Thursday, November 14, 2013

Guest Article about Virtual Reality by Writer Claire Arthurs

Claire Arthurs

Virtual Ages through the Reality
Ever since gaming was first thought of the idea of being able to step into an entirely virtual world has never been far from discussion. Virtual Reality gaming, known as VR, can refer to any technological simulations that mimic the real world. The term "real world" has a very loose definition within the scope of VR. Whereas the "real world" for most of us involves getting up in the morning and trudging off to work, the idealized world of VR is one where anything is possible. Just as fantasy literature aims to create a world for its readers to escape to, VR aims to create a literal fantasy that players can walk around and interact with. The art of gaming is often an intense and unparalleled experience. In this way, VR aims to become a portal into countless other realities.

An Original Idea
It was during the 1990s that VR first became part of mainstream discourse. Having emerged as a conservative idea for the use in movies in the 1950s, VR in the realm of computers owes its ancestry to Douglas Englbart who was the first to connect a monitor to a processor. The idea of melding processing power with the visual took root very quickly, and by 1961 the Headsight project had been born. Mostly used by the military and pilots, Headsight could create training scenarios (such as night time) without exposing trainees to the risks. Only four years later the Ultimate Display project was underway. Led by Ivan Sutherland, Ultimate Display tried to mimic the real world in terms of its focus on 3D objects and tactile stimuli. The tactile element has never been lost from gaming, with most contemporary controllers having controllers that vibrate in response to in-game actions. Consoles themselves have taken leaps forwards in terms of graphics, and Nintendo's 3DS was the first handheld console to develop a fully 3D screen.

A Psychological Relationship
3D and RV raises interesting questions about the psychological relationship between the player and the game. Several neuroscientists and psychologists have conducted studies into the effect of gaming on various different elements of cognitive development and psychology. Whilst the media tends to shout about murderers having played a violent video game before going on a spree (something which statistically remains a minority percentage), scientific studies have tended to find strong positive links between game playing and motor control. Something that is otherwise only found in children who study musical instruments from a very early age, playing games such as first person perspective shooters seems to give children lightning quick reflexes, staggeringly good eye-to-action responses, and the ability to simultaneously hold multiple thoughts in the mind. Entering into a virtual world has also been found to relax children. Even though it can be frustrating trying to take down a boss, the focus needed to negotiate the levels in many different types of game have a calming influence on many young players, particularly those with ADHD or communication difficulties.

Keeping a Focus
This ability of games to help players focus is something that has been known about since well before the days of the xBox 360 and PS. Tabletop Role Player Games (RPGs) such as the world famous Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder require considerable feats of attention. Players are required to hold multiple statistics in their minds, but these only form the bare bones of a game which players are otherwise required to flesh out for themselves. In this way, the table top RPG is a portal into a VR world that requires many different areas of cognition to function. Live Action Role Play Games (LRPGs) take this a step further by creating universes in which people can dress up and assume the identity of their avatar.

The Future 
The ideal future, therefore, would appear to be a mixture of all these elements. The carefully crafted graphics of the modern game design, with all of its complex interface. The cognitive involvement of table-top RPGs, with their chess-like precision that requires the involvement of imagination. The real world element of LARPGs, where players can walk around and interact with each other in a natural way. Chronos is one system that currently aims to bridge some of these gaps. In this case, it aims to transition LARP to Tabletop, and in so doing to remove some of the delaying elements of both. For instance, both risk conflicts that take time to resolve, and these break the gameplay. Chronos aims to smooth out and speed up the process so that players can move seamlessly from one action to another.

Other new efforts include the Oculus Rift, which is a 3D head mounted display, similar to those imagined in hit sci-fi series such as Red Dwarf back in the 1990s or more recently in Spielberg's dystopian thriller Minority Report. Oculus Rift makes use of nanotech construction to enable the manipulation of elements in the space viewed through the headset. A magnetic field tracks the movements of the gamer's hands, allowing him or her to interact directly with the virtual world. Just one of many similar projects, the 1960's vision of VR as being something where a gamer can quite literally step into another world looks set to become a literal reality in the near future. For gamers and developers everywhere, an exciting chapter is about to begin.