Blurring the Line: Where the Virtual Becomes Reality

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I stretched out my arm and wiggled each of the fingers on my right hand individually; everything seemed to be working just fine. As I turned my head back and forth, I marveled at the bright colors and familiar games surrounding me. There were buckets for me to throw a ball into and cans stacked in a pyramid ready to be knocked over. I reached down and curled my fingers around a small ball at my side. Once I lifted my hand up, the ball came with it and I tossed it into one of the nearby buckets. Every visual and auditory signal my mind was receiving told me I was literally standing in the middle of an outdoor carnival setting, but I wasn’t.

I was actually just sitting in a chair at a booth in the middle of GDC. I was actually just wearing an Oculus Rift on my face and a motion-capture glove from Perception Neuron on my hand. I was actually just playing a virtual reality game, but I’ll be damned if that virtual experience didn’t actually feel real to me.

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Virtual reality technology is the craze right now. Every few years there is this next “big thing” on the horizon, whether it be the internet, smartphones, mobile gaming or any other seemingly marvelous advancement in technology as we see it. Whether we like it or not, virtual reality has been that new big thing for a few years now.

It’s always been an interesting balancing act between science-fiction and true scientific advancement. Do we credit Apple with the popularization of the smartphone, or do we credit one of the countless movies, TV shows and other works of fiction that imagined pocket computers beforehand? Similarly, is the Oculus Rift really aiming to be the world’s first consumer-level virtual reality device, or is it just iterating on concepts that have existed for dozens of years? Maybe Nintendo’s Virtual Boy would have a thing or two to say about that.

Regardless, it’s clear that the games industry is expanding beyond the restrictive boundaries of “geek” culture to encompass the entirety of the public consciousness. The previous generation of gaming hardware was defined by a wide range of gaming experiences. Triple-A games like the Call of Duties and Assassin’s Creeds of the world proved that gaming is a multi-billion dollar industry that rivals Hollywood, while the mobile market has shown that whether we’re on our couches or on a bus, everyone loves to play games whenever possible. Gaming is bigger now than it has ever been and the market is undergoing a momentous shift towards expansive access and diverse ways to play.

And now that shift is leading straight towards companies like the aforementioned Oculus and Perception Neuron, among many others, that are redefining how we interact in virtual spaces. As someone that begins to experience the basement-dweller equivalent of withdrawal symptoms if I go longer than a day or two without playing a game, I think I can speak for a lot of people when I say that I’ve often felt like a controller was an “extension of myself.”

When I say that, I don’t mean that I’m naïve enough to think a controller, or keyboard for that matter, is growing out of my arm. But rather, that I can quite easily become so enraptured by a game that I cease to be aware of my surroundings. I’m no longer pressing buttons on my Dualshock 4 or clicking my mouse—I’ve been transported to the mind of my character and I am in the game. We’ve all felt it before. Roleplaying as the Commander of the Normandy in Mass Effect, gunning down enemies in Battlefield or patrolling the streets of Gotham in Arkham City—you start to become the character and the character starts to become you. With the advent of virtual reality technology, the meaning of “interactivity” is quickly changing.

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At GDC in San Francisco, I was experiencing first-hand the relative identity crisis our beloved medium is going through. In one location, I saw triple-A developers, development studios ran by a single person, international publishing studios, small indie teams, and everything in between. In that giant overlapping void in the middle sits all of the virtual reality technology. There are options that are price-prohibitive for indie studios and there are cost-effective VR tools. A studio can pursue full-body interaction or just head-tracking or motion controlled hand-held devices. It was breathtaking to see so much in-development technology on display in a single location.

Once I lifted the Oculus Rift off of my head in Perception Neuron’s booth at GDC, I immediately knew that I had just experienced something truly special. Their glove created an environment in which I wasn’t flicking an analog stick to move an arm on-screen, I wasn’t pressing a button to grab the ball and I certainly wasn’t pulling a trigger to throw the ball; I was physically interacting with a non-physical environment. The Oculus Rift and other “virtual reality” headsets are little more than glorified screens strapped onto someone’s head with motion tracking enabled—it’s impressive, but it’s not really changing the way I interact with games, just how I view them. They’re essential and innovative pieces of an overall much larger puzzle, but mere pieces nevertheless.

In order for virtual reality to truly break out from beneath the science-fiction fueled shadow of expectations and judgment, it has to truly offer groundbreaking advances in interactivity. I’m not sure if we’re there yet, but we’re getting closer. One demo I experienced at GDC was at the Sixense booth. Sixense is a company that raised over half a million dollars about a year and a half ago on Kickstarter to develop a new type of way to interact with virtual worlds called the STEM System. The concept was to abandon the current technology that relies on gyroscopes and outdated motion sensors to detect motion and orientation by incorporating a more advanced and accurate electromagnetic powered design. While testing the handheld portions of the unit on the floor at GDC, I can attest to the fact that, as a motion-controller skeptic, I came away impressed.

