Humankind has been obsessed with the transcendent ever since the dawn of civilization, with every tribe and every people devising their own stories about what is beyond, if anything does exist outside of this universe. Even in ancient times, people have been wondering what “reality” really is, with thought experiments like Plato’s allegory of a cave and, later, the brain-in-a-vat envisioning a possibility that we are, in fact, living in somebody else’s simulation.
Whether or not that is the case, we can never be sure, but if we do accept that what we perceive around us is “base reality” (in spite of many, such as Elon Musk, postulating the contrary), then we can agree that even in this reality, people have gone far and wide to envision and (with the technological boom of the 21st century) create realities outside of our own.
Long before we had devices such as the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive, works of fiction (most notably, of course, those of science fiction) pictured all kinds of “virtual” and “artificial” realities. Who of us hasn’t wanted to give the Star Trek holodeck a spin? Is there anyone who hasn’t wondered whether we might actually be living in a simulation after watching “The Matrix”? Films and series such as these, alongside many others, including Ender’s Game, The Thirteenth Floor, eXistenZ, Ready Player One, Tron, Ghost in the Shell, have ignited our imagination time and time again, but we haven’t been able to replicate such systems in reality. Until recently!
Historically, the term “virtual” has been around since the 1400’s representing “something in essence or effect, though not actually or in fact”. The modern meaning of “virtual” as in “not physically existing but made to appear by software” has been around since 1959, whereas the term “virtual reality” was first used in a science fiction context in The Judas Mandala, a 1982 novel by Damien Broderick.
As a technology, VR has immensely deep applications in a variety of fields. It’s been used in training personnel for using skill-intensive and expensive equipment, for example, or even in helping patients visualize, and thus better heal, their wounds after complicated medical procedures. This is all exciting and some of it borders on science fiction, but is VR a viable, sustainable and affordable technology when it comes to gaming? Well, games are in and of themselves a certain form of virtual reality, an approximation of the universe. So, naturally, video games would be a perfect fit for Virtual Reality technology – being able to further erase the boundary between yourself and the character you play would definitely provide for some amazingly immersive experiences. But how successful are we, and how much will we be, in making it happen?
One of the first uses of VR for entertainment was Morton Heilig’s Sensorama in 1962, a machine which he used to combine multiple sensory inputs (smell, sound, touch, sight) for a fuller experience while watching short movies. In 1968, the first HMD (head-mounted display) was created by Ivan Sutherland and Bob Sproull. The device was so big that it filled an entire room, and hung from the ceiling menacingly, earning it the name of “Sword of Damocles”. Clunky and out-there, these machines weren’t as much of a success in what they set out to do, but they did inspire future generations, showing them that VR isn’t something as far-fetched as some would have you believe. What ensued were uses of VR in practical fields (flight simulation, medical, automobile industry design, military training) such as NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory where you could navigate virtual worlds, as well as the Aspen Movie Map created at MIT in 1978, where you could explore a crude version of Aspen, Colorado.
It wouldn’t be until decades later, in the 90s, when VR became “a thing” in video games, as well. In 1991, Sega announced the Sega VR headset for arcade games, as well as the Mega Drive console. LCD screens were used for the visor, alongside stereo headphones, and inertial sensors that allowed the system to track and react to the movements of the player’s head. The first mass-produced systems also came along, with Virtuality launching $73,000 per multi-pod units, featuring headsets and exoskeleton gloves for an immersive VR experience. These were sold the world over, and San Francisco even had a dedicated VR arcade at its Embarcadero Center.
In 1995, Nintendo released the Virtual Boy, a headset that claimed to be revolutionary in its representation of 3D models and terrain. Well, perhaps it was, for the time, if you don’t mind seeing the world in a weird black-and-red color combination.
Innovative and creative, these systems surely pushed the boundaries of VR gaming, but they were nowhere near the level we yearn for. Nothing that will make us forget our real selves and identify with the protagonist completely. These games were played, yeah, but were not exactly the success people had hoped for, so the entire VR gaming thing was forgotten for another 15 years. Then, in 2010, the first prototype of the Oculus Rift was designed by Palmer Luckey, an event which set in motion a domino effect of potential possibility, with many companies realizing that VR could possibly be making a comeback, stronger than ever.
Many more VR sets were created, including the HTC Vive and the Playstation VR, as well as plenty of systems which allow you to mount your smartphone on your head and use it as a VR headset. Alongside these, myriad games emerged, each (or, okay, most) with an immersive world, made possible by the advancements in gaming technology of late. The billions of dollars invested in this field surely helped, and we can finally play some incredible games which, just a decade earlier, might have been considered a technological miracle. I won’t go into the games themselves, but you can find hundreds of good ones, including some remakes of old classics like Skyrim, Need for Speed and Minecraft, and some brand new offerings like The Climb, Hover Junkers, Robo Recall, The Arcslinger, and many more.
However, VR is still not where we’d all like it to be. Putting on all of that gear and playing the game does feel satisfying, to a degree, but the boundary between oneself and the game hasn’t been completely erased. It’s close, much closer than it has been until recently, but not exactly there. “Virtual”? Yes, 100%. But, game and hardware developers still have a lot of work to do before we can say that the “reality” aspect is fully satisfied. It’s definitely moving in that direction, but will it arrive soon? I’d wager on “yes” rather than “no”, but one can never be too sure in this industry. If we were to take the big picture into consideration, simulating reality, and especially with the purpose to entertain, is a life-long dream of humanity as a whole, so I believe the best minds in the field will work hard to make it happen. Until then, we can all enjoy the VR games that have been created with the technology that does exist at the moment and wonder what the future might bring. I’m hoping holodeck soon! What about you?