Do you remember the movie Lawnmover Man (1992)? In it, a simpleton is turned into a psycho because scientists used him as a guinea pig in their virtual reality research, which for some reason involved spinning him until he lost the will to live.
That movie succinctly shows how the general public saw VR (and related to it, gaming) in the early 90s—it was the scariest technology known to man that turned its users into deranged monsters. Now the hysteria about video games turning kids into killers is starting to make sense, doesn’t it? This fear actually continues to the present day, with the recent banning of GTA V from Target Australia, despite there not being any evidence that virtual violence makes you more likely to cause actual harm..
Though it featured hilariously bad CGI and an extremely contrived plot, Lawnmover Man did point out a few interesting things about VR that make it worthwhile. Namely, that we will probably need total immersion into VR rather than just an optical representation of it to make it truly work. This might just be the direction Oculus Rift will have to take in the future. After its current problems are solved, that is.
Goggles nobody wants to wear
As you might imagine, VR has been the Holy Grail of technology since TV screens were invented, but the early prototypes were rife with problems, namely they were unwieldy and would cause massive migraines, eye strain and fatigue after as little as 10 minutes of use. How do you make this product into something the consumers want? And if there is no demand for it, why would anyone fund the necessary research and mass production of it? This was an unsolvable conundrum up until recently, when the work on Oculus Rift started and we finally got one step closer to actual VR.
As it turns out, the root of all VR problems lies in our pesky brain and the way it perceives reality, especially through sight. The brain is molded from birth by the outside world’s constant stream of impressions via all senses. In fact, it’s impossible to cut out or stop that stream. For example, if you were to try staring into a single point on the wall, you would soon start having mild hallucinations. This happens in sensory deprivation chambers as well and shows the immense hunger of the brain for new sights, sounds, smells and tastes. Also, this makes the phrase “bombarded senses” pointless. Of course they are bombarded, it’s because the brain actively seeks out stimulation.
Remodeling the brain
That unique stream of impressions is what determines the person’s preferences, expectations and all those little quirks we call personality. It also helps the brain create an internal image of the body. This is why you can scratch the exact point on your back without looking – you simply know where the itchy spot is.
And therein lies the crux of VR. What you see through the headset has to conform to your expectations of how the world works and match the information you get from other senses, or you are left feeling disoriented, confused and uncomfortable and the immersion is lost. This is exactly why the early VR headsets induced vomiting. But, is it even possible to create VR headsets with high enough graphical fidelity to fool the brain into thinking the images are actual reality? If so, who can do it?
Meet John Carmack (wearing a blue T-shirt in the picture above), the brain behind the engines that powered Doom, Quake and a host of other games. In the book Masters of Doom, he talks about his fascination with Star Trek and the desire to recreate the holodeck by using video games. If anyone can create lifelike VR and immersive wearable technology, it’s Carmack. Unfortunately, he left id, most likely because of its obsession with developing games for consoles, which Carmack feels are inadequate, but not before securing funds for developing Oculus Rift from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.
While Zuckerberg wants Oculus Rift to be used for browsing Facebook, we simply need a successful breakthrough of wearable VR headsets into the consumer market and other companies will create their own, cheaper copies of it. This will drive the price down and make the competition troubleshoot all the bugs. Once video games start being made for VR, instead of the other way around, the floodgates of talent and creativity will open.
And here come the SJWs
Of course, there will be VR porn and you can expect significant backlash from SJW types for “causing virtual violence to virtual women”. Yes, it will be rape even if done to virtual women. The SJW whining could possibly threaten VR technology before it’s even fully mature. However, Facebook’s patronage of Oculus Rift could also mean that we will finally see major pushback against SJW madness. When faced with the prospect of losing their investment, it’s unlikely that big business will yield to the SJW nagging. But, only time will tell.
We’ve come a long way since the blocky sprites of Heretic and Hexen. Yet we still need a mouse and a keyboard. For a truly VR experience, we will most likely have to wait for another decade or so. Oculus Rift is just a small step towards the bright future of video games, where they will no longer be just flat images on a screen, but rather become completely immersive works of art. Whatever we end up with, it will surely be better than Kinect.