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A World Gamified – Pt. 3: Virtual Reality

March 22, 2012

Read Pt. 1: Introduction, Pt. 2: Virtual Identity

In the last installment of this series, I wrote about the divide between our real and our virtual selves. We plunge ourselves ever deeper into our virtual worlds and the character we embody inside of those worlds. But there is nothing that more literally embodies the virtual world than virtual reality.

“Virtual reality?” you ask. “That is so 90s.” Normally, you’d be right, but virtual reality is making a big comeback. Everyone from the Navy to scientists is using it, and it looks like the big video game makers are hoping that you’re next.

The New Virtual Reality: “Getting Into the Game”

Probably not what you were thinking of.

You probably remember best remember virtual reality due to its ubiquity in the 1990s. Films like the Denzel Washington cop film Virtuosity, thriller The Lawnmower Man, and at the end of the decade, The Matrix, popularized the idea of virtual reality in American technology culture. Video game companies like Nintendo, Sega, and Atari, all attempted to put “Virtual Reality” systems on the market. (Nintendo’s failed Virtual Boy system is the most memorable of these awful early prototypes). While the concept of virtual reality captured the imaginations of everyday Americans, the technology was still years, perhaps decades, off.

The concept behind virtual reality is not new, of course. While most people trace its origins to Morton Heilig’s 1956 Sensorama machine (which combined video, audio, and sensory experiences such as smell and touch), others go back as far as the 1860s and 360 degree panoramic murals. Heilig though is clearly the progenitor of our modern conception of virtual reality, in 1962 patenting an idea for a device very similar to what we now call a Head Mounted Display (HMD).  Virtual Reality’s origins come together in the pioneering work of the 1980s and 1990s.

In the 1980s, the two primary drivers of virtual reality technology were the military and the computer industry. NASA and the Department of Defense contributed money towards research projects designed to improve flight simulators and weapons and combat training. In 1984, computer scientist Michael McGreevy began experimenting with virtual reality technology to improve human-computer interfaces (HCI). Later, concepts like digital tracking found their way into high-priced video games. While the developments of this era lacked the refinement necessary for commercial success, they paved the way for the advancements in virtual reality today. (See this article for more info on the history of virtual reality technology between the 1950s and the 1990s).

Ready or not, prepare yourself for a future of virtual reality video games – the technology is nearly here. This month, news emerged that Microsoft filed for a patent in 2010 for virtual reality eyewear and headgear. According to the patent: “Although the eyewear may closely resemble an ordinary pair of eyeglasses or sunglasses, the fact is that the device includes a pair of projectors…which project virtual display images for view by a wearer.” Recently, several journalists have been allowed to sample a virtual version of the popular game Halo 2. The equipment these journalists used was apparently assembled from existing materials already commercially available. One journalist described the experience: “Now, we may be finally be [sic] reaching the point where the display technology is finally catching up to our collective virtual reality dreams.” Virtual reality may finally have arrived.

What kinds of pleasures will virtual reality technology bring to future gamers? When I ponder this question, I think of “The Entertainment” from David Foster Wallace’s magnum opus Infinite Jest. “The Entertainment” is a film so pleasurable and so addictive that it leaves its viewers shaking, catatonic ash heaps of humanity. Will virtual reality have the same effect? Will advances in this technology create a world so pleasurable that we will never want to leave (this is a question eerily similar to the one posed in the film The Matrix)? Perhaps anticipating this problem, Microsoft’s newly patented virtual reality eyeglasses “may be at least partly transparent, so that the wearer can see external objects as well as the virtual display images… Microsoft’s take on this appears to be one that’s a little more realistic in that gamers could go deeper into the game while being able to see a part of their real world surroundings in the periphery.” There’s the very real threat that virtual reality will become so seductive that we’ll want to stay. Virtual reality could literally enable us to “block it all out.”

The Future is Now: Augmented Reality

A world of immersive virtual reality games may still be years off, but augmented reality may be one of the biggest tech stories in 2012. Later this year, Google will begin selling their first augmented reality eyeglasses which will project video, information, and advertisements onto the lenses. And if you thought that hearing people talk on their hands-free was weird, wait until you see someone with these glasses: “You obviously won’t see what they can from the behind the glasses. As a result, you will see bizarre body language as people duck or dodge around virtual things.” For an example of what this might be like, watch the Playstation Vita commercial below:

What exactly is augmented reality? Wikipedia describes it thus: “…a live, direct or indirect, view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data.” Augmented reality is not a virtual world. Unlike virtual reality, augmented reality permits us to continue living in the “real world.” Only, augmented reality uses technology such as graphics, sound, and smell to enhance (or augment) the real world experience. It seamlessly merges the real with the virtual. To paraphrase another PS Vita commercial, when it comes to living life in the real or the virtual world, augmented reality makes it so that you don’t have to choose.

It’s not just a Google project either. It seems like everyone has gotten aboard the augmented reality train. From comic books, to magazines, to hotels, to sports teams, to Nasa, almost everyone sees some application for augmented reality. Whether it’s enhancing your product (comics/magazines), selling ever more advertisements (ahem, Google), or helping pilots prevent plane crashes (NASA), most companies and organizations realize that augmented reality is the future. Perhaps, but do people actually want to augment their reality, and if they do, what does it mean to want to augment reality?

People already use their smart phones, tablets, video game consoles, and portable music devices to stay constantly connected, constantly “plugged in.” Augmented reality seems a natural extension of technology’s possibilities to a generation that has grown up with the “augmented” reality of constant connectivity. What could be wrong about enhancing our real life experience? Augmented reality offers the possibility of truly “gamifying” life by transforming our everyday realities into the game environment itself. While I wonder if “real life” is really so uninteresting and banal that we feel the need to augment it, that worry is irrelevant. The real question is: how will augmented reality change the way that people interact with one another and the world around them?

Virtual Lives and Separate Realities

The discussion over virtual and augmented reality returns us to the division between our real and our virtual selves.

Virtual reality: the confusion of the dream.

Both augmented and virtual reality suggest that there are now two realities. There is “real life” and then there is our “connected” or “virtual” life. Virtual reality takes this to a literal extreme, isolating us in a completely virtual environment, while augmented reality merely adds to the world we’re already inhabiting. Yet, two realities complicates our lives. Reading about the possibilities of these two realities, I am reminded of a scene from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

“The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue
to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was.” – Act 4, Scene 1

Bottom the weaver awakes from his “dream,” in which he was transformed into a donkey and cavorted with fairies. It all felt real to him, only when he wakes, it feels unreal and dream-like, and yet there was still something peculiar about it, something that felt distinctly real, something that no man can understand or describe. Bottom’s confusion is a poignant reminder of the psychological dilemmas awaiting us in a future where we may be able to completely immerse ourselves in our video games and entertainments. We may slowly slip away into our entertainments, pushing reality, “real life,” further and further away. 

Connectivity controls us by dragging us deeper into its own domain, the virtual world. If the Internet can be said to have desire, its desire is for our complete connectivity. With so much negativity, you may wonder: Can any good come of this? That’s the question that we’ll explore in Part Four.

Next – Pt. 4: The Good of Games

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