VR Gets Real

Behold the Virtusphere.

Seated on its wheeled pedestal, this 10-foot sphere is at once cutting-edge tech and quirky relic. Step inside, strap on the wireless head-mounted display, and you're treated to a glimpse into the oft-promised future: virtual reality, in the flesh.

When we checked out the Virtusphere at the 2010 Games Developer's Conference, it was pitched as the ultimate immersive-gaming experience. Participants brave enough to step into the claustrophobic shell were handed a faux-rifle, and tasked with blasting away polygonal critters to rack up points.

But the Virtusphere's developers have envisioned many other uses for their project: virtual tourism, fitness regimens, or even training applications for the military and law enforcement. VR technology promises--and has long promised--to offer a practical alternative to the real thing, whenever distance or danger might make a particular activity a bit too much of a risk.

Of course, we've been here before. Like the personal jetpack or the flying car, the promise of a virtual reality future simply refuses to die. The allure of stepping out of our physical shells and into a digital environment is a tantalizing prospect, for both massive entertainment companies looking for a profit and humble tinkerers hell-bent on making the Star Trek holodeck a reality.

What we've seen to date are baby steps: visionaries and gadget-mavens working towards introducing an all-encompassing sense of immersion into the way we interface with technology, be it for work or play.

Chasing a Dream

Way back in 1962, Morton Heilig patented a prototype for a multisensory theater, dubbed the Sensorama. A movie projected inside the Sensorama's cabinet was accompanied by mechanically-induced sensations: carefully selected odors and gusts of air (to simulate a breeze, when applicable) were filtered into the viewing hood, while vibrating units in the seat and the arm and foot rests could simulate the impact of a bumpy plane landing, or a bicycle ride.

Drawing of the Sensorama in Morton Heilig's patent.
Heilig pitched the machine as a "natural environment simulator," ideal for training individuals (or groups) without putting them into any immediate harm. It was also something of a technical marvel, offering stereoscopic 3D and stereo sound well before such technologies had become commonplace. Unfortunately the device was a difficult sell, and it became relegated to the status of charming 1960s-era curio.

The Sensorama may have faded into obscurity, but that hasn't kept companies like Virtusphere from attempting to develop a sensory-based entertainment experience. If you'd like replicate the modern Sensorama experience without investing in a 10-foot cage, Vuzix has you covered. The company develops a wide range of video eyewear, from rugged tactical displays, to video magnifiers for the elderly.

Vuzix sells a number of sunglass-style devices, but they generally consist of a pair of displays--one for each eye. They offer a maximum resolution of 640-by-480 pixels on their top model, the iWear VR920. That may not seem like much, but in their glasses-like format, they give the appearance of looking at a 67-inch screen from a distance of about 9 feet--we reviewed the VR920 a few years ago, and were fairly impressed. While geared primarily toward gamers, actual game support for the VR920 remains limited. In addition to built in headphones and a microphone, the VR920 offers head tracking: Look in any direction, and a game avatar will mimic your actions. All this for a mere $400!

If that doesn't sound very practical to you, rest assured you're not alone. The sort of immersion technology that the VR920 or the Virtusphere offers remains a niche market, to say nothing of engineering feats like the Sensorama. It would seem that, no matter how much we yearn for immersion, we aren't quite ready to adopt unproven devices, particularly those with a hefty cost attached.

The Power Glove: "It's so Bad."

While the Sensorama was ultimately brought down by its cost and the novelty of the experience, video-game giant Nintendo's first foray into virtual reality seemed poised for success. Already a household name, the company introduced in 1989 a new must-have accessory for the gaming enthusiast: the Nintendo Power Glove.

The Mattel-manufactured Power Glove promised players unparalleled interactivity with their video games. It worked by transmitting ultrasonic signals from a pair of speakers in the glove to three microphones, placed around your television set. Move your hand, and the microphones would (theoretically) calculate the location in space of the glove's speakers, translating that movement into in-game activity.

Despite an infamous cameo appearance in 1989's "The Wizard," the Power Glove failed to attain critical or commercial success. Although the audience was already in place, the device itself was largely impractical. Based on the VPL Dataglove, the Power Glove was heavily modified to make it affordable for consumers. As a result, it lost much of the Dataglove's utility and responsiveness. Only a pair of games were ever developed specifically for the peripheral. While the Power Glove did offer support for existing Nintendo titles, performance was clunky at best, and consumers voted with their wallets.

