Pax East is coming up soon, with a lot of the hype being centered around VR. In particular, people are expecting to learn a lot more about the Playstation VR and how it compares to the wide range of competition now in the Virtual Reality sphere. That being said, VR has been around for a long time, in many different forms, with varying degrees of success. Some think we have come full circle from the 1990s when there were many false starts and experiments with VR and motion controlled gaming. With this in mind, I wanted to expand on that concept a bit and compare some of the tech from the 1990s to what we have on the horizon today.
I’ve been on the record before as a skeptic about the resurgence of virtual reality. As any gamer who lived through the mid 90s will attest, at one point virtual reality “was right around the corner,” yet we only saw it in tacky kiosks showing up randomly in malls. I normally don’t care for the derogatory comparisons that many gaming commentators throw out about technology, but if there is one that I can relate to, it’s that VR is frequently compared to motion controls in a disparaging way. I’ve even heard someone go so far as to call the Playstation VR a souped up Wii due to it’s use of the Playstation “Move” controllers. I actually find this comparison rather accurate, albeit not in the way any of the original commentators intended.
Going with the throwback to the 1990’s, any of us who are veterans of the legendary 16 Bit Wars can remember the first wave of motion controls. I grew up with a Genesis, so the one I remember the most “fondly” was the Activator. The Activator was a ring of plastic that you laid on the floor, stood in and would have your “motion” control the games. The commercials of course made it look like it was a flawless piece of technical mastery. In reality, it was little more than a glorified hula hoop. The Activator worked by using infrared lines built into the plastic rings. This registered your movements and treated them as button presses. Though it was made to appear like an actual motion capture device, in reality it was just a fancy way of pressing buttons. Interesting, but not exactly “motion” controls. This wasn’t the only faux motion control adapter for the Genesis, as there was one that even predated the Wii Sports craze. It was a small baseball bat that could “detect” your swings, and it actually kind of worked.
The BatterUP was a small, foam covered baseball bat shaped controller that featured a very rudimentary form of motion control. There was a ball bearing in a small tube that moved when you swung the bat until it hit a button at the end of the controller. It technically was motion controlled, but a far cry from the motion controls of today. I actually owned this bat as a kid and I can say for certain it mostly worked. However, motion controls essentially died after this unit for the simple fact that the technology just wasn’t there yet. When the Wii was announced, many said it wouldn’t work since motion controls were junk, but they were quickly proven wrong. The Wiimote is one of the most amazing pieces of consumer tech I have ever seen. The use of the gyroscopes and accelerometers make for a motion controller that is near perfect. It’s a lot of fun to mess with stuff like Wii Sports and the like just for how well the system works. The system is so accurate that a pair of Wiimotes can be used together to work as a 3D scanner, among many other interesting projects. I recommend killing some time rummaging through the various Wiimote based projects on Instructables just to see the range of the technology.
This is why I think the motion control comparison for virtual reality is apt, if not quite for the intended reasons. Like motion controls, virtual reality was “the next big thing” at one point in the 1990s, and like motion controls, it eventually languished because the technology just did not exist to make it both truly useful and affordable enough for the consumer. However, that has rapidly changed.
Technology has progressed a long way since the 90’s iteration of virtual reality. I actually remember playing on a Dactyl Nightmare machine from Virtuality in the mid 1990’s at St. Louis’s Union Station and thinking “this is the future?!” You stood inside a ring while wearing a large plastic visor and holding a plastic gun thingy as you shot at early polygonal representation of evil pterodactyls. Everything is sparse, blocky in that classic early polygon style, and slower than a sloth covered in glue. Instead of being a simple computer peripheral, such as an Oculus Rift headset, the 90’s virtual reality were large scale machines that took up lots of room and ate tons of money. It was just about impossible to make a dent in the consumer market when the basic machine would set you back many thousands of dollars and honestly wasn’t that impressive. Virtual reality died out just because there wasn’t a cost-effective way to get the technology to market.
The explosion of consumer tech products in the 21st century has completely reinvented society. Could you imagine just 20 years ago that we’d all be carrying minicomputers in our pockets that are far superior to the computing power that put us on the moon? Computer technology advanced so quickly that virtual reality suddenly seemed like a viable option. Hell, nowadays with just $20 you can buy Google Cardboard to use with your smartphone that will get you a decent VR experience for an incredibly low price. Motion controls and related tech like the Virtuix Omni treadmill has made the classic scifi/cyberpunk idea of VR a lot more accessible. The rise of things like Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and the forthcoming Playstation VR have made home ownership of VR tech far, far more affordable than those of the 90s. Early reviews of the various implements has been fairly positive as well, although in all honesty, I’m still skeptical of the tech itself. Personally, I likely will never be a big user due to issues with motion sickness, but I’m optimistic with this exciting, wide reaching technology. Thanks to the greatest democratizer of innovation since the free market – the internet – teams were easily brought together from all over the world to work on various bits of VR technology.
I look at VR tech now like the explosion of 3D printing tech. With the expiration of a few patents, the market was kicked wide open and people all over can work with 3D printing technology. This has lead to a myriad of 3D printers that are no longer tens of thousands of dollars to purchase but usually can be bought for well under $1000, and the technology seems to improve every day. With VR tech being attached to smart phones and game consoles, it widens the audience, giving more incentive to create excellent VR experiences. I’m still a bit cynical about any hyped tech, but I honestly think that virtual reality is poised to be the next big trend in games and applications. I just hope that the motion sickness-latency issues are fixed soon so I can actually enjoy the technology as well.
I most certainly understand the various commenters who are skeptical of VR becoming mainstream. After all, not only do most of us remember the “virtual reality” of the 90s, but we remember so many overly hyped tech examples showing up and just being useless tat. The Kinect, XB1 cable input, motion controls being shoehorned into games when they weren’t needed, the Vita – the list goes on and on. Tech lovers are conditioned to regard hype with scrutiny, and that’s one of our best qualities. In this case, I’m starting to wonder if the skepticism is a bit too much. The tech seems to finally be viable, if not the pie in the sky dreams that people still have for it. However, a good start is still a good start and all amazing technology had humble origins. Virtual reality may never be the all-encompassing stuff of fiction, but that doesn’t mean it can’t become a highly useful technology in its own right.