Thursday, December 09, 2004

The Sick Truth About Virtual Reality?

In Mark Pesce’s ‘The Playful World’( a book I’ve previously mentioned but not reviewed), he relates an interesting insider’s tale of the early days of Virtual Reality. Actually, it’s the premature days of VR – the era of Nintendo’s Virtual Boy and other misguided, mislabeled implements of eye pain that gave VR the bad reputation it enjoys to this day. The system Pesce was working on at the time was for the Sega Genesis, and by his account would’ve been far better than anything else within reach of the general public: it had the essential head-tracking feature separating VR from mere 3D glasses (which is all that the Virtual Boy and an earlier Sega accessory were).

But the product was terminated at the cusp of completion.

It seemed that test subjects trying out the prototype would often take several minutes or more to recover from their experience. Pesce says that today’s VR equipment tricks the brain into adopting a new spatial awareness, but does so only with a limited number of the orientation cues used in the real world – and VR doesn’t manipulate these exactly the same way real life does. As a result, people can come out of the experience disoriented, with trouble focusing--even dizzy or nauseous. Concerns about immediate injury aside, there was the question of what effects long-term use might have on the developing brains of the target demographic.

With no medical evidence or background whatsoever, I’m going to suggest that any effects would probably be negligible, and could even be beneficial.

You see, we modern humans already adjust to different patterns of perceptual awareness with some regularity. Some of the first humans to get a real taste of this were probably sailors. The untrained mind revolts to the discrepancies of motion and vision on a body of water, often with chunky, acidic effect. Getting one’s “sea legs” takes some getting used to, but it does reliably happen. When sailors disembark, the firmness of solid earth can be disorienting, too. But again, the effects are temporary.

Nowadays, automobiles are a more common alternative perceptual experience. We don’t often notice it because we ride in cars from the earliest days of our youth, but to someone who has never traveled at speeds not reachable by animal legs, the smooth, cocooned accelerations of a car can be as nauseating as a sea voyage. I suspect most of us have felt car sick at some point or other, despite our usual acclimation.

Trains, planes, submarines, rollercoaster rides… all opportunities for disorientation, sometimes intentionally, but we seldom worry about long-term effects on our brains.

But none of these fully replace our visual awareness the way VR does. Is this a fundamental difference?

I doubt it. Consider getting a pair of glasses for the first time, or an updated prescription. You can experience a kind of fishbowl dizziness, but you adjust over a period of days, if not hours or minutes. And with some conditioning, can switch between wearing glasses or contacts or nothing with little discomfort

I’ve noticed the same thing when playing “first-person shooter” games on my computer, which are close cousins of VR. I’m a pretty talented player who quickly assimilates the spatial dimensions and physics of a game, and as such, I’m shifting my movement and visual directions very rapidly when I play, both to avoid being killed and to stay abreast of my three-dimensional surroundings. But I often go months at a time without playing a FPS. And if I haven’t played one in a while, I can get pretty green around the gills if I bust out of the spawn at full tilt without warming up. (Watching other hard-core players can be similarly disturbing, since my brain can’t anticipate their jinking and jumping.)

I don’t think that VR will be all that different. The technology is improving as well, which should make a comforting difference; instead of abstract Euclidian shapes, we’ll be getting the same level of detail we see in games today. In fact, today’s high-end game engines can accommodate multiple, shifting viewpoints so easily that hooking up VR hardware at home will be pretty trivial. I suspect I will be one of the first to jump on board when affordable VR helmets are introduced with display quality rivaling that of my monitor. I’ve always felt that certain games, particularly those with aerial dogfighting, need the smooth look-around capability in order to capture the essence of three dimensional combat. But most any game with a 3D environment could benefit.

First-timers will find the experience exhilarating, and probably a little disorienting when they disconnect. But in short order they will adjust to switching in and out of VR, and it will seem as natural as slipping reading glasses on and off.

There are people who use VR regularly today; most of them are scientific or engineering specialists who use it to help them model complex structures. I haven’t heard about any long-term disorientation problems.

I will even go so far as to say that young people will potentially be at a disadvantage if they are kept from using VR devices out of fear for their safety. I foresee a large number of commercial applications once the price point is reached, and many will come to depend on VR to earn a living. Those who have trouble making the adjustment will be in a tough spot; imagine a business person today unable to travel in any closed vehicle without getting sick.

Bring on the VR, I say. The corporation who doesn’t, out of fear, will miss out while a competitor scoops up tremendous profits. Their gear will be profusely labeled with warnings and disclaimers, just as it is now. (Epileptics beware!) And the fears will prove to be overblown.


Post a Comment

<< Home