Monday, June 23, 2014

How the virtual reality concept that gamers crave is at risk again

Binary vortex
It has been one of the most acclaimed sci-fi topics ever, featuring in various works of fiction and sparking our imaginations from the very first moment we heard the term virtual reality. In a bigger or smaller scale, we all have an escapist inside and VR is the holy grail that our inner escapist yearns for. Be it through something like the Star Trek holodeck, VR headsets or even one of those big VR spheres that are sometimes shown in sci-fi movies, many of us want to experience a reality similar to our own, but without the risks. This craving is even bigger to us gamers, as video games are in fact small windows into other realities and year after year as technology progresses we have been getting closer to experiencing that almost perfect VR experience we have always wanted. Back in the 90's there were several attempts to bring VR closer to our living rooms, but failed because the technology was not advanced enough. Now our technology is powerful enough to make it happen, but another big obstacle stands in the way of progress.

The Virtual Reality as dreamed by gamers

The Lawnmower man villain
If you remember this movie, then you were a 90's kid, a time where everything in movies was surreal.

A part of the gaming community has always seen virtual reality as the ultimate form for a video game. The notion of been in a game world where there is no television/monitor and almost no queues to remind you that you are living in planet earth and just playing a game is quite appealing to many. Back in the 90's VR was all about cheap toys that attempted to rip us off, but nowadays we have stuff like the Oculus Rift, Project Morpheus and a variety of other virtual reality devices that are still in development. Recent tests with this new wave of VR equipment has given good results and for a time it all looked perfect, until real dedicated user tests were made.

The Problem 
Anime character with nausea
An anime representation of the problem.

The problem that virtual reality headsets are having this time around is not about technology or weak equipment, but about the human body itself. Many developers already fear that VR headsets are too much for the human body to handle and may cause nausea, vertigo and vomiting to the person using them. This is because even if the virtual world is in fact fake, when the human brain accepts all the sensory input as if it were the real thing, there is a chance that hidden flaws in the person sense of orientation will show, resulting in the player feeling sick after at least half an hour of game play.

Vertigo inducing angle
Vertigo doesn't necessarily has to come from high places.

Just picture it this way, vertigo is one kind of specific dizziness caused by feeling as if everything is spinning even when it is not. So this means that games running as virtual reality environments that go on a first person view and feature certain angles and jerking movements are quite capable of causing this kind of effect on people.

This kind of thing has apparently happened a lot with various developers while testing VR headsets with some of their games. For example the people at Respawn have tested VR headsets with Titanfall and concluded that players were experiencing problems because of the fast and vertical style of this first person shooter. Another team that got aware of this is the team working with Project Morpheus at Sony and even EA found out that VR headsets were making players sick in tests ran with their most recent build of Mirror's Edge 2. While those teams were having those kinds of problems, the team that is developing Project Cars had almost no problems and they look forward to making their game compatible with Sony's headset.

What if this problem is not solved in time?

virtual reality cartoon
VR guy in wireframe VR world with t-rex... hey it could happen!

It is not all doom and gloom, as all the development teams invested on VR head compatibility with video games are currently working on a way to fix the sickness problem and be able to go ahead and give us a nearest to reality and safe VR experience with their games. There is still a lot of hope, but if this problem is not fixed in time, VR headsets will not be able to give gamers the VR experience they wanted, and will be limited to games where there is not so much movement going on (like driving games) or more passive VR experiences that will be interesting enough, but will lack the real thrill that the virtual reality dream stands for. This does not mean that for virtual reality to be good, it needs to be in the form of  fast paced first person shooters, but if they can't emulate real life perception, sensory input and movements because of the sickness problem, all that will be achieved will be nothing more than video games seen through a headset.

technology art
Maybe the human mind is even more complicated than we think.
Wrapping it up

Virtual reality has risen, but once again it runs the risk of passing as a fad, at least in the video game industry if the sickness problem is not taken care of. If you are a gamer and a virtual reality enthusiast your best bet is to put your hopes in the works of the various brilliant teams working with this kind of technology, hoping that they can overcome the challenges ahead and that VR and gaming can finally be a feasible concept. Even on the other side of things, if you are not that much into virtual reality, just know that the advances with VR technology could really help gaming as a whole, so everybody wins.

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