Brian Moore tests out the VirtuSphere. (Brian Lane Winfield Moore/Flickr)
"I put on the head-mounted display and I was very disappointed because all I saw were fat pixels. You know, nothing was interesting," says Mel Slater, a professor at the University of Barcelona and a world expert in virtual reality (VR). "I was in a room. I could make out that much. But then somebody said 'move your head,' and the minute I moved my head, suddenly I was really in a room, and I heard sounds and I could see as I moved my head around."
"I used a mouse button or a wand button to float over to the window, I looked out of the window, there was a boat down below on some water," he continues. "I started floating down towards the boat. And then I heard someone say 'your time is up.' They took off the head-mounted display and I was very shocked to be back in this bright, realistic reality."
As a new wave of virtual-reality peripheral equipent, such as the much-talked-about Oculus Rift, receives press attention and thousands of pre-orders, experiences like Slater's look set to become more and more commonplace. But the extraordinary thing is that his dream-like story of feeling suddenly immersed in a virtual room is more than 20 years old. It was, in fact, Slater's first ever experience of virtual reality; the first time he ever experienced the sensation known as "presence" -- the feeling of "really being there," or, as he describes it, "place illusion."
I too have felt truly present in a virtual environment. I've looked out over a gaping chasm, heard the wind wail in my ears, and felt my pulse quicken even though, cognitively, I was able to remind myself that it was all just pixels and audio files. But knowing that this visceral sense of presence has been available for decades raises a question about virtual reality's long and tortured battle to be accepted as a mainstream form of entertainment: Why the hiatus? Why has the magic of VR been confined for so long to occasional demos and lab research, effectively trapped in academic obscurity?
Having spoken to several developers and proponents of VR, the consensus seems to be twofold. For one thing, the cost of the hardware has, in the past, been astronomical. Some of the latest gadgets are still priced well above a consumer-friendly level, such as the IGS Glove, a peripheral developed by Synertial (formerly Animazoo) which allows your virtual hand to flex and move exactly like your real hand, right down to intricate finger movements.
Mark Lewis, head of sales at Synertial, framed the glove to me as "a business product." For example, auto manufacturer Skoda is currently using it to research how engineers on the production line manipulate mechanical parts during assembly. However, he added that Synertial was also "investigating" potential consumer editions of the glove which might appeal to a contemporary VR market.
Secondly, and perhaps most obviously, seamless, high-quality VR has been hard to create. Presence, although momentarily intense, is thought to be very easy to disrupt, hence the VR term "break in presence," or BIP for short. "The application must keep you in this other world. This is very fragile," Sébastien Kuntz, founder of software firm "i'm in VR," said to me, explaining his conservatism regarding the current renewed interest in VR as an entertainment platform. Kuntz mentions several kinds of technology which he says come close to improving VR but which, in the end, might actually cause a break in presence more often than not because they haven't been designed thoughtfully enough.
For example, he cites the frequent lack of interest in developing effective soundtracks for VR apps. "If the sound is really great you don't have to have to [worry about creating] better graphics because the senses compensate one another," he says. He adds that achieving photorealism within the virtual environment is not necessary when inducing a sense of presence, a handful of key senses just need to be stimulated in the right way.
But the greatest challenge for virtual reality has always been movement. The act of simply walking around a virtual space is still restricted by the awkward correlation of that virtual room to the real room in which a VR user is standing. This precise problem, though, is one which a diverse array of new peripherals is hoping to tackle.
There's the Omni, a kind of stationary grooved dish and harness that you can walk and run on (your feet always return to the same spot); the newly launched WizDish, a similar but more affordable concept which uses anti-friction studded shoes; and finally the elaborate VirtuSphere, a 10-foot high hollow ball which encases the VR player within its spherical design.
All of them, however, have limitations. Jan Goetgeluk, creator of the Omni, admits that the harness which comes with the device means very athletic gestures or behavior such as crawling are not possible. "You're not gonna play soccer on the Omni for example," he comments. But the device is an exciting step in the right direction. In their currently ongoing Kickstarter launch, Goetgeluk and his team have already secured almost $1 million of crowd-sourced funds.
"We've been doing this Half Life 2 demo," Goetgeluk told me, recalling a promotion at E3 earlier this month. "At some point we encounter enemies and they start throwing grenades at you. Everyone, as soon as they see that grenade coming, everyone just starts sprinting. It's a natural reaction, it feels real. You feel the need to start sprinting, your brain thinks you're there, it's very intense."
The WizDish is also seeking financial backing from the crowd. Having tried the WizDish, I can report that the sensation of "walking" by sliding one's feet back and forth on a low-friction platform is odd but effective enough to suggest that one is moving more naturally through a virtual environment. For users of the VirtuSphere, there is a trade-off between being able to walk "in a natural way, in any direction," and not being able to stand close to other players, according to one of its creators, Allan Latypov.
One outfit, Project Holodeck, has attempted to combine various peripherals in order to enhance the VR experience. Its developers have created simulations in which players (wrapped in equipment such as translation trackers, the Oculus Rift, controllers and even a laptop in a backpack) work together to overcome objectives in the virtual world.
