Thursday, March 19, 2009
Whatever happened to Virtual Reality?
Remember Virtual Reality? We were all going to be wearing helmets that encased us in a computer generated world that would seem oh so real to us?
Why didn't that work out?
Well, hypothetical question asker, I just happen to have some inside info on a small part of that debacle.
I was working at a small video game design company in the early 90s, and we had a contract to make a fly-around-and-shoot-stuff game for the Sega VR, a mock-up of the final helmet is pictured here. The hardware was just a standard video game console and two tiny TV screens, one in front of each eye. Your TV updates the screen 60 times a second, which is called 60 Hertz in the business. Since the helmet had two screens, it would interlace this update, left-right-left-right, so each of the little screens was only updating 30 times a second, or 30 Hertz.
The problem is this. 30 Hertz hurts. The human eye can't really detect that updates of something going at 60 Hertz are really sixty still pictures mimicking movement, but up close, it can see the flicker at 30 Hertz if the viewer is concentrating hard enough. (Movies are updating at 24 Hertz, but the distance from the screen makes the flicker virtually undetectable.) When we were designing the thing, we worked on a regular TV screen and had no access to the VR helmet, which was in prototype at another facility. The beta testers of the actual product were some of Sega's most important clients, and the stories I heard were that wearing the helmet for about five minutes induced throbbing headaches or violent nausea. The flicker coupled with a lag in the update of the screens when your head would move made the experience sickening. Some other VR attempts used much more powerful hardware than Sega's model, but all the stories I've heard were that virtual reality was virtually 100% certain to make the user lose his lunch.