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The Future of Video Game Tech: Virtual Reality

Immersion is a pretty essential component of the multimedia machine.

Being able to draw someone into another world and keep them engaged is the goal: get them totally sucked into that universe, its story and populous. I’m sure a lot of people find themselves engrossed in their favourite film, series and video-games on a daily basis – but total immersion is elusive. Maybe it’s the controls which require you to push buttons instead of completing the actual actions with your limbs and digits; maybe it’s how your peripheral vision is a constant reminder that you’re not actually in an incredible fantasy setting, but rather on your couch gazing at a screen.

Hello Virtual Reality.

With many different electronic gadgets and hardware designed to draw the player into video-games even further. From the motion-orientated Razer Hydra gaming controller, which mimics the hands and arms of the user, to the Virtual Omni, an omnidirectional treadmill that grants the user the mobile freedom to emulate the movement that their avatar may be engaged in. There’s even a vest that simulates being shot by producing bursts of air onto the user’s body.

There are a lot of toys out there that cater to the different aspects of immersion. But the one that I’m most interested in has to be VR head-mounted displays that are currently being produced by some of the best companies out there, the most popular ones being the Oculus Rift and Sony’s own Project Morpheus (unlikely its final product name).

The VR head-mount isn’t new to the video-game industry though. In fact, it’s actually been around for a while now. Back in the mid-90s Nintendo released a VR console called the Virtual Boy that used a mono-chromatic display and used parallax to give the two-dimensional screen an illusionary depth. It wasn’t well received – reported as giving users strained eyes, discomfort from use, and limited head- tracking. It was also too expensive and had few games to choose from. No fun, Ninento. No fun.

So why has it taken almost 20 years for VR to make such a comeback? It’s possible that after the dismal performance of Nintendo’s Virtual Boy game companies just weren’t interested in pursuing a risky endeavour. That is until recently, back in 2012, when Oculus began a Kickstarter campaign to fund their vision, leading to their initial version of the Oculus development kit receiving funding (with $91 million raised by the end of it).

Nate Mitchell from Oculus mentions that one of the possible reasons that VR wasn’t fully realised until recently, was that the right group of people just never came together to work on the right problems. There’s also no doubt that the tech jump from the 90s has definitely assisted the process as well. One of the pioneers are the video-game industry, and the lead-programmers of games such as Doom, Quake and Wolfenstein 3D. They joined the Oculus team towards the end of 2013, bringing along a vast amount of knowledge and technical expertise that has no doubt benefited the Rift’s development in many ways.

So what is the Oculus Rift? The Rift is a essentially head-mounted display with a 7-inch screen that completely fills your field of view and uses gyros, accelerometers and magnetometers to track your head’s movement and orientation. It allows you to see the world exactly as your character sees it, allowing you to look up, down, left, right, peek around corners and more.

You’re not just seeing through the eyes of the character though. It’s claimed that it’s also as if your brain is tricked into thinking you’re really there even when you know it’s just a game. People often find themselves falling over while standing and playing the virtual rollercoaster demo, or even while sitting. It’s quite a unique experience that you just can’t get from other hardware out there. Below is a compilation of various games, demos and hilarious reactions. (Note that while there are two sets of visuals on the screens – one for each eye – the user views this as one complete field of vision).

Gaming Therapy

It’s not all just fun and games though. This type of device is currently also being used as a form of therapy. From helping mimic combat scenarios for veterans with PTSD to allowing bed-ridden patients who can’t leave the room to experience an outdoors environment or even travel the globe – it’s even being used to assist those who feel phantom limb pain as well as help stroke victoms with making a faster recovery. Using video-games as therapy isn’t new, but this new technology will be able to help people through the tough times more so than ever before.

Will Reality Become Virtual?

Some people worry that there may be some users who spend more time in the Rift than they do in their own life, that gamers will try to escape from the monotony of real-life by hiding out for hours and hours in a virtual fantasy land. Well, the thing is… people already do this in various ways. People play other video-games, watch movies and TV shows, gamble, drink, run up and down Table Mountain until they can’t feel their legs (why though?). We all have our own escapes, and when we find one we like, we’re likely to return to it again and again, perhaps even an unhealthy amount.

The bottom line is that the Rift and its competitors are a very important and powerful branch in the VR and gaming industry, and there’s no doubt they’ll play a big role in the near future, whether that’s in the entertainment, medical or other industry that utilises the technology best (and I can guarantee you that the adult industry won’t miss out on this either).

The Oculus Rift should see a consumer release near end of 2014 or early 2015, while Sony’s Project Morpheus should be out in 2015.

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