into the interior screens and the ability to follow head movement, can you honestly say that the Oculus Rift represents a two decade span of technology?
Let’s put this in perspective…
In the automotive industry, there’s a substantial list of improvement to cars over the last twenty years. Engineering has vastly improved, electric cars are now up to highway standard, we have built-in Bluetooth, digital radio, GPS navigation, increased safety, remote central locking as standard, power-assisted steering as standard, keyless entry and ignition, the list goes on.
With VR, better screens inside the unit, better graphics (but that’s down to the device it’s connected with), motion tracking through light sensors and tracking of head movement. As far as I’m aware, that’s it.
As much as I hate to admit it, the advancement of technology is on the decline. VR has made slow steps in the right direction since the 90’s but Moore’s Law suggests that we won’t be able to push our idea of virtual reality much further. That’s saying something, as this law has been relevant within the technology industry for the past fifty years.
The founder of Intel, Gordan Moore stated that computer power would roughly double every two years as technology advanced. This statement remained not only relevant but was taught as part of several curriculums around the globe, until last year.
“Physicists and technology giants alike said transistors had reached a point where it was no longer economically viable to make them smaller, bringing about the end of the law.” – Source
While transistors will continue to shrink in size over the next few years, it looks as if advancing technology based on this method might become irrelevant. What this means is we’ll see improvement in VR gaming until roughly 2020, so the ideas we have in place are the ideas that are likely to remain. We’ll perhaps see some improvement and tweaks to future iterations of VR hardware but on a whole, it doesn’t seem viable for anyone to take virtual reality much further within the near future.
With that in mind, let’s fast forward…
Assuming that the prediction of Moore’s Law growing irrelevant is correct, is it possible to push VR beyond what we know or imagine? Can we create legitimate holograms or something close enough to real that the black and white contrast between life and virtual reality becomes grey? Even now – as impressive as it was – Tupac’s ‘hologram’ at Coachella wasn’t really a hologram. The event was produced using pre-rendered CGI and displayed as what appeared to be a 3D image by using mirror tricks discovered in the 19th century.
As much as I hate to admit it, Virtual Reality is currently limited by screens and utilises physics to trick our brains into thinking we’re experiencing something, even though we’re aware that we’re sitting on the sofa at home. Why is this? It’s because as things stand, Virtual Reality only utilises sight and basic hand movements using light tracking and not much else, and it seems that this is where we’re stuck.
I have to admit, when I came up for the idea to write this feature, I’d been watching Sword Art Online (Animé fans will know why this is relevant) so you might understand where I’m going with this – for those that don’t, here’s a quick summary.
Sword Art Online is an Animé series that features a group of characters (mainly focused on the protagonist, Kirito) that get trapped in a virtual reality game. The headsets they use link up to virtual worlds and everything from touch, taste and even pain can be experienced by the user; their presence is actually inside the game itself. This is where the industry would like VR to be heading, this is where I’d like VR to be heading, but in all honesty, I can’t see it happening.
Unfortunately we have to follow the constraints of the world that we live in; a world where we have laws, human rights and order. Something similar to what we see in Sword Art Online; a device capable of manipulating your mind, would be buried in regulations, so it’s unlikely it would ever become commercially available to anyone alive today.
My point is…
The future of virtual reality within video games isn’t that far away – it just isn’t the future we were hoping for. Since the invention of The Sword of Damocles, the development of Virtual Reality has stumbled its way into the 21st century and while support for the idea grows (especially over recent years), as a race, we’re limited to what we can achieve with our technology.
I believe that video games are heading down a path that could see upwards of 30% of titles utilising some form of VR, really cementing the technology and standardising it within the today’s industry. Will it improve on the likes of the PlayStation VR? Yes. Will we be able to plug into a device that could synchronise our minds with a virtual world or simulation? Disappointingly enough, no – at least not any time soon.