The Unfulfilled Promises of Virtual Reality


Tom Caudell coined the term “augmented reality” (AR) in 1990, but the concept of artificially modifying our perceptions of reality is very old. In a lose sense, any artistic endeavor can be considered an act of augmenting reality, especially those which manipulate perspective, such as trompe l'oeil (literally, "trick the eye") paintings. (Right: Pere Borrell del Caso, Escaping Criticism, 1874, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.)

In the modern sense, augmented reality refers to the integration of real world and computer generated data. In this sense, the HUDs fighter pilots are accustomed to are forms of augmented reality.

Simple HUDs are cool, but as a child, I was fairly certain that by now I’d see things the way robot vision was always portrayed in movies - grainy text would tick along the bottom of my vision, identifying well-muscled men as potential threats, three-dimensional grids would overlay everything for some reason, and the answers to all my homework assignments would materialize in front of me.

Above: I can has neural-net processor?

In the 1988 Whole Earth Review interview I mentioned earlier, Lanier suggested that after putting on our virtual reality gear, we would be presented with a virtual version of the room we were in. Our furniture would be replaced with virtual furniture (so we don’t bump into it), and new virtual elements would be spawned within the room. Ideally, one day I’ll put on my sunglasses and see virtual fish floating through downtown San Francisco, an arrow indicating the direction to my current destination, and an avatar representing a distant friend who has decided to chat with me.

A lot has actually happened in the department of augmented reality since I was just a boy dreamer. The boring utilitarian applications aside (like dropping that white bar over the first down line in televised football games), gaming applications are being experimented with extensively, and will likely be one of the big driving forces for other augmented reality applications (aside from military research).

Essentially, any game that superimposes virtual elements on video in real time can be considered an augmented reality game. The latest is You’re in the Movies, which dynamically cuts out the bodies of its players and places them into virtual scenes. Not exactly Minority Report, but it will do as an example.


The much cooler applications involve headsets which overlay 3D models on real space. Unfortunately, the headsets are rather large at the moment, and generally have to be connected to bulky wearable computers (not exactly the magic sunglasses I envisioned). These headsets must be not only capable of calculating spatial geometry well enough to realistically superimpose computer generated 3D objects into real space, they must also track eye movement and have the processing power to render the objects in the first place, all in real time. Film studios get to spend months working on special effect scenes – these systems have milliseconds. (Right: A conceptualization of the Tinmith AR system, 2006)

Clunky or not, the technology already exists. The barriers now are in regards to size and horsepower. To create effective consumer AR headsets, everything needs to be smaller. When we can pack the power of a couple PS3s into a pair of sunglasses, bundled with batteries capable of powering them, we can have all the augmented and virtual reality we want. Expect Japan to be first on the scene with virtual girlfriends.

Of course, you won’t be able to touch that virtual girlfriend – she’s just a 3D model being projected into your vision. Star Trek wouldn’t have any of that, concocting a device which converts photons into physical matter. Sorry, it’s not so plausible.

Certainly there have been creations that sort of look like holodecks, projecting 3D renders onto all six surfaces of a room, as well as holographic displays which no longer require stereoscopic headsets, but nothing that comes close to that whimsical TNG episode in which Picard and company are stuck in 1941 San Francisco.


It’s about, as I have already suggested, miniaturizing technology and increasing processor power. Consider all of the elements I have described packaged into one affordable consumer device – a sleek wearable stereoscopic headset which tracks head motion, eye motion, expressions, and neural activity. Add gloves which track hand motion and a highly open-ended MMOG and…

You’ve got everything you need to navigate and interact with a virtual world. The next generation of neuralheadests should be able to take care of basic motion in space (without having to stand in a hamster ball), head and eye tracking will allow you to look around, and motion sensing force feedback gloves will allow you to interact with objects (guns, swords, BDSM whips) and menu systems. Add augmented reality functionality, and you can turn your office building into a war-zone, or your bedroom into a 1950’s bar, placing, as Lanier suggested, virtual objects over the real objects in your surroundings.

