Friday, December 09, 2005

Quantum Future Santa X-Mas List Item # 1: A Viable VR Helmet

(From my Quantum Future Santa X-Mas List of 2005)

I don't think I'm being at all unreasonable here. In fact, I think the pieces are in place for a viable virtual reality display as early as next year.

Why? The new generation of game consoles packs plenty of punch. But most notably, Nintendo’s upcoming Revolution console has a motion-tracking controller. Since motion tracking is one of the essential components of a head-mounted display, mass production of these controllers can be expected to drive down the price of this technology. Given that the Revolution will also come with the stationary reference point devices that the controller uses to determine its orientation, this console would make a logical first home for VR.

The more difficult challenge is the display itself. The obvious choice is LCD or OLED, which are not known for combining high refresh rates and tiny pixels on inexpensive screens. Low refresh rates would mean blurriness anytime the head is moved, since the entire frame must be redrawn to reflect the change in perspective. Large pixels would mean a large screen, with a correspondingly bulky helmet.

There are more exotic options: A scanning beam can be aimed directly into the retina of the viewer. It's not as dangerous as it sounds; the power levels involved are so low that being out in direct sunlight is probably far more taxing on the eye. Direct-scanning devices are currently used in a small number of applications – mostly military and medical – but provide only low-resolution text and diagrams of a single color. So it will be a while yet before these displays capable enough and cheap enough for consumer VR. But the technology is essentially the same as that behind DLP, one of the popular new flavors of large-screen TV. This may help bring down prices, and your second-generation VR display may well be a lightweight pair of direct-scan glasses.

In any case, we clearly can’t expect first generation VR to match the resolution of high-definition television sets – resolutions the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation3 are designed to make use of. This may be yet another reason the Revolution, lacking HD support, would make a logical first home for VR.

Videogame developers have been in a creative funk for a while. Gamers are hungry for titles that don’t just look or sound better. They want something truly new. The Revolution’s controller will tap into this desire. A VR display could do the same. It might have to be bulky the first time around, but Nintendo can make that a feature; all they need to do is roll it out with a special Metroid title and it can look, from the outside and in, like the battle helmet worn by hero Samus Aran.

The Virtual Boy was a long time ago. It's time to get over it and stop chickening out.


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