Virtual Progress

I’ve been a gamer for over 30 years. Mainly because I’m raving old and, well, I’ve enjoyed playing video games since I was a kid.

A long time ago on an 80’s computer far far away, I played a Star Wars “game” that involved trying to shoot down a Tie Fighter that looked like this:

(<>)

Amazing huh? To be honest, it might have looked like this:

<*>

It was a long time ago and I can remember the specifics, but it was definitely ASCII characters that flickered across the screen in black and white. A quick image search came up with this, which isn’t the Tie Fighter game in question, but it looks familiar and shows the hight of gaming graphics at the time.

 

 

Yes, that’s a full screenshot, not a close-up of an iOS icon.

Fast forward to now, and my recent purchase of Sony’s new Virtual Reality headset peripheral for the Playstation 4.

I’ll spare you all the many, many years of ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amiga, 486 PC, Pentium PC, Playstation 1, Sega Dreamcast, Sega Something else, Nintendo 64, Nintendo Gamecube, Playstation 2, Xbox, Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 gaming in-between.

(Most of those are still in the loft!)

I’ve said for a while that in-game graphics are peaking and the next big things in gaming will be Virtual Reality and Artificial Intelligence.

A.I. because it’s all well and good having a photo realistic rendering of a bad guy but the immersion is ruined when he doesn’t seem to notice a fellow baddie being shot in the face right in front of him. I guess he just might not care enough to react, but either way it breaks the spell and detracts from the game.

And VR because whilst the constant upping of resolutions and frame rate is welcome, the pictures you look at in glorious high resolution are still constrained by the size of the rectangular screen or three sat in front of you.

Once the practicalities of things like hardware capability and affordability are sorted and the pesky chicken and egg matter of nobody risking developing VR games until the predicted sales are enough, and nobody buying VR hardware until there are enough games available is cracked I think VR will take off.

Sony’s kit was released 10 months ago and I’ve been hovering over the ‘buy now’ button ever since. Last week I gave in and the next day a nice man in a white van handed over a couple of parcels.

After revelling in the new gadget smell and wrestling the octopus of new cables, it was all set up and I gave it a go.

Holy crap.

I know the resolution is relatively low and it’s expensive and the cables are annoying (to those who are easily annoyed) but the level of immersion is incredible. The kind of experience that prompts an actual laugh out loud followed by an incredulous “F**k off…..!”

In my case anyway.

It’s hard to describe the sensation but I’ll give it a go:

Imagine putting your head up inside a large, upside down goldfish bowl, but instead of the bowl being transparent, someone has projected an image around the whole of the inside of it. As you look around inside the bowl, you see different parts of the image covering your full 360 degrees of head movement.

Now, imagine that bowl picture shows the inside of a car. It feels a bit like you’re in the car as you turn your head to look out of the side windows or behind you to look out the rear window.

Next, imagine that it’s not a static image but a video that shows the car moving along from your drivers viewpoint and you can still look around.

Finally, imagine it being interactive. It’s not a video, but a game that you’re playing. You’re driving the car and can still move your head about and look around.

That’s VR.

Instead of a goldfish bowl surrounding your whole head, it uses a couple of small screens right in front of your eyes and fancy head tracking to see where you point your face and changes the projected images in real time to show you the bit of the bowl your face is pointing at. You can’t tell it’s doing this and the sensation is that you’re ‘in’ whatever it’s drawing around you.

The effect is so convincing that driving games make your stomach lurch as you catch air over jumps and vertigo is a real issue for new users. In one game where you have to lean out over a balcony it’s almost physically impossible to step ‘off the edge’. I know I’m playing a game but the immersion is so realistic that my natural life-preserving instincts are triggered.

We’ve gone from grey and white ZX81 block-o-vision to VR in my lifetime and that amazes me.

Playstation VR (PSVR) has been out for less than a year and there’s already a decent range of games available for it, with a healthy amount of stuff in the pipeline like Fallout and Skyrim VR and I can’t wait to see what else they come up with in the future.

In the meantime, here’s a video of me driving around a Scottish town in a Caterham in VR.