Electric Eggplant

Virtual Reality:
It’s Not the Technology

by David Fox

Copyright © 1992-2017 by David Fox, All Rights Reserved.

Note: While this article was written in back in 1992, centuries ago in tech-years, much of what I wrote is still very applicable to today’s computer and video games, and especially true for using existing and emerging technologies for entertainment and education. It’s still not about the technology.

August, 1959

“David! Your Auntie Lee just got a new color TV! Want to go over and see it?”

I was eight years old, and already a dedicated technophile (even though the word wouldn’t be invented for several decades). My entire face lit up, “Wow! A color TV? You bet!!”

We drove to her house and found my younger cousins sitting around the large television consol, 2 feet from its screen. Danny was rapidly switching channels while black and white scenes flashed by, one after another. “Wait, there’s one!” They had stopped at a scene in full color! There was Bucky Beaver singing the Ipana toothpaste jingle, “Brusha brusha brusha, here’s the new Ipana...”

“Wow!” we all exclaimed in unison. We were transfixed. No matter that the picture was blurry or the colors were oversaturated and inaccurate, as if it had been painted by a drunken preschooler. It was in COLOR!

The commercial ended. The regular program started up again, but was in boring black and white. Danny jumped to the knob and began switching again until he found the next color commercial. “Oooh!” we all crooned.

And so it went for an hour or so. We watched one awful commercial after another until the moms said to turn off the TV.

“That was neat!” I said. “Can we get a color TV?”

September, 1989

It was finally my turn. All eyes turned to me as i donned the helmet and glove. The helmet banged me in the eye, and then caught (and pulled out) several of my hairs as it slid down over my head. It was uncomfortably heavy. The images on the tiny screens before my eyes looked like an animated wall of mosaic tiles—much coarser than the large display monitor I had been watching moments before. I had to balance the helmet with one hand to keep the jerky image of a kitchen in focus.

“Wow!” I turned my head to look around, and soon after, the image changed as well.Ok, so I had to move in slow motion to keep the time lag to a minimum. No problem. I moved (stumbled) to the virtual sink, and thrust my computer hand towards the faucet. A steady stream of water appeared (actually, it was a vertical blue featureless polygon). It was wonderful! I had made something happen in Virtual Reality! My face broke into a wide grin.

I had just experienced the 1989 version of an early color TV commercial. I was delighted to spend half an hour exploring several crude worlds, even though the interaction was almost nonexistent—there was absolutely no story, plot, or goal to be achieved. I even endured a slight case of motion sickness from the image lag and slow frame rate. But I still had a great time.

Progress is Made?

Every subsequent visit to Virtual Reality showed me small, incremental improvements in the technology—the eyephones continued to get a bit clearer, the helmet a bit lighter, the frame rate a bit faster, and the head tracking lag a bit shorter. There is no doubt that VR hardware will continue to improve dramatically. In fact, it will get so good that we’ll be laughing at what we had to put up with in the early 90’s, just as we now laugh at those early color commercials.

So, if we don’t have to worry about the hardware getting better, what should we be concerned with?

The software—the actual VR experience.

Even though the hardware is getting better, the virtual worlds I have entered are still as crude as those from my first visit. I’m not talking about the quality of the image, but the level of interaction or involvement that the worlds provide. It is clear that VR is still largely in the hands of the technologists. Storytellers, screenwriters, game designers, and artists have not yet made their impact on this new realm. This is understandable since most of the “world building” to date is done primarily to show off the technology, to get additional funding. Build the hardware, get tech system up, create a short demo to prove it works, and then immediately move on to the next incremental technological improvement. There’s no time or budget allocated to implement a truly innovative world. And tits would be no small undertaking. It takes anywhere from nine months to two years for a team of professional computer game designers, programmers, artists, and musicians to create a commercial computer or arcade game. This equates to budgets ranging from $500,000 to several million dollars, depending on the scale of the project. It will take no less time or money to implement a high quality gaming experience on VR platforms.

True, there are a few companies doing full-blown VR games (e.g., Battletech and Virtuality), but their first attempts are still basic arcade games with the added gimmick of taking place in a VR universe. The mere inclusion of VR automatically adds to the gaming experience in the same way that color added to the experience of watching those early TV commercials, by increasing the “Gee whiz” factor. But this does not necessarily improve game play, nor does it disguise the fact that the games are still primarily shoot ’em ups that appeal to a young male audience.

But this too is understandable. VR is a brand new medium with new, not yet understood, potential. We game designers only have our previous experience to draw upon, so naturally our first VR games resemble our previous, non-immersive games.

One important feature that most VR games have borrowed from some earlier forms of computer games is that they take place in a shared, multiplayer universe. No matter how good game designers get at creating computer controlled characters, interacting with real people in the virtual world is much more rewarding. It’s extremely important to game players that they play against (or with) other people and not just a machine. It’s that much more fun if the players know the people they are interacting with. If the game is properly designed to allow the players the creative freedom to invent their own unique strategies, the game play will remain fresh, innovative, and forever changing as the players experiment with new strategies.

