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I was born in 1985, and thus grew up believing that by the mystical and far off Year 2000 I’d be testing my wits alongside Sherlock Holmes in a holodeck, plugging all sorts of electronic nonsense into my brain, and seeing the world through kickass bionic eyeballs. It’s now 2008, and aside from briefly experimenting with psychedelics, I’ve yet to experience anything compellingly realityish outside of the one in which I pay parking tickets every month. Why?
The term “virtual reality” was coined by dreadlocked theorist Jaron Lanier (left) in the ‘80s, and quickly succumbed to much hype, theorization, and sci-fi speculation. “Home Reality Engines” were going to revolutionize our daily lives. We were going to turn into cats and prowl cyberspace, navigate file structures by zipping through miles of glowing electronic cabinets, and make sweet love to all sorts of virtual womens. It was all very poetic and exciting, and I believed every word of it, even the fictional ones.
In a 1988 interview with the Whole Earth Review, Lanier explained what it might be like to play an instrument inside of virtual reality:
“With a saxophone you'll be able to play cities and dancing lights, and you'll be able to play the herding of buffalo's plains made of crystal, and you'll be able to play your own body and change yourself as you play the saxophone. You could become a comet in the sky one moment and then gradually unfold into a spider that's bigger than the planet that looks down at all your friends from high above.”
If Lanier's vision existed, WiiMusic would be toast. So where did we go wrong? What happened to all of the grandiose speculation? Sure, I paid too much to be strapped into VR machines in ‘90s arcades, and current military simulations are quite advanced, but they’re far from the “Home Reality Engine,” and nothing at all like the cyberspace I envisioned as a fanciful child. I have yet to unfold into a spider bigger than the planet.
As it happens, the fictions that inspired my fascination with VR may not be so farfetched – and the following developments may eventually make Lanier’s crystal plains my new favorite place to pay parking tickets.
David Cronenberg’s 1999 film eXistenZ depicts an all-consuming form of virtual reality – your typical “am I still in the game?” conundrum. It certainly isn’t the first instance of the concept, but it works well as an example.
Two devices are presented within the film: the first is a morbid biological computer which is inserted into the spinal cord, and the second is a much more sterile device which sits atop the head, wirelessly manipulating thoughts. Only one is the “real” game, but I’ll leave the plot of the movie to the movie and try to avoid spoiling it any further (Netflix it, seriously).
Above: eXistenZ's semi-erotic biological gaming device
These fictional devices allow both for the player to control the game as he controls reality, with what feel like his physical limbs, as well as experience the game as if it were reality, with his own senses.
Two technologies exist today which rudimentarily mimic the control concepts of the two technologies envisioned in eXistenZ. The first requires physical sensors to be placed within the brain (similar to the parasitic spinal cord device), and the second wirelessly reads brainwaves (a bit more appetizing).
In 2005, Wired ran a story about a paralyzed man named Matthew Nagle, who, with the help of wired brain sensors and a refrigerator sized computer, was able to control a cursor, click on buttons, draw rough circles, and play Pong. (Right: Matt Nagle playing pong, Nature, 2006)
The interface, called BrainGate, used 96 electrodes which were implanted into the part of Nagle’s brain which appeared to control his dominant hand. The system worked surprisingly well for the extent of the year-long experiment.
Matt Nagle passed away in 2007, six years after the stabbing which rendered him a quadriplegic, and is remembered as a brave and selfless contributor to the advancement of the science. As is made apparent by Matt’s story, there are far more important applications of this technology aside from letting me pretend to pilot the Starship Enterprise.
Nevertheless, the potential for videogames and mind control is clear, and gaming applications have already been developed. Of course, no one is going to stick electrodes in their brains to keep their hands free while they play WoW, so let’s look at the other option.
Nagle’s experimental procedure tapped into brain signals directly related to movement. The result was effective, but it seems that similar (though somewhat less sophisticated) results can be achieved via non-invasive devices which read brainwaves through electrodes placed around the skull.
Above: OCZ's "Neural Impulse Activator"
Our own David Houghton played with a device created by OCZ, and was able to fairly rapidly jump into a game of Unreal Tournament 3. The result isn’t quite the same as Nagle’s in-brain control - the OCZ device maps controls to different thought intensities. Think really hard to go right, think a bit less hard to go left, and so on. While it seems counterintuitive, consider how malleable the brain is – once you receive feedback from a game that a certain brain pattern creates a certain result, replicating it should become easier and easier. David commented:
“We used the mouse to aim, but everything else, including jumping and firing, was done entirely with our brains. Put simply, it felt like we were flying. The more we got a feel for the levels of thought needed, the faster, smoother, and more instinctive things got, until we eventually got back to the point we achieved in Pong, where we were hardly having to think about what we were doing. We were going Tetsuo on everyone’s asses and it felt great.”
Sounds brilliant to me. If you’re dying to try it out, OCZ’s device is available now for around $160. Another company, Emotiv, has designed a similar neuroheadset which also has the capability to record facial expressions (something Lanier predicted in the ‘08s). Emotiv’s headset isn’t available yet, but will eventually retail for $299. They may not provide as precise control as in-brain implants, but there’s certainly hope for improvement.
So what about the flip side, computers controlling our sensations? To return to our initial example, eXistenZ isn’t just about being able to control a game with one’s mind – it’s about the game manipulating all of the senses to completely immerse a player in a reality indistinguishable from any other. Donning a stereoscopic headset is not the same as having sensation piped directly into the brain.
While we’re not looking at living in Cronenberg’s world any time soon, the potential exists, and is scientifically plausible. In fact, Sony owns a patent for a noninvasive method of implanting sensations into the brain via ultrasound. No, really, take a look.
Sony stated a couple years ago that this is a “prophetic invention” and not something they are currently experimenting with, and some, like Nova Spivack, warn againt over hyping the concept, given that any actual application of it may be 100 years off.
On the next page: Cyberspace…