What is our Virtual Future?

Published Mar 5, 2021 4 PM

Our connection with technology grows as we assimilate to it. Originally we had large steel cabinets consuming rooms to spit out a series of digits. The interactions with these machines felt distinctly non-human. We would punch holes into long stipes of dense paper and watch as it rolled into the computer importing our information as 1s and 0s. With the advent of keyboards and text messages, we pecked words into small, monochrome displays. Emotion, tone, and meaning were now delivered through human language, yet the way we inscribed it felt still unnatural. Nowadays we have a combination of sounds and visuals plastered along our flat screens. It brings us closer to the true experience of enjoying another environment in person, but it cannot be used as a substitute for the real world. Current technology does not correspond with our natural intuition. This is most evident in video games. Video games at their core are a simulation of a new reality. But the skills required to effectively navigate and immerse yourself within these virtual worlds are trained over long periods. I have played these games for as long as I can remember. On the other hand, my father has never experienced them. So I decided to run a little experiment. I sat my father down and loaded up an older game named Skyrim. It was a title that truly embodied the depth and scale of these virtual worlds. As a player, you could live full lives within the game. You could clash with other players, build houses, or even marry a virtual character. I wanted to see the experience of someone who has never played videogames before. 

The game’s tutorial was not practically helpful in assisting my father in moving or fighting. The fast reaction time engrained into my hand was not present in my father. Instead of playing the controls like how one would play the piano, smoothly rolling into the next action, he instead was playing it as a robot, stiffly smashing the keyboard. I would admit that his actions pained me slightly. The character was jittering across the screen, walking into walls and hitting fences instead of people. While I saw a world of adventure, filled with snow-top mountains and glistening oceans, instead, my father saw this jittery mess that he couldn’t figure out. The main issue with today’s systems is that they aren’t intuitive enough for those who haven’t trained their muscle memory to play these games.

Although I failed to introduce my father to traditional virtual worlds, I had just acquired a VR headset. These devices consist of two controllers and an HMD (head-mounted display). The controller’s handles were reminiscent of a pistol grip if it were to be smoothly sculpted.  An oblong trigger mechanism is placed on the controller similar to firearms. A secondary trigger is placed on the side where the middle finger would typically rest. These triggers are designed to emulate the hand’s motion of gripping objects. At the top of the grip, a circular pad contains the remaining controls including a joystick and two secondary buttons. These controls are typically used for secondary action within a simulation. The dull plastic ring fused to the base of the primary trigger and jutting out at a 45-degree angle relative to the circular pad is used to track the controllers within a 3D environment. The extraneous contours help the controllers nestle comfortably in the hand. The HMD is a marvelous piece of technology. The main body is a smooth rectangular prism with 4 infrared cameras attached to the 4 vertices opposite of the face cutout. The tracking system recognizes objects within view such as posters, TVs, furniture, and a myriad of other items and tracks their position relative to them. The face cutout contains a cold silicone wrapping that presses against your forehead and the bridge of your nose and the ratcheting head strap presses against the back of your head with a similar sensation. The lens within the actual headset covers the area from your eyebrow to about halfway down your nose. These lens point at a set of stereoscopic images placed on a display. The images sent to each eye are slightly different causing us to interpret two 2D images as 3D. This device interprets our natural movements and maps them to a virtual environment. Instead of using arrow keys to move, we just have to walk. To grab an object you can physically reach out and squeeze your hand and move it around naturally. To fire a gun you pull a trigger on the controller. To swing a sword you swing your arm. By mapping the motions and gestures we use every day to our virtual worlds we make them far more expressive and immersive.

With the controls being more natural, I decided that I should have my father try it again. I wanted to note the difference between his traditional gaming experience and this new system. I decided to load up a rhythm game instead of a more traditional story game. This means that although the world itself isn’t as detailed it tests the reaction speed and knowledge of the controls. The game was called Beat Saber and it was a music rhythm game where you slash through red and blue cubes in a certain pattern, indicated by arrows placed on the block, to the beat of the music. Unlike the previous game, my father was immediately able to understand the controls. This game in theory should be far more difficult to play than the previous, but instead, he found it much more natural and easier to immerse himself in this world.

VR is the next step in the assimilation with technology. The non-human interface we originally used to experience the virtual world is slowly going to be replaced by VR. A simulation akin to the Matrix isn’t too far off. VR itself is a precursor to the time when we permanently plug in.

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