Above: The technology is still far too expensive to make Home Reality Engines possible just yet. Even at the affordable end, the Headplay head mounted display costs about $500, and it's just a stereoscopic display - no head or eye tracking

It’s no holodeck, but it’s perhaps even more advanced that what Lanier described in the ‘80s when he coined the term “virtual reality,” and all of the required elements already exist in rudimentary forms. The revolution will occur when VR gadgets are no longer designed as disparate peripherals intended to mesh with standard games, and are integrated into singular “VR consoles” for which triple-A game titles are specifically designed. Sega tried once with Sega VR, and that didn’t quite pan out. Neither did Nintendo’s Virtual Boy, but it was designed to exploit the '90s VR hype, not as a serious attempt to build a virtual reality console (the technology simply wasn't available).

Above: Fail

The hype surrounding virtual reality may have faded to an extent,  but with the popularity of MMOGs and the inevitable cooling-off of the "casual gaming" boom, I expect VR to regain some of its glamourous draw, and not just amongst speculative dreamers - console manufacturers will regain interest as well. I would be surprised if consumer devices of the grade I have described aren’t available within the next 10 years. Yeah, I know it has all been said before - predicting the future is hard - but if I'm right, you can be sure that I'll be one of the first to assume the body of an electric phantasm and take a swim in the binary oceans of The Metaverse.

Hear more about this article in TalkRadar.

Aug 6, 2008


  • w40kfanatic - October 10, 2009 3:02 a.m.

    This really sumarizes my dreams. i would LOVE VR, and i know that someday we will achieve it. ill just have to be patient i guess. also, i would expect the device to be a full body suit, similar to a mix of ODST armor from halo, and snake-eyes from g.i. joe.
  • Garry333 - August 30, 2008 2:39 a.m.

    eXistenZ sucks ASS!!!!!! It's the lamest piece of shit movie I've ever seen.
  • GamesRadarTylerWilde - November 24, 2008 8:49 p.m.

    Go watch Videodrome, Dead Ringers, and Naked Lunch.
  • Frostfire - July 27, 2009 12:23 p.m.

    Making predictions for the next 10 years may be difficult but i think its safe to assume that for those of us that die of old age its not only possible but very probable that well see a large part of this dream come true.
  • skarysly - January 24, 2009 4:15 a.m.

    great article, u've done a lot of research on a subject that interests me most. I'm always fascinated with everything that messes up our perceptions, and VR is a main one, still theoretical as it may be. Thank you for that.
  • distefanor - January 21, 2009 10:32 p.m.

    i cant wait for VR!!!
  • Seabread - July 6, 2009 12:58 p.m.

    funny coincidence. i just watched eXistenZ last night for the first time in ages... and it's not gotten any better with age. too many twists and turns and the whole organic console thing freaks me out. urgh!
  • Spectre86 - January 26, 2009 7:29 a.m.

    Closest thing to virtual reality i have ever felt was the Trimersion HMD controller. The way it was set up made it feel so real, and I am sorry, but nothing feels as badass as being the master cheif and gunning down a group of grunts. sadly, the company died (confirmation on death of 3001 AD?) and the product is expensive as hell (it was my friends that i used), but they had something that I hope to be the start of what would eventually turn into a true cyberspace. I plan to get a new laptop here soon and FEAR 2, so i will look more into the Trimersion just so i can see how long it takes for me to piss myself from alma or a spirit of some type.
  • skarysly - January 24, 2009 4:18 a.m.

    I'd say by 2272 u will be able to have a virtual life while ur body is sustained in a capsule and a mad/genius scientist decides to have fun at your expense for eternity by torturing u :) FO fan :)
  • cart00n - January 22, 2009 5:22 a.m.

    Great article. And eXistenZ? Awesome flick.
  • Antennas to Heaven - January 22, 2009 1:59 a.m.

    Good article. I'd prefer more research-based articles like this one were put on Gamesradar, because they always turn out to be interesting.
  • gorillaman23 - January 22, 2009 1:14 a.m.


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