Living Virtually

This was written in early 2004.

Remember "Virtual Reality" (VR) – the buzzword of the mid-1990's, when we all expected we'd be wearing datagloves and goggles and spending all of our time in 3D worlds?

(Full disclosure: I worked at company called Dimension X that, among other things, produced a VRML browser called Liquid Reality, and produced web sites with 3D content. They're all gone these days. [Some are even blocked from searching on by the new domain owners!]

Although you don't hear much about VR these days, the technology has gone mainstream. New computers have hardware acceleration capable of a gazillion nicely shaded and textured polygons per second.

Stream of consciousness –

Over the 2003 holiday break I was at home sans wife or child for a couple of weeks; I realized I didn't have anything on the TiVo that was really *my* stuff. So I added a few programs from TechTV, including X Play – a show which reviews handheld, console and PC games. I never have time to play games any more, but that's okay – now I just watch the show and I don't need to play.

Although the show hasn't led to any purchases on my part, my wife saw a review of the game "Ghost Master" and decided to pick it up. Normally, she's more in the Minesweeper or Snood camp of games, which she plays on her laptop. Now she's running off to my computer down in the office to play games after the baby goes to bed. I thought that was my role in the family!

Watching her play, I'm very impressed with the game – especially how far game graphics have come. The premise of the game is simple – like Dungeon Master or The Sims, you are an unseen entity controlling your in-game minions. In this case, a cadre of ghosts. Your job is to scare the hapless characters from horror B-movies out of haunted locations, like the teenagers out of the cabin in the woods.

There is nothing in this gameplay or design of this game that requires graphics or processing power greater than, say, an Apple II/C64/Gameboy – you could imagine it running in glorious 4-color graphics with an overhead view. Or 16-color isomorphic tiles. Heck, it could be a text game.

But while you do spend most of the time with an overhead, semi-isomorphic view, simply panning across a particular floor of the haunted location, the game designers made everything fully 3D. You can at any time switch to the point of view of a hapless victim or one of your spook crew. You can rotate and zoom the external camera, and zoom to any floor or out of the building entirely. And the individual locations are very intricately designed.

The game doesn't look as gorgeous as, say, Myst. It's far on The Sims end of the aesthetic spectrum. But it really reminded me of how far we've come.

Back in the heady days of VR, the worlds were very simplistic due to limited processing power. A few thousand polys per world (most of them not textured) was the limit. And asking for 60 frames per second, or 1280x1024 resolution was unheard of.

Take the extropian ideal of uploading your brain into a computer – what is the minimum environment that you'd want to live in? I'm pretty sure I'd go nuts if the world was a limited as, say, Super Mario Brothers, a classic 2D game. Imagine the NTSC output of a Nintendo piped directly into your visual cortex, with no Off button. Yikes!

How about 3D games?

Wolfenstein 3D or Doom (basic raycasting) is probably below my cutoff for an acceptable reality. Quake-level VR might be the lower limit, but everything would be rough and faceted. Halo was the first game where I could sit and stare at the world, and sigh wistfully – I want to sit on the beach on the Silent Cartographer level, gazing at the arch overhead.

(This, of course, deeply intertwingles the processing power of the machine, the engine/environment, and the actual design of the 3D world. But these are evolving in parallel.)

Halo is a premier game, built by a development team with an eye to detail (both visual and story) given carte blanche to do things right.

Ghost Master is, from what I can tell, something that could conceivably have been bodged together by a single developer in a garage for the Apple II 20 years ago. Yes, it was built by a large and presumably very talented team, taking advantage of the latest technology, but that's my point. While the marketplace baseline for an acceptable game is advanced graphics and detailed world design, that's no longer considered something that only the ids of the world can pull off. It's "normal".

5-10 years from now, the worlds will be far more compelling, and the thought of "moving in" will seem much less scary. Put another way, the thought experiment of raising an artificial life form in such a world won't seem so silly; the experience therein will be comparable to the experience in the real world.

[Since I wrote this, Su and I actually bought a PS2 to play Katamari Damacy. Damn that's fun! Also, MMORPGs have caught on and things like Second Life have pulled people into VR worlds in a big way. The key difference between now and 10 years ago is the content! Well, and selling virtual objects for real cash.]