Virtual reality: games
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When the Oculus Rift is released for consumers in the first few months of 2016, a generation will pull on its headsets and not only manipulate a character, but embody them. The system, which immerses people inside virtual reality worlds through a pair of goggles, is among the most advanced pieces of virtual reality (VR) technology.
The gaming expectations are high for punters who can’t wait to adopt a virtual alter ego, so naturally the hype around the launch is building. But will the hype match the reality? The concept of VR – having a true existence in an alternative world – has existed for more than a century; but we’re only just beginning to develop the sophistication required to truly believe we’ve gone elsewhere.
In 1991 Sega released a VR headset, but production ceased shortly after it hit the market due to poor processing speeds and graphics that weren’t even close to real. Nintendo released the Virtual Boy in 1995 and achieved a similarly disappointing consumer response.
VR gaming developers are playing a much stronger game now, though. Oculus Rift was once a humble Kickstarter project, but Facebook bought it for $2 billion in 2014, making it so much more than a gimicky pair of 3D goggles and some impressive software. In fact, Facebook has grand plans. Mike Schroepfer told Business Insider it planned to ‘effectively build a teleporter’ by 2025. By this he means the technology will be so impressive that it will have you truly believing you’re no longer playing games in your living room.
Facebook’s not the only company playing in this virtual space. HCT will soon launch its Vive VR, Sony’s toying with Playstation VR and Google Cardboard will also ship early in 2016. According to Deakin University’s VR expert, Dr Ben Horan, owning VR technology will soon be commonplace. ‘With headsets such as the Oculus Rift, we’re able to take virtual reality technology into people’s homes,’ he says, and it heralds the next wave of ‘highly immersive’ gaming.
Part of the full virtual reality immersion is driven by haptics technology, which allows you to use your hands to feel your way through a game. ‘Haptic technology enables us to touch and feel what’s happening in a virtual environment,’ Dr Horan explains. ‘Haptics provides forces to a part of your body. You feel that force in conjunction with visuals so it feels more realistic.’
When Oculus Rift is released to the public, there’ll also be the option to buy the Oculus Touch, a pair of hand-held controllers that make your hands part of the game and simulate touch using haptic feedback. So if you’re reaching out to defeat an opponent in a game, you might feel vibrations corresponding to weapon you’re using.
But with this next level realism, will this kind of gaming breed dangerous levels of addiction? Dr Horan says that like many technologies, virtual reality could become the next tool that we get hooked on. ‘We need to be conscious that it is a potential problem and look at putting measures in place, such as limiting the amount of exposure someone could have with a virtual reality headset,’ he suggests. But he admits that does become difficult as they slip into the public’s hands because the time spent in virtual worlds is at the discretion of the user.
He insists that it’ll be a while before we’re interacting with other characters in virtual worlds at a level that feels completely authentic. ‘The limitation is going to be the artificial intelligence behind the virtual person. To have emotions and interact like a human – we’re not really there yet,’ he says.
There’s still plenty in VR gaming to be excited about, though. Head to Zero Latency in Melbourne and you can try your hand at ‘free roam’ virtual reality. Six players at a time are able to walk around a mapped virtual reality environment using a VR headset and custom controllers. Zero Latency director Scott Vandonkelaar says the experience he offers gives gaming fans a fully immersive experience they can’t get at home. At $88 per person, it’s not cheap, but he says it’s more affordable than buying the equipment.
‘Not everyone can afford a $2000 gaming machine, which is what some of the best experiences will initially require,’ he observes, and suggests that public virtual reality gaming spaces and theme parks will provide a premium experience. ‘Much like we still go to the cinema for the best movie experience, I think VR will have its equivalent,’ Vandonkelaar says. For both home entertainment and professional centres, he says that what’s really important is the quality of the games. ‘It doesn’t matter how good the technology is if the users aren’t given the experience they want to have inside VR.’
Dr Ben Horan
Course Director – Bachelor of Mechatronics Engineering, School of Engineering, Deakin University
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