How the decades-old dream of virtual reality is finally coming true.
Behind the generational skepticism for virtual reality, we are getting closer and closer to it with each passing year. The technological means to re-create all of the sensual elements of a physical place – its appearance, movements, sounds and feel – is getting more possible with each passing year. With the early success of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset over the last year, it may soon be time to set aside VR skepticism for curiosity and excitement again.
In 2011, former journalism student Palmer Luckey made a rough prototype for Oculus Rift using a pair of snowboarding goggles and components that have been easily available since 2008. Programming legend John Carmack saw a post about Luckey’s work on a message board and wrote to ask for a unit to experiment with. Carmack reworked DOOM 3 for the device, taking advantage of the goggles’ viewing angle of almost 90 degrees, double that of earlier attempts at virtual reality displays.
“It is hard to know how big that audience will end up being, but we think that most gamers are going to be very impressed by virtual reality technology,” says Luckey. Reaction to the demo of an 8-year-old game was widely enthusiastic, with Luckey’s Kickstarter quickly exceeding its fundraising goal ($2.4 million against a hoped-for $250,000) and earning a spot on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.
The idea of a virtual reality headset is an old one, dating back to the 1960s when the Air Force developed a VR training headset meant to train new pilots. That earned the nickname “Sword of Damocles” because it depended on a massive metal computer housing to be hung over its user. In the intervening years, the idea of virtual reality has remained relatively constant, depending on the advancement of several technologies simultaneously – 3D displays, graphics processing tools, low latency head tracking, gestural input devices, haptic feedback and more. All of these areas have developed in relative isolation, with occasional experiments such as Nintendo’s Virtual Boy quickly rejected as gimmickry, leading to an attitude that virtual reality itself was a gimmick.
“It is all a matter of content and adoption,” Luckey says, convinced that past failures fell short because of execution and not the overall concept. In a little over a year, Oculus Rift seems to be well on its way to proving Luckey’s confidence, with a growing list of developers eager to make their games playable in virtual reality, from Minecraft and Valve’s Half-Life 2 to small-team experiences like the horror game The Forest and the spooky Among the Sleep, where players control a 2-year-old. Carmack has pledged id Software’s forthcoming DOOM 4 will be made to support Oculus Rift, and EVE Online developer CCP recently impressed earlier this year with a sumptuous space combat prototype.
Solving the hardware problems of virtual reality is only one part of the challenge of virtual reality, however. “Because these devices engage our senses in radically new ways, we cannot simply translate game play from button and joystick gaming straight into these modalities,” says Katherine Isbister, a games researcher and associate professor at NYU’s Polytechnic Institute. “If you engage visual and bodily sense-making in new ways, you change how the gamer perceives and strategizes and acts. So in this sense, it is more than a peripheral, and takes the developer into new territory by necessity.”
Jaron Lanier was one of the early proponents of virtual reality and described it as an intensification of subjectivity, “something that would take the extreme possibilities of internal experience and bring them into a realm where they’re shared with people instead of being sources of isolation.” This suggests a basic conflict between virtual reality as a purely sensual platform and game design as we’ve come to identify it, depending on rules and competition, something Luckey openly acknowledges. “It can certainly enhance existing games, but even at this early stage, some of the most interesting games for the Rift are the ones that were made specifically for it,” says Luckey.
“VR lets you do things that are too dangerous or too hard to repeat in real life, and that will carry over to training purposes – training surgeons, firefighters, police and other high-stakes professions is often dangerous and expensive in real life. VR can also be used as a psychological tool for treating things like PTSD and fear of heights.”
It’s for this reason that Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo have been so conservative about making virtual reality experiences, even after the technical components had been so readily usable that a hobbyist could make something in his garage as exciting, if not more so, than anything PlayStation 4 or Xbox One offer.
“Something sensually immersive moves us in a way that is not incompatible with deep cognitive engagement, but it is definitely not the exact same thing,” Isbister says. “Our bodies are a tremendous part of how we make sense of the world, and I think games gain a far broader palette of expression from making use of them more deeply.”
To embrace virtual reality would not just mean building a new platform, but abandoning many fundamental game design concepts and going even deeper into a kind of physical play that many in the hardcore gaming world have so far derided as gimmickry.
Just as the development of sound in cinema led to the need for new editing techniques and the abandonment of story cards, virtual reality points to a future where many of the components once thought central to video game design will be left behind. It’s easy to create variations on collecting coins and shooting zombies, but what happens when the technology itself reaches a point of sophistication where that old rule-bound approach begins to seem needlessly artificial or distracting? With Oculus Rift, it seems like we are about to find out.