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My hour in Virtual Reality: The Future of Gaming?

Posted: August 1st, 2010, 4:02 am
by PSX1
I've been a gamer my whole life, and one thing that always intrigued me was the potential for gaming in virtual reality.  So when I found out that a VR lab near me was looking for experiment participants, and even offering $20 for an hour-and-a-half of testing, I had to check it out.  I signed up last week and went to this lab-- located at Brown University, an Ivy League school in Providence, RI-- which claims to be one of the most advanced labs in the country. (As their "scientific" term for VR, they refer to it as the Virtual Environment Navigation Laboratory).

When I arrived I had to first get into a mess of VR Trooper-esque gear.  I put on some giant headgear (it actually made the Virtual Boy seem like an efficient design), which was connected to a bunch of wires that trailed up into the ceiling.  I also had headphones on, and some type of belt strapped around my waist (not sure why). All of this was inside a large room with sensor bars placed all over the ceilings (think the Wii sensor bar, multiplied times 150).  And everything went to one computer that ran the whole show. The lab was built around 2000, so the computer graphics are about on par with that era of graphics technology. Nothing special, with limited polygons and textures, but it gets the job done.

My particular experiment seemed to be focused on memory and the ability to manage directions. I won't bore you with the experiment details, but essentially I had to watch a video of a maze with various objects hidden in it. Then afterward, I had to venture through the maze area on my own and find the objects based on my memory. Here's a few things I noticed:

1.. I have never been so immersed in a virtual environment. This was obviously not a game, but I definitely felt more a part of that world than any actual gaming world. Games are getting more immersive and consoles like the Wii are pushing that forward, but you still always feel like you're in your living room. It says a lot about the technology when I felt that way just by walking around a stupid maze.. imagine if it was a game instead.

2.. I don't know if we'll ever get to see these types of experiences in our homes. First of all, I still feel like controllers will always be a part of the experience, even if VR became accessible to the mainstream. (Even in the lab, I had a hand-held button I had to press to initiate certain sequences.) But more importantly, I don't know if the technology could ever be affordable or practical for average people like us. Like I mentioned, the lab required cables and sensors to be strung up everywhere, and a mammoth and fragile head-unit. Naturally, years down the road the technology will be cheaper and smaller and more efficient, but I'm still not sure if it has mainstream potential based on cost and the amount of room and set-up it would still require.

3.. Here's the really bad part, though.. I have no interest in going back to try out the lab again. Why? Because I have never felt so nauseous in my life. A lifetime of gaming hadn't prepared me for this (...heck, when playing the Virtual Boy I never even suffered the "neck pain" or "eye strain" people claimed it caused). But I have never felt more motion-sickness in my life than I did in VR, and felt a couple times like I might lose my lunch.  I pulled it together and stuck it out, but I couldn't wait to get out of that program.  Sure, maybe it's something you get used to over time, or maybe there are ways to create the program so that it causes less sickness, but the severe nausea was enough for me to be all right with never seeing VR again in my life.

Anyone else had the opportunity to experience these VR labs, or have any thoughts on the subject?  I'd really recommend checking into whether a university near you has a similar lab. It's definitely something worth experiencing at least once for every gamer, and the labs are usually desperate for experiment participants.... Just try not to puke.

Also, here are some websites related to the technology, with photos of the Brown University VR lab:

My hour in Virtual Reality: The Future of Gaming?

Posted: August 1st, 2010, 9:33 am
by VideoGameCritic
Thanks for sharing that story.  It was fascinating.  How did you "walk" around the maze?  Did you move you legs (on a treadmill?) or just push a joystick?

I don't think you're the only one who would get nauseated with this stuff.  Actually one of the biggest complaints from people watching Avatar in 3D was it made them feel sick.

Maybe the human body/mind just doesn't like being "tricked" like this, and feeling sick is its way of fighting back.  Or maybe if the technology gets realistic enough people won't get sick anymore.

My hour in Virtual Reality: The Future of Gaming?

Posted: August 1st, 2010, 3:14 pm
by PSX1
Well, here's why it was so immersive Critic-- because you actually physically walk in the environment. Far better than a joystick or treadmill, right? It's a bit hard to describe, but I'll try my best (the links I added before show pictures, and probably explain it better).

First, here's a good general description I found online:

To investigate how we interact with the world, Professor William Warren and his students are applying cutting-edge virtual reality technology to the scientific study of perception and action. Research in Brown’s Virtual Environment Navigation Lab (VENLab) investigates how observers visually control their locomotion and navigation in complex environments. Subjects wearing a head-mounted display can walk freely in 40 x 40 ft. room while immersed in a highly realistic computer-generated virtual environment (Brown’s VENLab is the largest fully immersive virtual reality lab in the world and the first one located at a U.S. university).
See more here:

So the "lab" is a giant empty room, except a computer station where the facilitator runs the experiment. Along the ceilings are rows and columns of sensors all over the place. There are at least a hundred of these sensors on the ceiling.

Now, the "maze" is programmed to be exactly the same size as that 40x40 room. So you actually physically walk through this environment. As you move forward, backward, left, or right, the sensors recognize where you are in the "maze" and transmit it to the computer-- which then sends the image to the head-unit. In fact, when you move your head, it registers this as well. So, I can walk forward through the maze, look over my shoulder to see what's behind me, and then keeping walking forward... No joystick, no treadmill-- it's your actual movements through the room that control your view of the maze environment.

