The most iconic moment in Steven Lisberger’s 1982 flick Tron—probably the first mainstream movie to explore the notion of virtual reality—sees Jeff Bridges getting zapped into a computer via laser beam. If only it were that simple in our world.
Conceived in the late ’80s, videogame virtual reality has been, to put it gently, a letdown. The notion of allowing players to play inside their games is nothing short of magical, but the results have been more like cheap party tricks. Consider the Virtual Boy. Released by Nintendo in the summer of 1995, not only was this pseudo-handheld system awkward to wield (it stood on a tripod—how portable!), it was also nauseating to play (predominantly red visuals beamed into your eyes). After selling a dismal number of units worldwide, the system was mercifully discontinued after six months and went on to become arguably the biggest flop in gaming history. Virtual Boy’s infamy still lives on: PC World magazine recently deemed it one of the ugliest products in tech history, while Time declared it one of the 50 worst inventions.
As much of an atrocity as Virtual Boy was, it was also an indication that gaming technology wasn’t nearly advanced enough for such an epic leap in interactivity—kind of like the intermittent appearance of 3-D movies during the ’60s and ’70s. In the last few years, developers have cautiously held off on promising the full VR experience. Instead, they’ve experimented with more tangible, yet not entirely virtual, realities—online games like Second Life and even World of Warcraft, along with the interactive avatar control of Nintendo Wii, PlayStation Move and Microsoft Kinect.
But now it looks like gaming companies are ready to deliver virtual reality 2.0. Mick Hocking, head of Sony’s Worldwide Studios’ stereoscopic 3-D team, says new technology will enable the company to “create immersive virtual-reality gaming experiences in the not too distant future.” During January’s annual Consumer Electronics Show, Hocking revealed a number of futuristic visor prototypes that hark back “to where we really wanted to get with virtual reality in the ’80s.” Since then, he’s been further touting the possibilities in interviews and speeches. “Being in a virtual world where I can see my virtual hands or a virtual gun, with all the things we can do in the gaming world, is going to be absolutely amazing,” he says.
Hocking’s bravado is a little hard to swallow when you take into account the Virtual Boy fiasco. Thanks to that and several other pop-culture mishaps (remember the movie Lawnmower Man?), our premature brush with virtual reality is now considered to be something of a joke. Restoring the credibility of this technology may prove to be an uphill battle, and once-bitten consumers will no doubt be skeptical. Fortunately for Sony, its younger consumers have probably never played a round of Nester’s Funky Bowling on Virtual Boy, and only know hip takes on virtual reality like The Matrix and Avatar. If game designers are smart, they’ll play up this generation gap the way film studios have with the latest wave of 3-D films.
Many viewers didn’t grow up wearing silly glasses for schlocky 3-D movies, so the technology appealed to the thrill of novelty. And now that most blockbusters come out in 3-D, viewers have little choice but to buy into the technology, in theatres anyway, where 3-D revenue still makes up a large portion of movie earnings. (Expensive, cumbersome 3-D home-theatre equipment, however, continues to perform much worse than developers had hoped.)
The one household sales dynamo of late has been the Kinect, an add-on for the Xbox 360 that currently holds the Guinness World Record for being the fastest-selling consumer electronics device. More so than the Wii and Move, Kinect is the closest players have gotten to virtual reality at home. However, even that item has failed to impress seasoned gamers with its motion-sensor technology that allows them to control the action with gestures alone.
Sony’s virtual reality pipedream likely won’t be realized until it’s well into its next-generation console (PS4, presumably), which is rumoured to hit shelves before 2013. We’re probably still a ways off from reaching full-tilt eXistenZ. But be prepared for some next-level gaming in the near future.