Thursday, 10 March 2016

A Virtual Experience

I am sitting (I think) in a darkened room with the faintest sound of traffic audible in the distance.  A lance of daylight cuts through the darkness from a skylight and provides just enough illumination to see the silhouetted outlines of machinery and equipment, though it is difficult to make them out exactly.  Suddenly, a switch is heard clunking into action and a bare bulb suspended from the roof illuminates and reveals that I am sat in some sort of workshop.

I look around to try and orientate myself, but beyond the glow of the bulb lies little more than shadows.  I then hear footsteps and looking to my left the outline of a man starts to approach me.  He steps into the light and I am confronted by a shaven-headed, muscular, heavily tattooed ‘geezer’ who bears a striking resemblance to Grant Mitchell.  He lights a cigarette, takes a drag and then, in the finest of Sarf London accents, begins threatening me. What did I do?

Am I reporting live from the headquarters of some criminal enterprise?  Am I on the set of the next British gangster movie?  No, my friends!  I am, in fact, fully immersed in the world of a VR video game demo and it’s quite unsettling.  The ‘gorilla’ in front of me has swung a punch and I flinch, I actually flinch, from something that my brain is telling me is not really there.  Yet, shut inside this VR headset which permits no infiltration of light or sound from the outside world,  this 3D world manages to feel authentic nonetheless. In my head, I know that all before me is a digitally-generated fantasy, but my eyes and ears tell me otherwise.  Indeed, I become so rapidly accustomed to this new 3D world, that the sound of my office colleagues, whom I can just about make out urging me to follow a particular course of action, seems very remote and detached, as if it is they who are the virtual ones rather than the world I am seeing before me.

Whilst I have ‘test flown’ similar VR systems in the past, this one responds smoothly and accurately to my movements though the two suspended gloves in front of me, representing my virtual hands, do struggle occasionally to pick up items.  When they do work, however, I can twist and turn an object in any direction and without any lag.  The technology has clearly moved on in leaps and bounds, but with it will inevitably come the questions about how we will respond when immersed in these VR games for hours at a time.

Already some commentators have indicated that VR games must affect ratings since the games will be so much more ‘realistic’ than 2D games.  Others have suggested that they probably won’t make much difference since we will always recognise the fact that we are dealing with an animated rather than real world however immersed we may be.  No doubt an army of behavioural psychologists will soon be researching their way into any conceivable ‘effects’.  Given past experience, we will probably end up with the usual camp roughly divided into those who believe there are negative effects, those who don’t, and those who don’t give a monkey’s either way!

From my experience thus far, the only problem I foresee is a pragmatic one – leaning out to reach an object, I almost lost my balance and went over – so maybe we will be obliged to be strapped into a chair while playing.  Now excuse me, I’ve just turned 180 degrees and spotted someone else coming towards me and he doesn’t look best pleased….time to get outta here!

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