The Power Glove failed, but it isn't hard to see remnants of the device in Nintendo's latest creation, the Nintendo Wii. Though not quite the kind of virtual reality we'd hoped for, the console faithfully implements the feeling of immersion that the Power Glove intended to instill, in a far more practical manner. The ultrasonic signals are replaced by infrared ones, the awkward glove by a remote reminiscent of your television's. Input in games is largely gesture-based; if that sounds awkward, the Wii nevertheless makes a great deal of progress toward getting us into the game--far more than the Power Glove ever did.

To say the Wii has been successful is something of an understatement: Sony's Playstation Move and Microsoft's Project Natal are both due this year, with plans to have us flailing at our television sets in increasingly realistic ways.

Do-It-Yourself VR

At the moment, commercially viable virtual reality remains the domain of corporations with massive research and development budgets. But that hasn't stopped the average basement-bound tinkerer from exploring the space. Consider Johnny Chung Lee's work with the Nintendo Wii. Now a Microsoft researcher, Lee won much acclaim with his Wii-mote hacks, and his demonstration of a workable head-tracking system for the PC is no exception.

Stereoscopic 3D is quickly working its way into our living rooms by way of our television sets, and gaming platforms are poised to follow suit. But 3D technology has a number of caveats, not the least of which is the need to wear goofy glasses. Games are an interactive medium, and generally entail quite a bit more movement than watching a film. If an object is to maintain that 3-D appearance (the "popping out of your screen" effect), a virtual reality platform needs to take head tracking into account.

By installing infrared lights onto a pair of safety goggles, Lee demonstrates how to use the technology inside the Wii's controller (and a bit of custom code) to create immersive environments and the illusion of a three-dimensional space that responds to your movements. The demonstration is rather simple--it involves peeking behind a few extruded targets and panning about photographs by looking at them, naturally. Nevertheless, it represents what a dedicated enthusiast armed only with a video game console and time can accomplish.

Johnny Lee's experiments can be readily duplicated by users with the right peripherals. But they lack that quintessential element of virtual reality we've come to expect: absurd head gear. Fortunately, developer Gavan Woolery has just the treat. Woolery's cumbersome VR rig is a test bed, designed to help him try out theories while implementing virtual reality into his Kiwi 64 game development platform.

Woolery's take on the head-tracking conundrum bears much in common with Johnny Lee's approach. The Natural Point Track IR 5 translates his physical movements into in-game activity, while attaching a 13-pound, 120Hz monitor to a motorcycle helmet keeps the scenery within his field of view.

It may not be as svelte as a pair of infrared specs, but strapping a high-resolution display to your head effectively creates the illusion of having an "infinitely large" HD display--video eyewear like the VR920 maxes out at 1024-by-768 pixels. Pair that 120Hz display with a pair of nVidia's active-shutter glasses, and you have a largely impractical proof-of-concept form of VR immersion, on a grand scale.

Immersion Beyond Play

Gaming is always fun, but creating an immersive experience has theraputic implications as well. Heilig saw his Sensorama as a tool instrumental in training individuals for work in dangerous conditions, and it stands to reason that the military would find some utility in the technology. To that end, extensive work has been done to apply virtual reality as a tool to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The Telemental Health VR Project is part of that effort. The project is geared toward using virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) to treat the anxiety and phobias that soldiers returning from the battlefield may experience, by recreating traumatic events in a controlled setting. Soldiers living with PTSD have traditionally relied on therapy and medication, but interactive mediums like VRET and video-game-inspired simulations have proved increasingly promising.

As the Telemental Project's research attests, soldiers suffering from PTSD who undertake VRET treatment see greater instances of remission than soldiers who are treated by the traditional methods--and recreating events in a virtual setting is significantly less dangerous (and expensive) than returning to the scene of a particular trauma.

Are We There Yet?

For all of technology's advancements, it's hard to deny that the future hasn't quite panned out as we might have hoped. Where are our moon colonies, skies criss-crossed with flying vessels, or intelligent robot servants?

In stark contrast to those Jetson-era daydreams, virtual reality seems like such a sure thing. Head-mounted displays have existed for decades, and virtual worlds like Second Life and World of Warcraft have become commonplace. With the arrival of 3D televisions, consumers will likely become increasingly acclimated to strapping on goggles to dive into their media. And virtual worlds for the corporate set have been attempted before, albeit with limited success. And while virtual reality has stumbled, so-called augmented reality applications have shown the potential that virtual embellishments on meatspace can have on the way we navigate with our cell phones, or shop for our next geeky toy.

So we haven't quite arrived at the holodeck. But for all the missteps along the way (Virtual Boy, anyone?), it seems to be only a matter of time before the consumer demand for immersion, and technology that makes it all practical, finally coalesce.

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