"I put on the head-mounted display and I was very disappointed because all I saw were fat pixels. You know, nothing was interesting," says Mel Slater, a professor at the University of Barcelona and a world expert in virtual reality (VR). "I was in a room. I could make out that much. But then somebody said 'move your head,' and the minute I moved my head, suddenly I was really in a room, and I heard sounds and I could see as I moved my head around."
"I used a mouse button or a wand button to float over to the window, I looked out of the window, there was a boat down below on some water," he continues. "I started floating down towards the boat. And then I heard someone say 'your time is up.' They took off the head-mounted display and I was very shocked to be back in this bright, realistic reality."
As a new wave of virtual-reality peripheral equipent, such as the much-talked-about Oculus Rift, receives press attention and thousands of pre-orders, experiences like Slater's look set to become more and more commonplace. But the extraordinary thing is that his dream-like story of feeling suddenly immersed in a virtual room is more than 20 years old. It was, in fact, Slater's first ever experience of virtual reality; the first time he ever experienced the sensation known as "presence" -- the feeling of "really being there," or, as he describes it, "place illusion."
I too have felt truly present in a virtual environment. I've looked out over a gaping chasm, heard the wind wail in my ears, and felt my pulse quicken even though, cognitively, I was able to remind myself that it was all just pixels and audio files. But knowing that this visceral sense of presence has been available for decades raises a question about virtual reality's long and tortured battle to be accepted as a mainstream form of entertainment: Why the hiatus? Why has the magic of VR been confined for so long to occasional demos and lab research, effectively trapped in academic obscurity?
Having spoken to several developers and proponents of VR, the consensus seems to be twofold. For one thing, the cost of the hardware has, in the past, been astronomical. Some of the latest gadgets are still priced well above a consumer-friendly level, such as the IGS Glove, a peripheral developed by Synertial (formerly Animazoo) which allows your virtual hand to flex and move exactly like your real hand, right down to intricate finger movements.
Mark Lewis, head of sales at Synertial, framed the glove to me as "a business product." For example, auto manufacturer Skoda is currently using it to research how engineers on the production line manipulate mechanical parts during assembly. However, he added that Synertial was also "investigating" potential consumer editions of the glove which might appeal to a contemporary VR market.
Secondly, and perhaps most obviously, seamless, high-quality VR has been hard to create. Presence, although momentarily intense, is thought to be very easy to disrupt, hence the VR term "break in presence," or BIP for short. "The application must keep you in this other world. This is very fragile," Sébastien Kuntz, founder of software firm "i'm in VR," said to me, explaining his conservatism regarding the current renewed interest in VR as an entertainment platform. Kuntz mentions several kinds of technology which he says come close to improving VR but which, in the end, might actually cause a break in presence more often than not because they haven't been designed thoughtfully enough.
For example, he cites the frequent lack of interest in developing effective soundtracks for VR apps. "If the sound is really great you don't have to have to [worry about creating] better graphics because the senses compensate one another," he says. He adds that achieving photorealism within the virtual environment is not necessary when inducing a sense of presence, a handful of key senses just need to be stimulated in the right way.
But the greatest challenge for virtual reality has always been movement. The act of simply walking around a virtual space is still restricted by the awkward correlation of that virtual room to the real room in which a VR user is standing. This precise problem, though, is one which a diverse array of new peripherals is hoping to tackle.
There's the Omni, a kind of stationary grooved dish and harness that you can walk and run on (your feet always return to the same spot); the newly launched WizDish, a similar but more affordable concept which uses anti-friction studded shoes; and finally the elaborate VirtuSphere, a 10-foot high hollow ball which encases the VR player within its spherical design.
All of them, however, have limitations. Jan Goetgeluk, creator of the Omni, admits that the harness which comes with the device means very athletic gestures or behavior such as crawling are not possible. "You're not gonna play soccer on the Omni for example," he comments. But the device is an exciting step in the right direction. In their currently ongoing Kickstarter launch, Goetgeluk and his team have already secured almost $1 million of crowd-sourced funds.
"We've been doing this Half Life 2 demo," Goetgeluk told me, recalling a promotion at E3 earlier this month. "At some point we encounter enemies and they start throwing grenades at you. Everyone, as soon as they see that grenade coming, everyone just starts sprinting. It's a natural reaction, it feels real. You feel the need to start sprinting, your brain thinks you're there, it's very intense."
The WizDish is also seeking financial backing from the crowd. Having tried the WizDish, I can report that the sensation of "walking" by sliding one's feet back and forth on a low-friction platform is odd but effective enough to suggest that one is moving more naturally through a virtual environment. For users of the VirtuSphere, there is a trade-off between being able to walk "in a natural way, in any direction," and not being able to stand close to other players, according to one of its creators, Allan Latypov.
One outfit, Project Holodeck, has attempted to combine various peripherals in order to enhance the VR experience. Its developers have created simulations in which players (wrapped in equipment such as translation trackers, the Oculus Rift, controllers and even a laptop in a backpack) work together to overcome objectives in the virtual world.
James Iliff, producer, says, "Users can reach out and hit their friends' arm in the virtual world, and their friend is physically there in reality. They can have sword fights, and shoot at each other, and work together to battle enemies."