Back To The Virtual Future

image source: VR Source

We live in a brave new world of virtual reality and ‘real’ 3D experiences. The race for full-immersion is on, with big money invested in tech to transport you into a virtual world. It seems some people won’t rest until every home has access to a Star Trek style holodeck. In these heady days of VR pioneering, it’s easy to forget that the seeds were planted long ago. This post looks at early appearances of VR in popular culture that inspired the current gold rush.

Simulated reality is a very powerful idea. It strikes at the heart of the human experience and touches on existential questions about our nature. I’m not suggesting Oculus Rift is going to shed new philosophical light on the writings of Descartes, but it certainly highlights a longstanding human desire to shape our own reality.

Early science fiction novels played with the idea of virtual reality from as early as 1941. Robert A Heinlen’s book ‘They’ tells of a man confined to a mental institution because he believes he is one of the only real people alive and that the rest of the universe has been created by a few others to deceive him. This solipsistic work sets the tone for many early virtual realities. Most are generally dystopian in nature and play heavily on people’s fears of being unable to trust their own senses and the people around them. This theme reoccurs frequently in popular culture.

Phillip K. Dick, took a slightly different tack. In his 1953 novel “The Trouble with Bubbles” we first see the idea of humans creating virtual worlds for others to experience. It is an interesting concept with relevance to the creators of today’s VR experiences. The book fully explores the morality of having total control over the lives of others.

image source: DailyTech

It’s not just books that play with virtual reality. TV and films explore the trope in great detail. One of the first references to VR on TV was, of course, Star Trek. In 1974, long before Captain Picard was flouncing around the holodeck, the crew of the Enterprise has an encounter with an unusual cloud that affects their computer. The ship starts to play practical jokes; including turning the recreation room into a dangerous virtual reality area that almost kills the unfortunates who get stuck there. A far cry from the holodeck’s mainly benign incarnation in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

image source: Front Effects

Tron (1982) is one of the first examples of close human computer interaction in film and of course borrows heavily from computer games for its action scenes. Again, it is a very twisted form of reality with the main character trapped in a computerized world, fighting against the very system he programmed. The VR on display is highly advanced, with full body immersion and the very real possibility of death.

Other films like Lawnmower Man (1992) and Johnny Mnemonic (1995) come closer to the current day experience with headsets and body suits that relay information between user and applications. The Matrix (1999) has a connection straight to the brain that delivers an almost fool-proof illusion of reality. The first two have technology that is either within our grasp or very close, while the direct brain plug of the Matrix is not as far away as you might think. Advances in direct neuro controls for things like prosthetic limbs shows our understanding of the brain is expanding at a rapid rate.

You can bet that the brains behind the current crop of VR are aware of the fiction behind the science. Science fiction has always influenced technology, inviting scientists and engineers to turn the imagination of writers into reality. With the amount of money being invested in the new generation of VR, it’s only a matter of time before more outlandish ideas become reality. At the current pace, we will likely see highly convincing virtual reality with haptic feedback and all senses engaged within our lifetimes.
It is strange that something that is clearly a great fantasy for many people is inspired by popular culture that generally warns of the dangers of the technology. Let’s just hope that science fiction has only predicted the emergence of the tech and not its dystopian themes.
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Andy Trowers is a game design consultant, freelance ne’er-do-well and staff writer for www.australia.for-sale.com

 

A Brief History of Virtual Reality

With the Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR well and truly on the way to our living rooms, virtual reality (VR) is the biggest news in gaming right now. But let’s rewind the clock some two and a half decades, back when Sony was working on the Nintendo Play Station and the inventor of the Oculus Rift, Palmer Luckey, was still in his diapers.

vr_segavrimage source: Gizmodo

In 1991, SEGA announced its SEGA VR virtual reality headset for arcade games, promising immersive gaming via its head-mounted display (HMD) unit with inertial sensors tracking and reacting to a user’s head movements.

