Gaming with All Five Senses: the Evolution of Virtual Reality

Evolution of Virtual Reality on the PS5

Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one

– Albert Einstein

For the most part, we’ve always known gaming as a medium that we interact with from a distance. Whether it’s a handheld or a home console, it’s always been us and it. The controller was our connection, our bridge between our world and the one in front of us.

We’ve always imagined a type of game that puts us into the world. Virtual reality is the common term for it, but what if we went past simple visuals in front of us? What if we could, truly, step into another world. What would it take for us to become fully immersed? Reality is malleable in the sense that it’s different for everyone.

Socrates’ Allegory of the Cave in Regards to Gamers

Let me get philosophical for a moment here. Let us consider Socrates and his “Allegory of the Cave.” This concept boiled down essentially describes a cave where people have been chained down since childhood. They are forced to stare directly in front of them at a wall that is illuminated by a fire behind them.

Between the prisoners and the fire is a walkway where others walk by holding objects and going about their lives. These people cast their shadows on the wall for the prisoners to see. Their voices also echo off the wall, making it appear as if these shadows are speaking to the prisoners.

Socrates goes on to say that these shadows are reality for the prisoners. They know nothing outside of the cave and the figures they see on the wall. Now, the allegory goes on to describe what would happen if someone were to escape, but for our purposes, would you not agree that gamers thus far are very similar to these prisoners in the allegory?

We’re accustomed to staying at arm’s length from the things we experience in games. Things are changing though. Gamers are escaping from the prison of a separated world and instead are boldly stepping into this brave new reality.

The Current State of VR

The Oculus Rift brought back to the forefront the concept of VR. Nintendo had the Virtual Boy back in the day, but that did nothing more than give people horrific migraines. After that VR was something you saw at places like Disney Quest and the occasional arcade. It was never a household thing.

To look at the Oculus Rift, it looks like a piece of hardware that you strap over your eyes which then projects a 3D image for your eyes to perceive. You can move your head and view the world around you as if you were there. Quite exciting as a concept. This device began life as a kickstarter and was recently purchased by Facebook for two billion dollars!

Another competitor in the current field is GameFace Labs which has their own high-powered wireless headset running on a custom Android-based VR operating system. Then you’ve got the Avegant which has raised 1.5 million on Kickstarter and is developed using a VR technology that projects images to the back of your retina and reflects it back.

Finally, we’ve got PlayStation VR which is Sony’s upcoming entry into the VR field. Games are already being showcased that take advantage of this technology. At E3 2014, there was Street Luge for PlayStation VR that allowed people to lay on their backs with PlayStation VR on and pilot a street luge down a road at blistering speeds, moving their body to steer.

Oculus showcased an experience where you could dodge bullets like Neo from the Matrix series. Alien: Isolation even allowed people to experience the terror of being hunted through their own eyes. Of course, the Oculus Rift also just released a price point and it’s going to cost $600 at launch. Yeah, that’s more than the price of a brand new console right now. Does this mean that Sony’s PlayStation VR headset will also run for a similar price?

It’s hard to say, because Oculus Rift claims that they are losing money on each sale, and that’s at the $600 price point. On top of this, they’ve also said that it will require seven times the power from PC gamers that want to use it. This begs the question of whether or not the PS4 can even handle PlayStation VR, but more so it makes me wonder if it will be successful at a price point anywhere near $600?

Then there’s Augmented Reality which uses the environment in front of you as the basis, and adds something to it. Microsoft’s new foray into this field, known as the Hololens, seems to be interesting, but it keeps us grounded in our own world. Then you have products like Google Glass and Sony’s Smart EyeGlass.

Smart EyeGlass is still in the prototype stages, but much like Google Glass it offers a wearable device that projects images and information from your phone onto your own field of view, much like the health bars or ammo readouts on a video game Heads Up Display.

The difference here is that Sony is looking more into giving you the ability to see a recipe while you’re cooking without needing your hands to hold the book or phone. You can also check email, and see information about the places you go as you pass by them in real life. Think of it like a virtual assistant that appears in front of you and leaves you free to do whatever else you please.

While Google Glass offers a similar approach, Sony’s current prototype places a remote in your hands to control the various functions of the glasses instead of having the buttons on the device itself. It’s not ideal, but the glasses do track your head motions and allow for voice commands so you may not need to use the remote very often. When you do need to use it, the remote is only about the size of a hockey puck and has a touch pad.

The glasses link to your smartphone via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. Another potential application as a result of this (besides Watch Dogs style augmented reality games) is that the glasses could tap into your phone contacts and use facial recognition to show who your talking to in case you forgot because you have too many friends. Remember, they upgraded the max number to 2,000 on PS4 so you may need a device like this to keep up with all those names.

