Friday, August 7, 2009

Virtual Reality Bites

Thinking about TRON recently reminded me of the whole Virtual Reality debacle of the 1990's. The film was prescient in its envisioning of that vision -- but it hasn't really come to pass, and I don't see it happening in the foreseeable future.

Conceptually, it's very appealing -- total immersion in the game world, blurring the
human-machine interface into something natural and enveloping. There's strong fantasy appeal in leaving the real world completely behind to adventure in a compelling artificial one.

Technologically, it's even sort of possible -- moreso today than in the idea's heyday. One can imagine two tiny LCD monitors in a helmet with head-tracking capability, realistic 3-D rendering, and motion controls supplemented with external motion capture delivering the goods. Inducing a REAL sense of motion isn't feasible in cost or safety terms, but fooling the senses can do quite a bit to fool the mind.

Practically, it doesn't seem to work very well. For one thing, stereotypes aside, gaming is a more social activity than this vision allows. Non-gamers can appreciate watching a game in progress, and the Wii has established that party gaming can be great fun even for people who've never picked up a controller before. Microsoft's XBox Live is built around multiplayer gaming and conversation. The truth is, we're social creatures, and shutting oneself off completely from the real world isn't really very appealing. The technology's accompanying disconnect between real motion and perceived motion also seems prone to creating headaches and nausea -- Nintendo's Virtual Boy and the Virtuality arcade system were only tolerable in small doses for most people, counter to the trend toward longer, more complex and involving gameplay.

I think the route being explored by Nintendo (and now Sony and Microsoft) is more likely to be successful. The technology is far from perfect at present, but having something in your hand and PRETENDING it's a sword or a mixing spoon or a bow and arrow, or moving your body to control an onscreen avatar, FEELS more like virtual reality than clunky total immersion did. We really like being physically involved in the action, even to the limited degree afforded by conventional controller button pressing -- no virtual reality environment can provide that kind of simple, tactile, physical feedback. And a flat screen rendering of a 3-D universe seems immersive enough for most people, certainly preferable to donning goggles, glasses or helmets to get stereoptical imagery.

Maybe the Star Trek Holodeck will be a reality someday, but in the meantime, we're easy creatures to deceive when we're willing -- stimulate enough of our senses to engage us, give us a fight-or-flight scenario or an interesting puzzle to solve, and we'll accept the simulacrum as real enough for entertainment purposes.

And that's really what it's all about. We gamers get along just fine with reality, after all; we just enjoy an absorbing challenge when we have time to relax.

No comments:

Post a Comment