VR Gets Real

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.

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