Somewhere around the time most of our audience was being born, virtual reality was somehow gaining traction as a favorable man-machine interface. According to movies like Lawnmower Man and Ghost in the Machine and books like Snow Crash and (kinda) Neuromancer, there was a future in which we wore big, bulky headsets with some tracking gloves and interacted with 3D objects and menus or folders or something. 3D gaming would have become an entirely different genre entirely and there would be absolutely no need for large displays in the real world. You could simply live in a storage shed with a power outlet and a broadband connection and exist in an entirely different universe. So why didn’t it take off? And how awesome is it? Let’s cover the pros and cons of this synthetic reality that never became.
Virtual Reality Was Pretty Cool!
The idea of sensually immersing yourself in an entirely synthetic universe is a very interesting idea. These days, your right stick serves quite well as your perspective changer, but there’s also something very intuitive about twisting your head to look at an incoming enemy or to survey an amazing vista. In another universe, virtual reality became the new way we watched movies – in which films were built around ‘levels’ in much the same way that real-time cutscenes work in a video game, and you could interact with the entire scene while others talked or while you were on a cramped bench with rows of soldiers on their way in a canvased truck to a battle zone. You could introduce several narratives at once and let people choose which ones to experience. If it sounds familiar, it’s basically a modern Call of Duty game, but could you imagine James Cameron working on this tech? (Or potentially screwing it up?) Virtual reality also has a ‘just crazy enough to work’ aspect that makes it endearing over pervasive, contemporary tech like 3D.
Virtual Reality Was A Really Awful Idea!
Are you serious? Wearing a bulky headset that made your neck sore after an extended period of time was a great idea? The opportunities for an immersive experience are vastly outweighed by how clunky and counter-intuitive a setup is. Not only would you need a Wii/Kinect amount of physical space to really take advantage of such a setup, you had to costume up for such a thing. Any software for the interface would have to be designed specifically for it in a way that makes modern motion control games look standard. When VR headsets made their way to the PC in 1995, they boasted displays that blazed at an incredible 320×200 resolution and worked with a handful of shooters that had to essentially be hacked to run on the thing.
While wrap-around VR headsets had, and never will, take hold, the idea hasn’t completely vanished. Heads-up displays – high-density displays attached to head-based armatures that hover right over your eyes – are around, but they’re obviously closer to a desktop on your head instead of a whole new class of interactive experience. The trade-off really came with the advent of augmented reality, in which one can take a complex set of sensors and gauges married to a camera (read: a smart phone) and place information on top of what you’re seeing. You could arrive at a restaurant and the menu unfolds, people have been using them for subway navigation for years now. Eventually, these displays will simply wind up on the inside of your eyes and compute it directly into your brain without any external mechanisms at all.
Well, it was a fun trip VR, but not only did VR Troopers ruin everything, the Virtual Boy delivered the final blow. We should be grateful.