While SEGA was talking about VR, the Virtuality Group went one better by launching its stand up Virtuality pod enclosure system (the 1000 series) – the first mass-produced, networked, multiplayer location-based VR entertainment system – all powered by Amiga 3000 computers. These Virtuality pods featured a stereoscopic head-mounted display (the “Visette”), an exoskeleton touch glove to ‘feel’ objects in the virtual world, and a ‘fast track’ magnetic source built into the waist-high ring with a receiver which tracked the player’s movement in real time within the enclosure – a truly immersive VR experience. Virtuality later introduced joysticks, steering wheels, and an aircraft yoke for control.

vr_virtualityimage source: DVD Fever

With the VR craze gaining mass consumer attention, it was inevitable that the technology would find its way into the lucrative home video games market. In 1993, SEGA was working hard to port its SEGA VR arcade HMD to its hit Mega Drive/Genesis console, but due to development difficulties, the console SEGA VR headset remained only a prototype, and was never released to the gaming public.

To fill the void, VictorMaxx entered the market with the world’s first consumer VR HMD, the StuntMaster (VM1000) – the technology being developed under license from Future Vision Technologies. The StuntMaster was released in 1993 for USD$219.95 and came with assemblies to connect to both the Mega Drive/Genesis and the Super Nintendo consoles. The StuntMaster sported a tracking stem on the head unit which had fast response times and accurate positioning, but the low resolution, lack of VR specific games, and prolonged use causing motion sickness meant that the StuntMaster never caught on with gamers.

vr_stuntmaster

By 1994, home consoles became exponentially more powerful than the previous generation, meaning that VR could finally realise its full potential in the home. That year, Atari jumped on the VR bandwagon by signing a deal with Virtuality to design, develop, and produce a VR HMD for its 64-bit Jaguar home console. The Jaguar VR HMD was slated for a Christmas 1995 release, but financial woes at Atari caused the program to be abandoned, resulting in the Jaguar VR HMD being thrown on the already full failed VR scrapheap. To recoup its losses, Virtuality sold the Jaguar VR HMD technology to prolific Japanese toy manufacturer Takara and the huge electronics giant Philips.

vr_dyno_alexboz

vr_jagvr

In 1996, both companies raced to have a VR HMD on the market, with Takara producing and releasing the TAK-8510 Dynovisor HMD and Philips its Scuba Visor. These units sported the Pupil Projection System, which had a (then) ground-breaking 120-degree field of view (FOV) display using Sony’s TFT LCD (thin film transistor LCD) screens. Coupled with the display was stereo sound and Inter Pupil Distance (IPD) focus adjustment – perfect for any user personalisation. The Dynovisor and Scuba could be used with any console that had composite video and red/white analogue audio ports (the PC version of the Dynovisor also came with a custom VGA PC interface). Neither units had motion tracking, hence their relatively low retail price (¥38,800 / USD$320). Like their contemporaries, they failed due to a lack of VR specific software and causing many a headaches after prolonged use.

vr_dyno_1

vr_dyno_pce

Having recently experienced 1990s VR via Takara’s Dynovisor HMD, we can vouch that it won’t make you sick like the Virtual Boy, but that may be down to the unit having no motion tracking. After playing countless platform, driving, shoot-’em-up, and fighting games, we reckon that racing games are best suited for playing on an old VR HMD – but not for too long! These units came with a warning to rest your eyes after 30 minutes of play, and this is all for good reason.

Playing on these old-school VR HMDs is like having an IMAX screen two inches away from your eyeballs – there is a lot to take in – which works well, thanks to the 120-degree FOV. But after 30 minutes, your eyes will be begging you for a rest from the visual onslaught. Of course, none of the old games played on the unit were designed to take advantage of virtual reality, so the experience lacked the full VR immersion – a shame.

vr_cybermaxximage source: eBay

On the PC front, it was VictorMaxx’s CyberMaxx model 2.0 HMD that provided the VR ‘hit’ PC gamers had been craving for. With higher resolution and improved optics than its previous 120 model (released in November 1994 for USD$499), the CyberMaxx 2.0 model also had dynamic stereo sound, focus adjustment for each eye, and real time yaw, pitch, and roll head-tracking, providing 3D stereoscopic images via compatible software. Released in August 1995 with a suggested retail price of USD$889, the CyberMaxx 2.0 didn’t take off, with management concluding that its headset was not likely to gain widespread consumer acceptance at its suggested retail price. By the end of 1996, VictorMaxx exited the consumer electronics business, thus ending the future of the CyberMaxx VR product line. However, there is hope that the legacy of the CyberMaxx will lead the current (promised) VR products to good stead.