When the prototype is finished, Sony plans to slim down the battery so you won’t need a remote to control it. So, while the prototype still needs some work, it is planned to have a lot of the features mentioned before (and hopefully games) along with the ability to track your eye movements and allow you to scroll through information that way.

We’ve speculated for a while that VR is going to be a part of the PS5’s Specs but how far could this technology reach before the next console is released?

Breaking Down the Barriers: Creating a True Reality

These VR devices allow us to experience worlds in a whole new way with immersion that applies to our sight. What about the other four senses though? Is reality defined by the existence of stimulations for senses like touch, smell taste, hearing and sight? That is certainly debatable, but most of us would define reality in such a way.

So, until we can smell the putrid depths of Rapture and feel the winds blaze past us as we drive at supersonic speeds through a race course, all the while feeling the wheel in our hands, we are not fully immersed. Is it possible to trick our brains into thinking we’ve stepped into another reality?

Well, not yet, but we consider ourselves forward thinking individuals here. Right now, a new piece of hardware called the Virtuix Omni allows you to walk on a circular treadmill like device with a brace around your waist. Paired with something like PlayStation VR or Oculus, this allows you to walk through the virtual world jumping, crouching, and turning without the need for a controller.

In addition, in 2009 the prototype of a Virtual Cocoon was put forward by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council that allows you to experience something in all five senses. The teams behind it are from the Universities of York and Warwick.

Their devices allows for full immersion into a different reality that stimulates all of the senses to the point where the user should not be able to tell that it isn’t real. The visual portion is handled by a headset, the rest is described by one of the team members as the following:

”Smell will be generated electronically via a new technique being pioneered by Alan Chalmers and his team at Warwick which will deliver a predetermined smell recipe on-demand. Taste and smell are closely linked but we intend to provide a texture sensation relating to something being in the mouth. Tactile devices will provide touch.”

That’s all we’ve got in recent memory, but where do we go from here? Well, the future is composed of tiny little machines and a very familiar science fiction concept that could become a reality.

Science Fiction Now, Technology Tomorrow?

There are several concepts I would like to present to you. These are things that may or may not be around by the time the PS5 is released. Right now, they’re just science fiction concepts put forth by the founder of How Stuff Works, Marshall Brain, in addition to real world institutions. In Marhsall Brain’s online essay “The Day You Discard Your Body” he talks about some fascinating concepts that may just be within our rich by the time PS5 is out.

Some of this is just pure science fiction, but some of it has grounds in reality. Let go of your current reality and let yourself imagine what some of these things could do for gaming.

1. Programmable Matter

Here’s one that will make your head spin. Known as Utility Fog, this concept is a hypothetical group of micro-sized nanobots that would work together to accomplish certain tasks. These tiny bots are known as foglets. If we had, say, a few billion of them working together, they could form into various objects and textures before our very eyes.

While these tiny bots are way off from where we stand, there’s really only one thing standing in our way. It’s something called Molecular Manufacturing and while we haven’t achieved it yet, the idea is there. We would essentially have the power to build something using computerized devices similar to a 3D printer, to absolute atomic precision.

Within ten years, an organization called the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing (linked above) hopes to have real devices that can build anything quickly and without any defects. With this technology in hand, we could build foglets and use clouds of them (utility fog) to create entire environments, objects, worlds even that could be seen, felt, and touched.

A person could interface with these objects by touching them, controlling them through voice, or in many others ways. The foglets would respond in kind, making objects, liquid, anything really, appear and disappear before your eyes. Of course, this kind of scale would require anywhere from 1 and 8 quintillion foglets for a high resolution area.

2. The Vertebrane

This idea is simple, but it has some amazing implications. Imagine a small, very small, nanocomputer installed at the base of your skull, that feeds your brain with all five senses worth of information to essentially pull you out of your world, and into another. Check out this quote from Marshall Brain:

“Vertebrane allows for augmented reality or a complete disconnection of the brain from the biological body and subsequent electronic reconnection to a virtual body typically inhabiting a virtual world. It would be the “ultimate videogame controller.”

The computer, as Marshall Brain describes it, would be installed in your spine. Robotic surgeons would be required for the precision needed, but they would swap out the computer with your upper cervical vertebrae. It would have a fuel cell included that uses the glucose in your blood to power it.

You would be able to turn the device on and off. It could alter what you see and feel, but it could also completely remove your brain from reality as you know it. Every sense is taken with you as you inhabit the form of a virtual being. You brain is essentially transfer into a virtual world. Like the virtual cocoon, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the two worlds in terms of their “reality.”

These are just a couple concepts for you to mull over. Think about how virtual reality could become part of our everyday lives. It sounds impossible, but with things like utility fog and the virtual cocoon already becoming real ideas, the idea of transporting yourself to another world could just be the tagline for the PS5.

What do you think of this new virtual reality craze? Do you think the PS5 should be focused on VR? Tell us your thoughts, and theories in the comments below!

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