Sci-fi fans have grown up dreaming of stepping into a virtual world that’s indistinguishable (in sensual terms) from this one. Just load up a program and you’re in different a time, or another world. As technology has advanced, we’ve seen virtual worlds and characters become increasingly realistic, but we’ve only had a chance to view these worlds through a monitor, a static window, and to interact with them through abstract input devices such as a mouse or a game controller.
We are, however, starting to see technologies emerge that point towards a fully-immersive virtual reality experience. Scattered across the GDC Expo Hall are what appear to be the bits and pieces, the disconnected components, of a full-fledged holodeck.
The most important component of a VR setup is the head-mounted display (HMD) which allows the user to see a virtual world around them. After a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign, the Oculus Rift is emerging as the front runner in the budding HMD market. With a 110 degree field of view and the lowest head tracking latency of any HMD currently available, the Rift puts you behind the eyes of your virtual character like never before, directly mapping the rotation of your head onto the movement of the in-game camera.
What the Oculus Rift doesn’t provide, however, is position tracking. You can look around all you want, but as soon as you start to move around in the real world, your in-game view remains fixed and your immersion is broken. Kinect is a well established device for tracking the motions of the body, but it’s not very accurate and can create some unsettling feelings seeing your virtual body moving out of sync with your real one. Several other methods have emerged to solve the problem of 1 to 1 body tracking.
One company, YEI Technology, has developed a system of small sensors each containing a gyroscope, accelerometer, and compass sensor to track the movement of various points on a user’s body and to translate them in real time to the movements of an in-game character. The system is accurate and self-contained, not requiring external cameras to track motion. It’s not cheap, though, with a full-motion capture set up costing just under $4K.
Another company, House of Moves, has an even more sophisticated (and far more expensive) setup originating from the world of motion capture performance (and still targeted to the professional market). The setup they were demoing on the show floor involved a cube scaffold structure with infrared cameras that track reflective markers on a user’s body. The tracking was very accurate and responsive considering the joints are being tracked by absolute position rather than inertial motion. Their setup also included a virtual camera: a screen with handles and markers that controlled the in-game camera, allowing another user to move around the performer in real time. If someone wearing a tracking suit like either of these were to put on a head-mounted display like the Oculus Rift, they would be edging ever closer to an immersive holodeck-like experience.
While you can now see and move around a virtual space, you wouldn’t have any tactile feedback from the virtual world you’re interacting with. One solution would be to carry a haptic feedback device like the one being developed by Tactical Haptics. Using a Razor Hydra for motion tracking, Tactical Haptics uses four sliding contacts around the handle to provide directional feedback when, say you fire a gun, or slash an enemy with a sword.
While many of these technologies are still in the early stages of development, and at the moment are prohibitively expensive, once they become more reliable, accurate, and drop in price, you may soon find yourself stepping into a truly immersive alternate reality. After that, it should all become Elementary, dear Data.