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7.29.06 MT: Virtual Reality and MMOs

Updated Fri, Jan 02, 2009 by Shayalyn

Mercurial Thoughts

Jacked In!

Virtual Reality and the Future of MMOs

by Mercurie


Many of you might remember that in the mid to late 90s there was a virtual reality fad. The concept was covered by such major magazines as Time, Newsweek, and Playboy. Various TV shows of the time (most notably Nowhere Man and The X-Files) had episodes that dealt with the subject. There were even TV shows that were entirely based on the idea of virtual reality, or VR, the miniseries Wild Palms and the short lived TV show VR.5. Naturally, there were movies which featured virtual reality. Two of them were Strange Days and Virtuosity. Indeed, The Matrix Trilogy was among the films that grew out of this fad.

Virtual reality is not a term one hears very often any more. In fact, it occurs to me that some people reading this might not even know what it is. Quite simply, virtual reality is a technological means through which an individual can interact with a simulated or imaginary (that is, "virtual") environment. The origins of the phrase itself are murky, with different individuals having been credited with coining it, but it dates at least back to the 80s. The concept of virtual reality goes back a bit farther than the term itself. Ray Bradbury described a concept very close to virtual reality in his short story "The Veldt," published in 1951. That same decade filmmaker Morton Heilig described an Experience Theatre which HMDwould engage every single sense. He even built a prototype in 1962 which he called Sensorama. In 1968 computer programmer Ivan Sutherland and his student Bob Sproull built the first Head Mounted Display or HMD (essentially a helmet that displays video information right in front of the eyes). In 1977 MIT developed a 3D map of Aspen, Colorado through which people could virtually wander the streets of that city. All of these technologies, along with the wired gloves and sometimes even bodysuits so identified with VR, would come together to shape what people in the Nineties conceived of as virtual reality.

So what does all of this have to do with MMOs? Well, hard as it may be to believe, the term virtual reality was used to promote some 3D video and computer games in the early 90s (Doom comes to mind). If first person shooters can be considered VR, then MMOs certainly could be. After all, the player interacts with an imaginary environment, although that interaction is pretty much limited to visual (the game's graphics) and auditory (the game's sounds). There are even other people (PCs and NPCs) with whom individuals can interact in any given game's reality. Of course, for many of us who've read the works of William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, even the best MMOs fall short of what we think of as virtual reality. That having been said, I have to wonder what the future holds for MMOs. That is, will MMOs become full fledged VR games?

I certainly think it is possible, but I do think Virtual reality MMORPGS or VRMMOs would be drastically different than the MMOs we know and love today. Today's MMOs are played with a keyboard and a mouse, and one generally does not have the point of view of his or her character. A VRMMO would be played using a Head Mounted Display and wired gloves. With the HDM the game would certainly be played from the character's point of view. The character's movements would be dictated by wired gloves, perhaps even a body suit. Quite simply, the player would virtually be in the game.

Of course, many works from the subgenre of science fiction called cyberpunk might offer a different solution to VRMMOs than the HDM and wired gloves. In many of those works individuals are equipped with implants which allow them to jack into a computer and hence into Cyberspace (a term coined by William Gibson, by the way). Naturally, if one could jack into Cyberspace, then one can jack into an MMO as well.

Another solution has been offered up by Sony itself. In 2005 Sony patented an idea for sending information directly to the human brain. This would allow the individual not only to see and hear things in games, but to smell and feel them as well. The technique does not need any implants or any other modifications to the human body. It would rely entirely on a device which would use ultrasound to change the firing patterns of neurons in the brain. At that time (and I would suppose it is still true now) no experiments had been done using the technique and it was entirely experimental.

It seems to me that all of these things are certainly possible, but whether gamers would find them desirable is another question. I must admit that I would not mind wearing an HDM and wired gloves to play in a VRMMO. Of course, that is provided that the HDM did not weigh a ton and a half and the gloves were fairly comfortable. But as fascinated as I am by the idea of virtual reality, I am not sure that I would want an implant placed in my brain through which I could jack into any computer, nor would do I find Sony's idea of The Matrixtransmitting information directly to the brain very desirable either. Maybe I am old fashioned, but I have the definite fear that my brain could somehow wind up scrambled if something went wrong. Not to mention the fact that computer viruses might be developed that could infect the human brain (Mercurie wasn't paranoid schizophrenic before played VR-EQ 5...his brain must have downloaded a virus!). Another concern I must admit could come from watching too many episodes of The Prisoner and Nowhere Man. If information can be transmitted directly to the brain (either though an implant or through Sony's technique), can something that overrides the individuals' wishes and desires be transmitted as well? That is, could such things be used for mind control?

I will admit that much of this sounds crazy to me, someone who has read too many cyberpunk novels and watched The Matrix Trilogy too many times. But then if someone had told me in junior high that I would have a computer in my own home, much less be able to communicate with other people on that computer, I would have thought that crazy too. Too often it seems that the future turns out far stranger than we ever imagined it.



Is VR in MMOs just science fiction, or coming technology?
Do you want Sony messing with your brain's neurons? Hmmm!
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