Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 135 / NOVEMBER 1991 / PAGE 102

Strange new worlds of entertainment. (virtual reality and computer games) (The World of Electronic Games)
by Brenda Laurel

These days, the term virtual reality (VR) likely evokes either a blank stare or a cynical smirk. For many who have been exposed to the hype of the last two years. VR may seem to be just another one of those crazy ideas from California--who really thinks a computer could make you believe you're somewhere else? Most of us in the business have squirmed under the glare of press attention, wishing the idea weren't quite so sexy and the implementation weren't quite so tough. The truth is that VR is still an embryonic medium, and most folks would probably find something lacking if they stuck their heads into today's systems. But people are going to start seeing things that impress them in the next couple of years, and within this decade, VR techniques and technologies will be standard features of many entertainment, business, and communications environments.

Be There Here

For those of you who have not been exposed to the VR hype, here are some definitions. Telepresence is a somewhat more descriptive (and less oxymoronic) term for the popular idea of virtual reality. Telepresence refers to a medium or technology that can give a person the sense of physically being in a different place or time, either real or imagined. One could argue that a good film or a good computer game can create the sense of being in another world, though the forces of empathy and imagination--the "willing suspension of disbelief." But telepresence means something significantly more: It means that you take your body with you into another world; you experience it from the inside. When you watch a good movie or play a good game, you're apt to forget about your body altogether. In telepresence, your body's right there, experiencing sensory immersion. And through a variety of interface techniques, you are also able to do things with your body in virtual environments like walk, fly, or manipulate virtual objects--all good news for the game player seeking more believable simulations.

A central component of telepresence technology is the ability to track a person's movements, especially head and hands and possibly eyes and other body parts, depending on what you're doing. Head tracking allows the computer to adjust what you see and hear according to where you're looking--the technical term is viewpoint-dependent imaging. For instance, as you turn your head toward a virtual window, the window moves into the center of your fiew of view; as you move toward the window, the sound of the dog barking outside gets louder. Telepresence systems usually include three-dimensional video and audio displays. In certain applications, other senses like touch and smell may enhance the telepresence effect. Although the popular image of virtual reality is a person wearing a funny glove with a alien strapped to his or her face, in fact, many different kinds of interfaces can create a telepresence experience. Researchers are working on a variety of less encumbering interfaces that will allow people to have greater physical freedom and comfort in telepresence environments.

Telepresence enables access to two different kinds of environments: virtual and remote. Virtual environments are computer-generated , usually involving 3-D computer graphics and 3-D sound. Remote presence is the term for the ability to experience a real location that is remote in space and/or time, typically employing video instead of computer graphics. In real-time systems, robots with cameras for eyes stand in for humans in places where they can't or wouldn't want to be--on the surface of the moon or under a few miles of water, for example. Both flavors of telepresence are in development for entertainment applications, and eventually they will be integrated--Roger Rabbit style--in words where imagination and reality can intermingle in unprecedented ways. But what about the home computerist? Are you really moving any closer to the days of integrating your entertainment environment with your real one? both your mind and your body will share the experience of electronic play, finally, through the conduit of your personal computer. Home computers may need some more time to evolve, however, to allow for the speed and flexibility that VR demands.

Taking One Step Beyond

Stand-alone telepresnece systems, especially the virtual-environment flavor, are not a natural for arcade-type environments. Atar's Hard Drivin' is probably their closest ancestor. New VR companies like Division, Ltd. and W Industries in the U.K. are currently selling systems that can be used in superarcade environments. Leading arcade-game companies are also developing advanced systems that feature VR and motion-platform technologies, at prices that routinely top $100,000 per system--an order of magnitude more expensive than the average arcade cabinet in 1989. By the summer of 1992, you can expect to see several examples of systems that incorporate telepresence technlogy in superarcades in large cities like Tokyo and New York.

At the high end, limited forms of telepresence are finding their way into large-scale amusement parks and mass-audience installations in the U.S., Japan, and Europe. Ancestors are the current crop of motion-platform rides, beginning with Star Tours at Disneyland. More recent attractions, like the Back to the Future ride at Universal Studios in Florida and UCC Spaceport 2045 in Tokyo, feature a bevy of smaller motion-platform-based systems, each carrying a handful of people through a preplanned course of events. Interactivity--personal viewpoint control and significant choice-making ability--is largely absent, but the overwhelming visceral effects produced by video, motion, and sound in such rides provide a strong sense of you-are-there-ness. You can expect to see more flavors of the motion-platform-based rides with continuing improvements in 3-D audio and video (including high-definition), but don't expect any big breakthroughs in interactivity before the spring of 1993--and remember that the degree of interactivity is always going to be inversely related to the number of people that a system has to accommodate, either at one time or in rapid succession (the theme-park jargon is throughput).

