VR Gaming: The love-child of arcades and cinema
Science Fiction has to take most of the credit for the really mind-boggling inventions that have emerged in the latter part of the 20th and early 21st century. Of all of them, though, perhaps simulated reality has been the most inspiring and the one with the most potential. Tron, Strange Days and Lawnmower Man, writers like William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Isaac Asimov, Philip K Dick and Iain M Banks brought us worlds within worlds, where what was all around us was not ‘all there is’ and maybe we could wander within a land of infinite fun. Maybe.
In the late 80’s, Atari brought us a 3D vector-based tank simulator (picture above). This was an imposing arcade unit that was twice the price of any other game. Everything was black with bright green lines to render the shapes, you looked into a binocular periscope and were locked into this Tron-like world of a distant green horizon and distant green tanks firing green bricks at you. It was crap. But the 3D worked and I loved it. When the tanks rammed you, it would actually make you jump (and this was the 80’s). Brilliant stuff. “INCOMING!!!”
Nintendo Virtual Boy
*sheeessshhh*. This was almost identical to Battlezone in that it was a fixed-point 3D render to a binocular mask. You couldn’t move or look around and it was really just a 3D screen shaped like one of the more modern free-roaming headsets. It was too expensive for most kids and there were very few games – only 22 were ever made and were also expensive (and crap). To add insult to wallet-injury, it was monochrome and only used a parallax style of render for the depth effect, severely hampering developer options. Basically, this was a table-top version of Battlezone for rich kids to play once, before wishing Atari had made it and stuffing in their cupboards with festering talkie-ALFs.
Check out Angry Video Game Nerd for a brilliantly scathing review. He absolutely nails it, but his last comment is far from prescient (Hint: he gave up on VR. But anyone who played that much Virtual Boy has every right to lose the faith).
Atari Jaguar VR
Finally, Atari (and Virtuality) mount a serious attempt at working VR head tracking with an add-on to Atari’s 64-bit Jaguar console. I was speculative about this box and the VR accessory as it seemed too good to be true and, well, whether it was any good or not we’ll never know because they only released a protoype version of the headset. Low console volumes forced Atari to ditch Virtuality before they developed a consumer-ready version – citing the fact they were nowhere near the expected quality. I saw boxes of these going for £20 when I was games master at Virgin. I was tempted to get one for the novelty value (and considering one of the only two remaining headsets is going for £15,000, I wish I had!). Hard to say why this failed, but strong games in the Sega camp had a lot to do with it.
(there were several variants of these that I’d appreciate the names of, if you care to comment) I really wanted to love these. In the mid 1990’s, I had the onerous duty of trying to sell them at a ridiculously high price – for what was basically a very small VGA monitor strapped to each eye. The high-latency, high-migraine VGA screens were attached to a visor with reflective eye-pieces that made you look like a 21st century poker player (at least, that’s what we *thought* 21st century poker players would look like – who knew?). PC variants did at least include motion tracking, which would respond with the latency of early 80’s satellite news links, complete with the awkwardness and confusion for all concerned. I think I sold one, but it is safe to say that the earth was not set on fire. There was no sense of presence and not even very good 3D. I’m quite tolerant of motion sickness in games (not on ferries, though, blurgh!) but the i-glasses really didn’t lend themselves to continued viewing. You spent more time trying to work out what on earth you were looking at than being awestruck by a new dimension in gaming.
VR is Dead
And there, with a whimper, VR appeared to die. The triumphant hurrah of VR fell to over-enthusiastic hype and under-enthusiastic R&D. Fingers were burned, kids were stroppy, parents were out of pocket and everyone was puking and massaging their eyeballs. The champions of VR tech drifted apart and licked their wounds in quiet corners, biding their time. Investors took their money elsewhere and all but a few die-hard sci-fi fans kept the dream alive. Oh, and Star Trek TNG. Thank god for TNG.
Long Live VR!
So we couldn’t bring virtual reality to the masses, but we could keep the dream alive for the next generation (I’m talking about the kids, this time). Picard, Data et al would foray into fantasy realms on the Holo-Deck to solve mysteries, re-enact stuff for fun and generally save a lot of money on space effects. This was enough. The quiet susurration of VR’s pulse beat in the background as the skeletons faded from memory.. but deep in the garages of nerds a bright spark was fanning the embers of virtual reality and before long it would re-ignite enthusiasm for VR in the minds of (big-) kids everywhere.
In 2012 Oculus reached their KickStarter goal of $250,000 (currently $2.5 million, in fact – and that is not including the $2 Billion Facebook just bought them for). They quickly captivated the groundswell of approval at re-animation of a long-presumed dead VR corpse by opening up to independent developers everywhere. A new developer version of the hardware (Oculus Rift DK2) was made available at very reasonable rates ($350) and supported by a software development kit and drivers for games that didn’t have built-in VR compatibility. The hardware isn’t tied to a platform and the founder of Oculus, Palmer Luckey, has been adamant that the focus of their efforts is bringing the most immersive virtual experience possible to everyone. The doors to reality 2.0 have been flung open and Willy Wonka is waving us in (sorry Palmer). It’s worth noting that the performance requirements of the high-fidelity headsets do kind of point towards high-spec PCs as a base platform, but as other devices catch up, then the Oculus will be there waiting.
Sony’s Project Morpheus
In an curious announcement earlier this year, Sony suddenly stepped up to the plate with a pretty well polished version of their own VR headset – Project Morpheus – making everyone wonder if their prototyping platforms are really that quick or they’d be tinkering away behind the scenes the whole time (the latter is actually true, just very few people cared until the Oculus Rift and their industry-first approach). Now, the Morpheus is officially PS4-only, which is probably for the best since the Rift continues to out-perform the Morpheus in developer uptake. Even if they went head-to-head, Oculus would probably pull through largely down to the fact that they made developers partners, rather than customers. Sony have recently announced they are committed to indie devs, but this needs to be shown, rather than stated.
Now, a lot has been written about Valve’s own version of a VR headset, but it appears as though their technology was supporting Oculus research and is not now expected to be seen in a competing product. It looks like this is more a case of a win-win publicity partnership than competing companies. We could be wrong, but their top research team has moved into the Oculus offices full-time and that’s not the action of an outfit trying to build their own device. Valve’s early work in virtual reality fields as well as their on-going commitment to helping Oculus can only be a good thing for consumers. Me, you and everyone we know is wishing Half Life 3 is in those retail boxes.
[update] Murmurs are spreading of some action in the Valve camp at this year’s Boston VR Bender.