Walking through the 1990s VR product graveyard, a common headstone could summarise the reason for their failure: “Here rests a product which caused severe headaches, induced motion sickness, lacked great software, and was a concept ahead of the technology available at the time.” Fast forward to 2016 and we have our fingers crossed for the imminent VR products to hit the market, and hope that they will deliver on the promises of their predecessors. Viva la VR!
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MrAlexBozVRAlex Boz, Editor-In-Chief / Video Game Historian
Alex is a collector, arcade extraordinaire, pinball tragic, an Atarian and a C64 lover. Alex has been gaming since the early 80s when the weapon of choice was a joystick with a single fire button.

Follow Alex Boz on Twitter

 

 

This post originally published on Push Square February 17 2016.

 

Black Mirror Goes Retro

blackmirror_titleBlack Mirror is back with new episodes and it’s as dark, beautiful, fascinating and sharp as ever. It’s everything a good sci-fi TV series should be, that Charlie Brooker is a genius!

Black Mirror takes aim at social media in Nosedive and Hated In the Nation, while Playtest is an Inception-like mind-bending cautionary tale about VR. They’re all fantastic, but our real favourite is the uplifting and beautiful San Junipero (episode 4). It’s simply oozing with retro goodness: music, fashion, and (most importantly) arcades from the 80s and 90s! Here are some nods to video gaming pop culture that we spotted in San Junipero as well as Playtest. Did you spot others?

Edge magazine makes a cameo in the Playtest episode, Black Mirror series 3
blackmirror_playtest2

Look closely at those shelves, you may see some retro goodies
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Perhaps Charlie Brooker is a fan of Edge magazine…
blackmirror_playtest4

We spot some PS3 and PS4 gaming goodies!
blackmirror_playtest1

Going back to 1987 in episode 4, San Junipero
blackmirror_sanjunipero_tvs

We’d be smiling too if we were about to play Bubble Bobble!
blackmirror_sanjunipero_87arcade

Ah, Nemesis (aka: Gradius) is there too!
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The golden age of arcades make it too!
blackmirror_sanjunipero_80arcade2

No way, Time Crisis!
blackmirror_sanjunipero_96arcade2

We really need to visit Tucker’s!
blackmirror_sanjunipero_2002arcade

Image source: Black Mirror on Netflix

 

First Impressions: PlayStation VR

psvr_boxedWe’ve had our fair share of Virtual Reality (VR) experience, albeit, from the 1990s. We’ve even written about our walk-through the VR graveyard from two decades ago. When PlayStation announced that they were going to produce a VR add-on for their PS4 console, we reserved judgement till its release. Well, the PS VR is now out and we got our trusted friend and VR aficionado, Alex (aka:Alexpletives), to give us his first impressions based on the ease of setup, design, comfort and most importantly, performance and gaming experience.

Ease of setup:
The first thing that struck me about the PS VR was how easy it was to setup. Once switched on, position your head in the centre of the camera, and that’s it! Doesn’t get much easier than that!

Instructions! Bah, seems easy enough, and it is!
psvr_instructions

Design:
The design is genius, making the plugging in of the bits and pieces an absolute breeze. Just in case there are some of you that want to know how all this VR’ing hangs together, here we go: the VR headset plugs into the extension with the inline remote which features the volume, mute and VR on / off buttons. The other clever design are the raised volume buttons and sunken mute on/off buttons – you’ll always know, by feel, which buttons you are interacting with.

Turn me up!psvr_headphones_vol

All leads lead to the Processor Unit. Each lead is numbered which makes it damn simple to get all plugged in. The best part is, you can connect other systems via HDMI, like the Xbox One!

Easy as 1, 2, 3!
psvr_proc_unit

Comfort:
Right off the bat, the PS VR was way more comfortable to wear than the Oculus Rift. When using my Oculus Rift I tend to get quite sweaty, but with the PS VR, I didn’t have such a problem. The strap tightness is cleverly independent of how near the actual headset is to your face. The button under the visor enables it to be moved forward and back independent of the strap. This provides superior comfort as you can have the strap nice and tight, with the the visor just resting against your face. In comparison, the Oculus feels like wearing a diving mask.