Somewhere between arcades and amusement parks lies a new class of attractions called location-based entertainment (LBE). LBE systems are typically larger and more expensive than arcades, and they are often networked. Photon was an ancestor; Battletech in Chicago is a contemporary pioneer. LBEEs provide a good solution to several problems: They can command a higher ticket price than arcade games but can survive on a lower throughput requirement than theme-park rides; they can piggy-back on permanent public attractions (like urban shopping areas, national monuments, and large museums) or temporary ones (like Olympic Games and world's fairs); and they can help real estate developers turn losses into profits by revitalizing ailing shopping malls (a strategy popularized by Atari founder Nolan Bushnell). Because of the economics involved, the investment climate, and the current players, the most interesting developments in telepresence are likely to take the form of LBEs, at least over the next few years.

Changing Face

Most of the roots of telepresence technology, including viewpoint-dependent imaging and motion-platform technology, lie in military and aerospace applications, so it's no wonder that flight simulation is predominant in today's VR systems--and it's no-brainer to predict that the trend will continue. But an awareness that some of us have promoted since the early days of computer games is finally dawning on entertainment industry executives: Shoot-'em-ups appeal to an extremely limited demographic.

As people come to see more connections between computer-based entertaiment and film, the classical idea of games (with socres, clocks, winners, and losers) is called into question. After all, you can't win a movie. You're more likely to want to be a character in it or to explore its world. The focus of content design in VR is likely to move away from classical game structures and toward dramatically interesting environments and characters. Designers will discover and capitalize on the special powers of telepresence to enhance the relatively simple activity of exploration. In three to five years, intlligent systems utilizing advances in both computer hardware and software techniques will support increasingly complex, dynamic and responsive virtual worlds.

Getting Personal

If all of this sounds like Las Vegas-scale entertainment, just turn the telescope around and look through the other end. For personal access to cyberspace, the key components are the same as for big systems--3 D video and audio displays, head tracking and some degree of system intelligence. You need low-cost interface peripherals and more processing power for the buck in order to achieve acceptable frame rates on small systems.

Technology is moving in an orderly incremental way toward these goals, and we can expect to see low-cost game systems that approximate telepresence experience within 12 months--possibly sooner. One lesson to be learned from the Power-Globe (a Mattel peripheral for Nintendo systems), however, is that without great implementation and a critical mass of compelling applications, the most sensous concepts may wither and die. And the notion of cyberspace seems to suggest that a solitary VR experience is not the Holy Grail--rather, it's human-to-human interaction in a computer-augmented matrix that captures our imaginations.

Already, a lot of lowly little PCs and game machines are boring holes into cyber-space. When this army of personal moles breaks through to the underground fiber-optic rivers of Japan, colonization will spread very quickly. Cyberspace is a literally endless frontier, and we all know how much humans enjoy exploring and settling frontiers. The action on the cyberspace frontier is already being documented. Habitat, a graphical networked world developed by Lucasfilm and sold in Japan by Fujitsu, provides excellent examples.

Chip Morningstar and Randy Farmer, Habitat's principal designers, report tales of crime and exploitation, followed by self-organizing and self-governing activities on the net that are strongly reminiscent of the American West. Citizens of text-based cyberspace communities have organized revolts against corporate overlords that would make an East European proud. Cyberspace re-creates the grand adventure of people coming together in new places, deciding what to do and how to live.

Networked telepreence systems introduce a whole new set of issues into the design of interactive entertainment. The medium alows us to move well beyond clothing, makeup, and personal mannerisms in the ways that we represent ourselves to others. We may create self-representations that are radically different from our physical bodies, and we may preent different versions of ourselves to different people simultaneously. A central design task will be to invent landscapes in which we may interact with others as well as to provide the means for people to collaboratively shape cyberspace environments and objects for their own purposes.

Through telepresence we are diving into a strange new sea, at the confluence of information sensation, and communication. No one can predict what new forms, styles, and genres will emerge; the medium is still too young. But after a few more years of obligatory imitations of the past, interesting games are bound to happen.