It’s already late 2008, and this is not the future that I was promised. I won’t go off on the cliché rant about the lack of flying cars, but I think it’s perfectly legitimate to gripe about some other conspicuously absent technologies that futurists and science fiction television have been forecasting for decades. Chief among those failed predictions is the promise of virtual reality—the ability to completely immerse your senses in a digitally simulated environment.
Gaming has been a huge driving force for VR technology, but it doesn’t feel like we’ve advanced much beyond the days of bulky headgear and low-resolution rail-shooters that are now gathering dust at your local arcade (which has probably gone out of business by now). There’s still no one product that will fully immerse you in a game, but you can cobble together your own solution.
My makeshift VR rig focuses on three senses: sight, sound, and touch. I’ll leave taste and smell out, because those are the toughest senses to simulate (and I doubt anyone really wants to taste or smell Left 4 Dead). The most important sense for gaming is sight, and there are two options for bringing the visuals of a game to life. Holographic technology actually exists right now, and the most promising example of it is Cisco’s On-Stage TelePresence video conferencing service (you can find a demo video on Youtube). But while these modern-day holograms are amazingly convincing, they require the use of dozens of cameras and projectors to create the illusion. Maybe in 2020.
No matter how great 3D goggles are, wearing sunglasses indoors will never be cool
The more practical alternative is 3D stereoscopic technology, which, after numerous underwhelming past attempts, is now being revitalized by Nvidia. The videocard maker is investing heavily to develop its own custom 3D goggle technology, hoping to avoid the pitfalls of earlier “flicker-goggle” efforts that gave many gamers headaches. Nvidia’s new wireless solution, in which the glasses are synced to a tiny hub, works in conjunction with new 120Hz displays, such as LCDs from Viewsonic and DLP monitors from Mitsubishi (120Hz is necessary to avoid nausea). The result is surprisingly effective—I tried Call of Duty 4 in 3D at PC Gamer and Maximum PC’s Showdown LAN in San Mateo and was very impressed by how well the illusion of depth-of-field was enhanced. Nvidia claims that it’ll work right out of the box with over 350 DirectX-based games.
Next is audio, where 5.1 or 7.1 channel speakers, along with multi-channel support in games, is already pretty widespread, so simulating realistic surround sound isn’t actually a technological hurdle. Still, not everyone has the luxury of playing games with a multi-speaker setup, so I’d recommend a good surround-sound headset. Boutique headset makers like Plantronics and Astro Gaming have excellent 5.1 audio products, and Dolby labs is working on its proprietary Axon technology, which will help simulate occlusion and directional voice communication in multiplayer games.
The final challenge is replicating touch. Force-feedback mice exist, but are still a far cry from the feeling of firing a pistol. Thankfully, the Novint Falcon (PCG score: 79% April 2008) now has an optional pistol grip attachment that gives a convincing recoil effect in supported shooters like Half-Life 2. Finally, the 3rdSpace Gaming Vest from TN Games gives you the sensation of impact when you’re shot in-game.
Using this equipment in combination, you can achieve a satisfying virtual reality experience. Nvidia hasn’t put a price tag on the goggles yet (though they’ll be available by Christmas), but I’d estimate all of the above could be yours for less than $1,500. It’s a small price to pay for your ticket out of this crappy reality.
October 21, 2008