Strap me in baby!
psvr_rightside

Lenses and surrounding rubber – very soft and lovely, oo’er
psvr_top

The PS VR aural experience is provided by in-ear headphones which clip in the inline remote on the main cord running from the PS VR. Volume still comes out of the TV so your guests can hear and see what you’re doing.

And I can’t go without mentioning the lens cloth that comes with the PS VR – it is beautifully embossed with the triangle, circle, X and square buttons, a very nice touch indeed.

psvr_cloth

Performance and gaming experience:
The very first game that I tried was DRIVECLUB VR. I noticed immediately that the VR version had lost a fair bit of detail compared to its non-VR graphical tour de force counterpart. The vehicle detail was still as good, but track-side detail was vastly cut down (with reduced lighting). You don’t really notice it when racing, but you do if you look around. I’m sure the casual DRIVECLUB VR player will not notice these little niggles, as it doesn’t impact the racing.
DRIVECLUB VR
driveclubvr
Scavengers Odyssey
scavengers
 source: Playstation
The next experience was provided from VR Worlds, via Scavengers Odyssey – it was damn good! I did suffer some motion sickness, which was generated by moving back and forth and side to side within the game but not in the real world. The brain was seeing you move but no feeling to match it, so that stuffs up spatial awareness. It didn’t make me stop playing (it was that good), but its effects did linger for a few hours.
Ocean Descent
oceandescentsource: Playstation
Also from VR Worlds, I hit Ocean Descent, where you are lowered in a cage deep into the sea. I didn’t do the shark attack part though, as I knew it was scary (it was that real!). The experience was intense – you felt like you were right there in the cage with full 360 degree views, with fish everywhere and an absolutely beautiful manta ray with a 9-foot wing span leisurely gliding about. It was very impressive. There was a nice touch with the light on your helmet spilling light on wherever your head turned.
VR Luge
vrlugesource: Playstation
The other VR Worlds game I tried was VR Luge. This one was a bit of hit and miss. There was a nice sensation of speed, but for some reason the 3D felt flat. Having limited depth perception made it difficult to judge how far things were. Apart from this issue, VR Luge was as good as it could be given the power (when compared to a high-end PC rig with an Oculus Rift).

Overall the performance was as expected, nothing more, nothing less. What PS VR really needs (to succeed) is a VR killer app. Just like Tetris on the Game Boy, the PS VR needs its own special bit of software that can provide its unique experience that would not work without VR.

Final thoughts:
One point that keeps plaguing VR is the inducement of nausea. Whether that goes away the more you use it, I don’t really know. Do astronauts get used to zero gravity? Well, they learn to live with it, don’t they?

Every person I have shown PS VR has been blown away by it. VR is something that can only be appreciated by experience. I could talk until I’m blue in the face about the immersion and instinctive feelings it generates whether they be fear, exhilaration or just plain enjoyment. But experiencing it really is believing.

These are pioneering days of VR, if you discount the crude shenanigans of the 90s. Developers will need time to harness the power of VR which will hopefully lead to wonderful games and experiences. We just have to be patient.

The future is here
psvr_isometric

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alexpletivesAlexisms (aka: Alexpletives)
UK based gamer with a taste for the bleeding edge in gaming. Cystic Fibrosis sufferer, 15 years post heart and double lung transplant, diabetic. You’ve got to laugh, er I think!

Follow Alex on Twitter and Twitch.

 

 

 

VR Duck Hunt

featuredJoseph Delgado created this adorable VR adaptation of Duck Hunt in just 24 hours for the 2016 Global Game Jam.

Duck Hunt Life VR delves into the backstory of Duck Hunter, where the duck hunter is actually collecting ducks for his cult-like ritual. Hunt some ducks, practice skeet shooting with the lads, and destroy your house. Try to collect enough ducks by Day 10 in order to complete your ritual, but don’t fail to collect the required number of ducks on a given day, or you’ll never do the ritual. Requires a Razer Hydra and Oculus Rift DK2.

Source: Global Game Jam and Joseph Delgado on YouTube via Cheezburger

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msausretrogamerMs. ausretrogamer
Co-founder, editor and writer at ausretrogamer – The Australian Retro Gamer E-Zine. Lover of science fiction, fashion, books, movies and TV. Player of games, old and new.