The team wisely chose a demo that pit each player on a small suspended platform with a robust selection of differently colored lightsabers for them to choose from. I reached out, picked up two lightsabers—one for each hand—and saw them extend in my hands. The STEM System allowed me to not only move my hands from side-to-side all around my environment, but it recognized depth and responded fluidly. Because their system doesn’t need a line-of-sight to the base or rely on inertial sensors, I could wave my hands in a dancing frenzy as my lightsabers flashed and spun around the screen. A virtual droid hovered around my head, shooting lasers that I would deflect back at it, and my movements were represented immediately and accurately in the virtual space. No lag, no learning curve.

A few booths away, the Virtuix Omni was on an elevated platform. Inside the unit was a relatively tall and slender man holding a plastic battle rifle with an Oculus Rift on his face, actually running to play the first-person shooter he was plugged into. Instead of pushing an analog stick forward, the Omni required him to physically move his feet in order to progress in the game. Combined with the Rift as a headset that moved the game’s camera as he moved his head, the line between virtual and reality was becoming even blurrier than before.

Waving a controller around that has motion tracking features such as the STEM System, PlayStation Move or the Razer Hydra is one thing—you know that you’re still holding that controller in your hand, so it serves as a loose conduit between yourself and the virtual world. Mirroring your real-life movements in a virtual space is something else entirely. I put on a glove and my hand was now accurately represented inside of the game. I strap on some sensors and my bodily movements were tracked and displayed on the screen. I moved my legs in the Omni, and my character moved in the game. These are all real actions that I was performing in the real world. At what point is something deemed to be part of reality and not just fiction? When does an interaction escape the digital space and break out of the boundaries defined by the word “virtual”?

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Back when MMOs and other virtual worlds first rose to popularity, this question came up then as well. For example, if a player creates an avatar in their own likeness, shares their name and then communicates with other players using that avatar, is that still just a virtual environment? The words are real. The emotions that fueled those words are real. The receptions and subsequent reactions to those words are real. So, isn’t that considered reality? Well, it’s not that simple.

Where do we draw the line? Is it good enough to just say that something is a mixture of both virtual reality and real reality? Surely not—that doesn’t sound adequate. As a male in my mid-20s I possess the cognitive function to differentiate between what is real and fiction—I never actually thought I was throwing a ball into a bucket—but my senses could have been fooled.

While I didn’t see it at GDC, the KOR-FX gaming vest is another step towards bridging that gap even further. One of the biggest criticisms I hear (and have personally levied) is the lack of haptic feedback from most forms of VR technology. When I grabbed the ball while wearing Perception Neuron’s glove, there was no feedback in the glove itself letting me know that I had touched something in the game. This creates an inherent disconnect that took some time for me to overcome before I was comfortable; the KOR-FX gaming vest is a step towards remedying this problem.

The vest transmits vibrations and other forms of haptic feedback into your body based on what’s happening in the game. Are you getting shot in the back? You’ll feel that. And fortunately, it doesn’t use the spinning-motors used in rumble packs and game controllers for vibration, but instead employs acoustic feedback with special sensors to deliver more precise and targeted feedback to your body. It’s not enough to actually hurt you—don’t worry about getting your ass kicked like it’s training day in the Matrix or anything like that—but it’s enough to immerse you in the experience.

I don’t know if some top-secret plans are in the works for all of these companies to team up and create the ultimate virtual reality experience, but there definitely should be. If I could wear the Oculus Rift on my head, a full-body rendition of the Perception Neuron sensors covering all of my fingers, hands, arms, legs, and body, in addition to the KOR-FX gaming vest and Omni movement interface, I don’t know what would happen. I have half a mind to think that I would simply cease to exist on this mortal plane and be teleported into cyber space where my mental state and sensory feeling would be eternally uploaded to a mainframe of gaming bliss. That’s my utopia.

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I’m sure if you checked my archive of tweets, Facebook posts and gaming articles, there are surely more than a few instances where I have publicly decried the feasibility of VR technology for gaming. I wasn’t sold on headsets as replacements for televisions and I foolishly thought that the Nintendo Wii and PlayStation Move were the pinnacles of motion-based input. I was wrong.

I don’t know how long it’s going to take virtual reality technology to actually reach the point where it’s widely available to the masses, but it’s getting closer. One thing I do know is that with each passing year, the line between virtual and reality becomes less and less clear.

David Jagneaux is a freelance games writer and full-time nerd. You can find his work across the interwebs at various sites. It’s dangerous to go alone, so follow him on Twitter @David_Jagneaux.

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