Virtual reality is the silver bullet. It’s the Holy Grail. It’s what science fiction has mercilessly promised us for decades, and the ultimate level of gaming we’ve dreamed about for most of our lives. The bad news is, we’re probably not going to be getting anything like the Star Trek Holodeck or the Matrix in our lifetimes. The technology to re-imagine an entire room around us, or re-create an entire world within us, is simply too far away. (Never say never, though — once upon a time we were told computers would never be powerful enough to render a realistic humanoid, and now those adorn practically every science fiction and fantasy film we see.)
However, another popular sci-fi mainstay, the virtual reality headset, could be a lot closer. We don’t need to paint a room or fake out our brains if we can cover our field of vision and dazzle our eyes. Sure, it’s not the same, but one-to-one tracking strapped to our faces is far closer to a reality than anything Jean-Luc Picard or Neo get to experience.
In fact, it’s almost here already in products like the Oculus Rift, which we’ve seen demonstrated at the Consumer Electronics Show and Game Developers Conference. It’s a project bordering on a product, but if you’ve ever tried it, or ever seen someone try it…
The technology disappears and all that’s left is the experience
How does virtual reality work?
As humans we see in 3D, but what we are actually seeing is a composite of two 2D images – one from each eye – interpreted into 3D by our brains. The offset of just a few inches between our eyes allows for slightly different perspective views, a phenomenon called ‘parallax’.
Virtual reality works on the same concept, except that it provides the two parallax images for us. With a pair of properly aligned images, the human brain will combine the images it receives just as it does the real world, by filling in the gaps and creating a 3D interpretation that seems just like reality.
You look out. You look up. You see snowflakes. You reach for them. In that moment, the technology disappears and all that’s left is the experience. It’s transformative.
Perhaps Google Glass is heading that way as well, and who knows what Apple, Microsoft, and BlackBerry, and companies like Nvidia, and small startups we’ve yet to hear about, are working on deep in their vaults.
One day we might just put on a pair of glasses, link to our mobiles, and see games explode across our virtual horizons. Everything from first person shooters to casual puzzlers could be amazingly, experientially, virtually real.
It certainly won’t be practical all the time, or even most of the time, but for immersive gaming, for when we want to turn on and truly tune out, when we want to explore worlds other than our own, for the first time it’ll be a possibility. And it’ll be sooner rather than later.
I want it now.
Is there a place in mobile for virtual reality?