The head-unit visually displaying your location in the maze is essentially two small monitors that create a stereoscopic image for you (think like the Virtual Boy, except far more technological advanced; the graphics are outdated today, but it still creates a great 3D effect). This is why I say you feel truly immersed in the environment. Unlike gaming in your living room, the head-unit makes it so you see nothing except this "virtual environment" you've become a part of. They shut off the lights in the lab, so you see nothing else. You also wear headphones, which plays realistic outdoor sounds like birds chirping and singing in the background, which made it even more immersive. And then, of course, the fact that every movement registers exactly as it would in real life.

One problem though, as applied to gaming, is that I could walk through walls. Which makes sense... the program is designed to match the actual lab. So there is nothing to stop you from walking through a wall in the virtual environment. Remember, the program just recognizes where you are in the "maze" by correlating it back to where you are in the actual lab... So if you ran aimlessly around the lab, it would correlate as you running aimlessly through the maze-- even through walls.

Plus there's the nausea I mentioned. I didn't feel sick after Avatar and never felt weird using the Virtual Boy. But VR definitely did it for me. I wanted to puke half the time, and had a headache and nausea for about 2-3 hours afterward. Definitely worth trying once though... especially being paid to do it.

Like I mentioned, the program I used was a "maze"-- it was designed to look like a hedge maze in a garden-- and there were random objects hidden in the maze like a sink and a bookcase. But they've had all types of experiments with different programs... In one particularly interesting experiment I read about online, they had experienced college baseball players catching fly balls in VR. The would pop-up a virtual flyball and the player would run to the spot of the ball to "catch" (you can't actually catch it or hold it, but the program can recognize that you are standing in a spot that would touch the path of the ball). They were experimenting to see what players use to determine where a flyball will go. Interesting stuff... makes you wonder if someday down the road you'll be playing MLB 2K49 with this type of technology.

In addition to the links I provided, here's some photos to give you a visual of the head-unit and the lab (with sensors):

My hour in Virtual Reality: The Future of Gaming?

Posted: August 1st, 2010, 3:42 pm
by Marriott_Guy1
This is a great read... thanks for sharing your experience!  I feel safe in stating for all of us here at VGC that any other details/thoughts you have would be welcomed!


My hour in Virtual Reality: The Future of Gaming?

Posted: August 1st, 2010, 4:10 pm
by micky1
You can buy 3d video glasses, one screen for each eye which should give an extremely good 3d effect as well as replicate a big screen. If the coming Ps3 3d games support these glasses that are on the market now i will pick a pair up at the same time as Playstation Move,which should create pretty good virtual reality at a relatively affordable price.   

My hour in Virtual Reality: The Future of Gaming?

Posted: August 1st, 2010, 4:54 pm
by Marching Band
Thanks for sharing this story. It was a treat to read.

My hour in Virtual Reality: The Future of Gaming?

Posted: August 1st, 2010, 5:06 pm
by PSX1
Alright, just came across a must-view video for anyone interested in the topic. At the end of my second post I mentioned the experiment where they threw fly balls to baseball players in VR, to test how they determine where a fly ball will land. Well, obviously this topic is very hard to put into words (as you can see by my lengthy explanations)....

So here is a great article about the Flyball Experiment, along with two excellent 20-second videos.  Video #1 shows the ball player wearing the VR gear and moving to catch the flyball.  Video #2 shows the actual computer VR image of the flyball that the player is seeing in the head-unit.  I did not actually get to try this one myself (mine was walking through a maze of tall hedges in a garden-like environment), but I feel like this baseball experiment provides a lot more application to the future of gaming (unless the "maze genre" becomes a big hit by the 2040s).

My hour in Virtual Reality: The Future of Gaming?

Posted: August 1st, 2010, 6:06 pm
by PSX1
@micky: Yes, for now it seems that 3D screens and 3D head-units are the next step for gaming (it goes without saying that the Virtual Boy is an early attempt at those units, but obviously not actual virtual reality). But unlike 3D gameplay, which is just an image controlled by a controller, I hope that the future of gaming in VR is instead an image controlled by your actual real-world movements as translated into the virtual environment (i.e., combine a Wii with a Virtual Boy, and add a few hundred grand in technology). Either way, unfortunately, I think we're a long long ways away from seeing this outside of a lab.

Also, as a side note, I should mention that the graphics in the baseball video above are not a good representation of what the program is capable of. View that video as a representation of the concept, but not the graphical capabilities.Since it was an experiment and not a game, they used a very basic "desert" environment rather than creating, say, a baseball stadium. A stadium would have been possible in the program, but would have been a rather pointless and time-consuming addition for their research purposes.

My hour in Virtual Reality: The Future of Gaming?

Posted: August 2nd, 2010, 2:55 am
by Paul C
Thanks for the read.  VERY interesting.  I would LOVE to find something like that to visit.  I find the not about walking through the wall very interesting, partially because, in the time I have spent wondering what it would be like to roam around in a Holodeck-like 3D environment, I, for some reason, never thought about the fact that the 3D environment would pretty much have to be a wide-open area because of the "walking through walls" issue.  This is reason enough to assume that we will probably always need to have some kind of joystick in our hands, because the virtual environment would always have this big limitation that can only be remedied by taking the player's physical movement out of the equation. 

What system would you compare the graphics to?

My hour in Virtual Reality: The Future of Gaming?

Posted: August 2nd, 2010, 3:02 am
by Paul C
Wow!  How awesome could the mini-game compilations be with a system like that?  I could catch flyballs like that all day!  Cool videos!