VR: Where We’ve Been, and Where We Are Now

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Virtual Reality has been around as a concept since the 1860s, when 360 degree panoramic murals such as Baldassare Peruzzi's Sala delle Prospettive started to appear. A more recent example of this is QuickTime VR, which became a simple method of viewing panoramic images on the web in the 1990s, although it never really caught on. Despite being so long in the thoughts of great minds, Valve's storyline writer on the Half Life and Portal series Chet Faliszek says VR is still in its nascent stage.
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In 1962, multimedia specialist Morton Heilig built a prototype of his Sensorama, which displayed wide angle stereoscopic images, had a body tilting mechanism, stereo sound, released aromas on cue, and simulated wind. 1966 saw the introduction of a flight simulator. In the latter 1960s, an augmented reality headset was produced, although it was so heavy it had to be suspended from the ceiling. In the 1980s VPL Research introduced early goggle and glove based systems that featured a lightweight head mounted display.
 

Virtual Reality for entertainment purposes, specifically video games, only started appearing for consumer use in the 1990s. Sega VR was a failed attempt at bringing this technology into the home, it only made a few appearances in SegaWorld arcades.
 
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Atari worked on a headset called the Jaguar VR. I actually tried one of these, it was running DOOM, had no real stereoscopic support, and the head tracking was awful. The prototypes were scrapped, only two units escaped destruction.
 

When the Wii was released, homebrew designer Johnny Lee created a software demo that tracked a head-mounted IR device, allowing players to simulate a virtual window using their television. A convincing illusion made it appear that you could see through your television into another world. Despite all of these efforts to bring VR to gamers, the holy grail of a fully immersive headset has remained out of reach due to issues we have yet to solve.
 
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Image courtesy of Geekzone.co.nz

Valve game programmer Michael Abrash blogged extensively about the problems encountered trying to resolve judder. This is "a mix of smearing and strobing that can significantly reduce visual quality. The straightforward way to reduce judder is to make displays more like reality, and the obvious way to do that is to increase frame rate," Abrash writes. Another solution involves high intensity displays that will create persistent images that your brain stitches together with the next frame.
 
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Image courtesy of Engadget

These are only some of the technical problems, some of which were already encountered with convincing 3D games displayed in 2D, such as Mirror's Edge. Developers introduced a dot in the middle of the screen, giving the player something to focus on. This greatly reduced nausea and vertigo experienced by some players. If we're already experiencing problems trying to immerse players in a game world, you can bet that the addition of a complete vision-surrounding display in stereoscopic 3D will add a lot more hurdles. Michael Abrash notes that "[not] everything about VR has been figured out, not by a long shot; there’s certainly plenty left to work out with tracking, for example, not to mention input, optics, and software."

Yesterday, through an interview with International Business Times, Chet Faliszek had this to say on the state of virtual reality games at Valve "We're at Pong level." More specifically, he states that "Just because a game genre has been around for 35 years doesn't mean it'll work with VR. How do you move around in VR? Locomotion is a real problem. Or you might find out that that genre shouldn't exist anymore. It doesn't work."
 

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In 2016, Sony will be releasing Project Morpheus, their own VR headset for the PlayStation 4. The console will have to drive visuals at a high frame rate (120 frames per second in development kits) while rendering a full 1920x1080p image, with 960x1080 for each eye. It may be difficult to deliver the full experience we are seeing on 2D displays right now, with many games dropping in frame rates and some being locked at 30fps to deliver consistently. Developers may try to focus on more abstract representations of a world, as opposed to highly realistic scenes that many AAA games have been striving for.
 
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Developer units have been shipped as early as June 2014, but what will games designers come up with? Will they be able to resolve the many nuanced issues that people at Oculus have been trying to perfect for so long, and also have enough time to test a fully realized experience in time for launch? Sony's Shuhei Yoshida is working hard to ensure developers have the resources to take advantage of the hardware, and I wish them the best in trying to realize for the consumer what many engineers and designers have been building towards for over a century.
 
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Are you hyped for VR? What hardware are you putting your faith in? Do you think the games will be able to meet expectations? Please let us know your thoughts!