James Iliff, producer, says, "Users can reach out and hit their friends' arm in the virtual world, and their friend is physically there in reality. They can have sword fights, and shoot at each other, and work together to battle enemies."
But all of these approximations of walking attempt to capitalize on the classic understanding of presence which Kuntz and Slater discussed during conversation: It doesn't have to be perfect to feel perfectly real.
As Julian Williams, inventor of the WizDish, put it himself: "If you can simplify things so that your mind thinks they're happening, your brain seems to be very plastic and very able to accept it."
That same plasticity is the fundamental component in one of the most exciting things about virtual reality: not that it is possible to convince the user of being in another place, but to convince him or her that they possess another self.
"It's one thing to change the world you're in so that you perceive yourself to be above a great abyss, that's interesting, but when you turn into a lobster or something, that's really profound," says Jaron Lanier, someone who experimented with VR in its earliest incarnations and who has perhaps become its most well-known proponent.
He tells me about a VR app he experimented with in his 20s which involved "trading eyes with a lover," an environment in which, "you look at each other's eyes and you have to learn to co-ordinate a shared body." He giggles as he imagines the "social problems" that could arise in a future where we all start experimenting with such things.
But behind that laughter is a point of seriousness for Lanier. He says that much of his contemporary technology criticism, such as that in his 2010 book, You Are Not a Gadget, stems directly from his awareness that Virtual Reality has this potential to be such a radically transformative experience.
"Seeing how readily people can be manipulated by virtual worlds has helped me, I think, develop a healthy sensibility of just how potent these tools can be," he says when I ask him specifically about the psychological effects of that feeling of "presence." Indeed, Lanier talks about VR with a curious mix of excitement and apprehension, sometimes calling it "cosmic," but now and again suggesting theoretical negative consequences.
"There's a real tension here for me," he explains, "between the incredible beauty and power of this stuff and also the potential for humanity to confuse itself."
Some experimental confusion, though, is exactly what Mel Slater tries to achieve every day in his research. Recently he has published papers on giving people alternate bodies and documenting the effects on their behaviour. For example, it turns out that a VR user who is given a "Jimi Hendrix"-like body will play the drums more enthusiastically than someone whose avatar is a pale-skinned person wearing a suit.
Relatedly, in some of his most recent research on the subject, Slater has explored how white or pale-skinned VR users would experience momentary changes in racial bias (measured via implicit association testing) when they were given avatars with different skin colours in the virtual world.
"The incredible thing is -- not for long, I'm talking about ten minutes -- you give them this implicit racial bias test again, the scores change," he explains. "The ones you've put in a dark body have a lower racial bias than the ones you put in a white body or a blue body."
Underpinning all of these experiments is a 20-year career of trying to discover what is necessary to achieve presence. Slater's experiments with body morphology are in many ways dependent on presence not being broken. He tells me about one experiment that his team tried which involved simulating a bar-fight. Participants in early versions of the environment who witnessed the scene unfold had an unexpectedly flat response. Why? Because, they said, "a fight like that would never happen in a bar that looks like this."
It's an anecdote that brings home the fragility of presence, the fact that it is so dependent on a multitude of factors: our many senses, our complex expectations of the world around us. In virtual reality, a range of stimuli compete to convince the brain of a constructed perceptual reality, but that perception is at the mercy of the very neural sensitivity which makes presence possible in the first place: We may feel, hear, or see something that drops us right back into the cognitive reality which is fully aware that what we perceive is but a colorful lie.
Stuart Cupit, co-founder of London-headquartered tech studio Inition, has been experimenting with VR demos for years and is acutely aware of the technological restrictions which coexist, as they have always done, alongside captivating science-fiction fantasies of what might one day be possible.
For Cupit, the crudeness of what is still somewhat clunky, "strap-on hardware" remains obvious. "What you want to be doing," he says, "is tricking the senses at a base level."
And isn't that the essence of the virtual? It certainly seems to be what rests behind this powerful line from The Matrix (1999): "How do you define 'real'? If you're talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then 'real' is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain."
And Cupit, though excited about how the field is developing, is, like most long-term practitioners, aware of what still needs to be achieved before the total immersion offered by something like The Matrix is even conceivable. "We've got to realize that the peripherals we're seeing now aren't the ones our kids will grow up using," he argues. "These are the embryonic steps towards a new way of interacting with media."
To date, the narrative of virtual reality is still little more than a history of many embryonic steps. But tantalizing opportunities to feel presence, even for brief moments, have been there throughout. This alone has propelled so many currently working in the field. They have stories both of their early experiences and their subsequent dreams of how to make VR more stable and more accessible.
It's a wonderful example of how the very idea of futuristic technology is an enabler, how it becomes an irresistible inspiration for the tinkerer. Allan Latypov, of the VirtuSphere, told me about growing up in Uzbekistan with his two brothers, Nurali and Ray. The Latypov's parents were science teachers who encouraged educational creativity and, although the family did not own any computers, they had "the best private collection of technical literature in town."
Eventually the brothers moved to Moscow and it was there that their collaborative work on virtual-reality devices began. "VR unlocked our creative energy," Latypov comments. And, in a remark which seems to sum up everything about the long, meandering battle to make this stuff work, Latypov states, simply, "This fantasy became a part of our lives. We couldn't stay away from it."
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