Follow Ms. ausretrogamer on Twitter

 

 

Thrill Of The Chase: Virtual Reality Holy Grail

TakaraHMD_HDRThis year will be the year of Virtual Reality (VR). If you have been gaming as long as we have, you’ll know that this isn’t the first time we have all gone gaga over VR!

Long before the Playstation VR, the biggest name in virtual reality gaming was the Virtuality Group. Their ‘Virtuality’ arcade gaming machines promised and delivered immersive gaming via their stereoscopic visor (aka: the visette) while standing on a platform in a huge round pod waving your hands around like you were swatting flies – ah, how we miss the good old days of VR.

The popularity and mass media coverage of VR meant that it would always make its way into our homes. In 1994, Virtuality signed an agreement with Atari to develop a head-mounted-display (HMD) unit for use with Atari’s 64-bit Jaguar console. The agreement was expected to lead to the production and sale of the Jaguar VR HMDs in 1995. Sadly, it all went belly-up between Atari and Virtuality, with all Jaguar VR prototypes headed for the scrapheap.

Alas, the salvaged Jaguar VR prototype(s) have now become the most sought after and holiest of gaming grails, with the last known prototype selling for $14,500 on ebay in 2013.

TakaraHMD_JagVRsource: eBay

From the ashes of the Jaguar VR HMD technology arose Takara’s HMD DynoVisor and Philip’s Scuba Visor. The DynoVisor sported the Pupil Projection System with a ground breaking 120-degree field of view (FOV) display using Sony’s Active TFT and LCD lenses. Coupled with Hi-Fi stereo and Inter Pupil Distance (IPD) focus adjustment, these consumer products quickly sold-out upon release in Japan.

Even though the Takara HMD DynoVisor is considered to be laughable, their uniqueness and rarity in the wild makes them highly desirable among gamers and collectors alike. At a fraction of the cost of the Jaguar VR headset and being indentical in technology, Takara’s HMD DynoVisor has become a retro gaming grail itself.

To finally find the Takara HMD DynoVisor and be able to play the Atari Jaguar (and any NTSC console with composite / AV output) with a VR headset, has truly been a unique experience, one that every old school gamer should encounter! Viva la VR!

Holding tight onto the first retro gaming holy grail for 2016!
TakaraHMD_ausretrogamer

Takara’s HMD DynoVisor arose from the ashes of Atari’s Jaguar VR
TakaraHMD_1_top

Made from high impact ABS moulded components, this is one tough headset!
TakaraHMD_1_rear

The DynoVisor can connect to any NTSC composite / AV console
TakaraHMD_2_controlIO

Luckily Virtuality’s work wasn’t wasted
TakaraHMD_3_Virtuality

Contrast, Brightness and IPD control is within reach
TakaraHMD_4_Under

Immersing myself in some old school VR on the PlayStation
TakaraHMD_ARG_Play

Peeking into the VR abyss!
TakaraHMD_View

Oculus Arcade on Gear VR

lobbyWhat does everyone want to do with the latest cutting edge gaming technology? Play classic games, of course! Here is the Oculus ‘Arcade’ Gear VR app which lets you play over 20 classic titles from Sega, Namco, and Midway. James Halliday would approve!

sega


Video source: Road to VR on YouTube

Games available:

Bandai Namco
Pacman (1980)
Galaga (1981)

Midway
APB (1987)
Defender (1981)
Joust (1982)
Gauntlet (1985)
Gauntlet II (1986)
Rampage (1986)
Root Beer Tapper (1983)
Spy Hunter (1983)

Sega
Altered Beast (1988)
Golden Axe (1989)
Phantasy Star II (1989)
Shinobi III (1993)
Sonic the Hedgehog (1991)
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (1992)
Sonic Spinball (1993)
Streets of Rage (1991)
Streets of Rage 2 (1992)
Virtua Fighter 2 (1994)
Ecco the Dolphin (1992)

sonic 2

Source (including images): Road to VR

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msausretrogamerMs. ausretrogamer
Co-founder, editor and writer at ausretrogamer – The Australian Retro Gamer E-Zine. Lover of science fiction, fashion, books, movies and TV. Player of games, old and new.

Follow Ms. ausretrogamer on Twitter