How do we really take advantage of the impact of immersion and of having other humans in the computer-generated universe? The answer will emerge as we have more experience implementing these games.

Here is an analogy to consider: filmmakers at the turn of the century had only one related field from which to draw their inspiration, the theater. So they plopped the camera at the edge of the stage and filmed the actors playing their roles. The scripts were not changed and the camera never moved. There were no close ups, tow shots, or cutaways. but nobody noticed this lack of innovation because now people who never went to see plays could watch them at the movie theater. It took almost two decades before D. W. Griffith used all he learned about the potential of film as a new story telling medium in his ground breaking film, The Birth of a Nation (1915). He discovered that film did not have to be used as a linear recording medium. The film industry was forever changed.

We are just a few years into the experiment of VR as public entertainment. Hopefully, it won’t take us twenty years before we start taking advantage of its possibilities!

Lucid Dreaming

For inspiration, maybe we should look beyond current forms of entertainment. There is an experience many people have from time to time called Lucid Dreaming, a dream in which you become aware you are dreaming. You can then often take control of your dream, choose to fly, rendezvous with someone special, perform feats of magic (much to the astonishment of all the other dream characters), vanquish monsters, or talk back to domineering relatives (often the same thing as vanquishing monsters). Upon awakening, the dreamer often experiences an overwhelming sense of well being, a feeling of empowerment that may last for days. In fact, the experience may alter the way the person views and deals with life ever after!

This is pretty heady stuff! Is it possible to give someone the opportunity to have a similar experience in a virtual world? What if we could confront our personal demons and subdue them while fully awake? Wouldn’t that be even more empowering?

Orson Scott Card seems to have thought of this already in his book, Ender’s Game. The main character, a young boy named Ender, is being specially trained on a large space station at some point in our future. Installed on Ender’s laptop computer is a remarkable adventure game which has been customized for his benefit by the computer itself. The computer knows everything about Ender’s history, his blind spots, his weaknesses, his mindset. The obstacles that the computer puts in Ender’s game path are precisely those obstacles which he most needs to overcome as a person. When Ender becomes stuck in the game, he spends hours mulling over the problem as he goes about his day-to-day life. When the solution finally hits him, it is often accompanied by a realization about the way he views the world. By changing his attitude, his point of view, or his approach to life in general, he also comes up with the solution to the adventure’s puzzle. The game forces him to put his full powers of concentration on solving puzzles that change his life for the better. Ender becomes a more capable leader, more flexible in dealing with the problems that his tumultuous life presents to him. What a wonderful concept!

Film Power

Despite the myriad forms of media entertainment that exist today, film is still the most powerful. The film image fills a significant portion of our vision, we are bathed in high quality sound, and surrounded by other people reinforcing and amplifying the emotions we are feeling. But this is not enough by itself. In its ongoing pursuit to move increasingly jaded audiences, Hollywood has learned how to manipulate us through strikingly intense visuals, hyper-real sound effects, and overpowering musical scores. Film, when done effectively, elicits emotions and feelings we rarely experience in every day life. As a result, film has the potential for changing our lives by transporting us to other places and times and allowing us to view the world from new perspectives.

There are two broad categories of film. The first makes up the vast majority of those produced in this country. This kind of film is the media equivalent of cotton candy—fun to eat, but with no lasting impression. The characters and story are forgotten as soon as we reach the theater lobby.

The second category is films with the power to haunt our consciousness for days or even years. These films feed us the concentrated substance of life experience. Upon leaving the theater, we feel we have just lived the adventure along with the characters. We may feel transformed by their insights, elevated by their triumphs, and inspired to strive for more in our own lives.

Or, the film may have been a very disturbing experience. The images might be nightmarish, the themes brutal, the characters distasteful, leaving us with feelings of fear, paranoia, distrust. The images may spring into our minds uncalled for, like a flashback from a bad acid trip. Either way, the impact is undeniably real.

Which Way to Go?

Currently, our computer games and VR experiences are cartoon-like. It is harder to suspend disbelief and become emotionally involved when interacting with jerky cartoon characters than with realistic images. As the experiential “resolution” of VR advances, and as VR world builders begin using Hollywood production values, this new media will rival, and then surpass the emotional impact that films have on us. Because we are fully immersed while in VR, it will be easier to allow ourselves to believe and act as if the experience is real. We can’t glance to the side and be reminded we’re just sitting in a theater. Because VR is an interactive experience, much more of our mental and emotional selves will become engaged.

The same broad categories that we see in film will appear in VR, but the experiential “volume” will be greatly turned up. The cotton candy experiences will taste sweeter, but will still leave us feeling empty. The powerful, life-altering experiences will have even more potential to affect us, either positively or negatively. Will they balance each other out, or will one become the predominant form of VR entertainment? As an optimist, I’d like to believe that people will choose positive, life transforming experiences rather than existing in nightmares. We’ll soon find out.