Virtual Reality and the Future of Gaming

Photo courtesy of Microsoft

Photo courtesy of Microsoft

Set against the breathtaking backdrop of Utah Lake on one side and Mount Timpanogos, the tallest member of the Wasatch range, on the other, Pleasant Grove boasts the kind of stunning natural milieux that would be expected of a locale billed as 'Utah's City of Trees.' However, if engineers ensconced in a facility located within the area's halcyon surroundings have their way, denizens of Pleasant Grove will soon be able to game in exotic milieux - ancient Aztec ruins and alien laboratories, among others - without setting foot outside the city.

The facility, owned by a local virtual reality company aptly dubbed The Void, is the site of inchoate technology that may one day form the cornerstone of a worldwide virtual reality gaming theme park empire. According to Ken Bretschneider, founder and chief executive of the company, The Void's first virtual reality gaming theme park, expected to be constructed at Pleasant Grove, will open its doors to the public in the summer of 2016. The firm intends to build 250 such facilities around the world in the next five years.

While gaming sessions in The Void's Pleasant Grove facility partly rely on software and hardware that is still in the early stages of development, they offer a tantalizing glimpse into the future of virtual reality games. Players don suits and headsets, bear virtual weapons, and guided by the content displayed on their headset screens, walk around a prepared space. To ensure that the physical and digital worlds are always in sync, the machines that pipe video to the headset screens receive an steady stream of data from high-tech sensors that constantly track the location of players' heads and hands. Certain physical elements - special gloves for generating the sensation of texture and fans for simulating strong winds, among others - may be added to boost realism. Games are composed of multiple levels, and some can even be played by groups of people.

By the third quarter of 2015, Bretschneider, a former cybersecurity entrepreneur, had invested about $13 million in The Void's as yet unproven vision of virtual reality gaming. While appreciable, the figure pales in comparison to the billions that giants such as Google, Samsung, HTC, Microsoft, Facebook and Sony have poured into the fledgling field. Despite this, Bretschneider believes that the virtual reality gaming theme park concept will grant The Void several advantages over its well-heeled competitors. First, the parks will allow players to experience immersive, high quality virtual reality for as little as $30, a far cry from the hundreds or thousands of dollars needed for gaming consoles, powerful computers, specialized headsets and other expensive equipment required to set up virtual reality gaming systems at home. Second, the meld of virtual worlds and physical accoutrements such as fans and specialized gloves should generate a depth of realism that is unlikely to be attainable with home-based virtual reality gaming systems. Finally, The Void's 60-by-60 foot gaming areas, known as 'stages' in the company's argot, will offer far more playing space than the vast majority of living rooms.

Antecedents of The Void's gaming system date back to the 1950s. The first true virtual reality system, the Sensorama, was patented by filmmaker Mort Heilig in 1962, and consisted of an arcade-style cabinet with a vibrating seat, a 3D screen and a scent producer. In the waning years of the 1960s, Myron Krueger, an artist and programmer, developed a projector-based virtual reality system, while Ivan Sutherland, creator of Sketchpad, demonstrated a periscope-esque video headset ominously dubbed the 'Sword of Damocles.'

After a decline, virtual reality experienced a resurgence in the period between 1970 and 2000. Advances in technology allowed for cheaper, lighter and more powerful systems. One of the most notable firms in the field during this period was VPL Research, which was founded by Jaron Lainier in 1984. VPL Research was one of the first tech firms in the world to develop and sell virtual reality products. The Data Glove, a hand-worn data input device, and the EyePhone, a virtual reality headset, were some of the company's best known devices. W Industries, later renamed Virtuality, was another significant virtual reality product vendor of the period. Fakespace Labs, founded by former NASA researcher Mark Bolas, and Silicon Graphics, created by computer scientist James Clark, were other notable companies established during the period.

By the middle of the 1990s, virtual reality had started to experience a decline. Companies such as Virtuality shuttered their doors, while Silicon Graphics and Fakespace saw their public profiles significantly diminish. However, development of the technology continued in military, scientific and industrial fields, although the phrase 'virtual reality' was hardly ever used to describe these efforts.

This changed in 2012, when Palmy Luckey unveiled a headset dubbed the Oculus Rift. The launch heralded a resurgence of interest in consumer-focused virtual reality. Advances in mobile computing and other technologies allowed the headset to avoid the poor performance and discomfort that had plagued similar devices from earlier years. The biggest draw, however, was its ability to generate an unbroken sense of realism. Older headsets had been unable to achieve this feat, leading to unconvincing virtual reality experiences at best, and motion sickness-like problems at worst.

Facebook's $2 billion acquisition of Oculus Rift in 2014 was viewed as a vote of confidence in the potential of virtual reality. This perception was reinforced by the purchase of Oculus Rift headsets by companies such as The Void, and Sony's 2014 unveiling of its virtual reality gaming venture, Project Morpheus, which was renamed PlayStation VR in 2015. Sony expects to sell the first headsets to the public in the first half of 2016. Apart from Sony and Facebook, HTC and Valve also offer a virtual reality gaming headset, which is known as the Vive. Samsung, another prospective player in the industry, is developing a gaming headset dubbed the Gear VR.

Microsoft's HoloLens is probably one of the most interesting implementations of virtual reality announced to date. The venture, announced in the early months of 2015, leverages a headset with a central processing unit, a graphics processing unit and a holographic processing unit to overlay the real world with images and data. To keep track of the wearer's position in space, the headset relies on a variety of sensors and an inertial measurement unit. While demonstration units have been used to play Minecraft, Microsoft's aims to sell the device primarily to businesses. Despite that, the device will probably find its way into the home gaming market.

HoloLens may cost significantly more than a game console, according to the New York Times. If true, this will contrast sharply with Google Cardboard, a low-cost take on the virtual reality gaming concept. The platform utilizes a fold-out cardboard mount for a smartphone and an ecosystem of Android and iPhone apps. As displays get sharper and phones cheaper, this approach may turn out to be extremely successful.

Despite its fledgling status and unproven potential, interest in the technology, particularly among young gamers, remains high. Globally, 51 percent of gamers believe that virtual reality and its close cousin, augmented reality, are the future of gaming, according to a worldwide June 2015 survey conducted by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers. This suggests that there is a large population of prospective early adopters, a critical requirement in the success of any tech product.

Whither thou goest, virtual reality gaming? The industry is still in its formative stages, making the future of virtual reality gaming hard to discern. The Void's imaginative take on the concept may triumph due to low costs, enhanced realism and a group-friendly implementation, while the widespread adoption of Android and iPhone handsets bodes well for Google's low-cost approach. Oculus Rift, Playstation VR, Gear VR, Vive and similar implementations may become more popular as advancing technology allows for cheaper and more powerful headsets. The HoloLens could be the virtual reality system to beat if it gets compelling games and a lower price. However, unforeseen events, such as another decline, or the invention of a particularly compelling virtual reality gaming platform, could affect the continuing resurgence in unknown ways.