Virtual Reality Will Take Gaming Outside

Virtual Reality

Featured image by Phil Whitehouse on Flickr

One of the complaints I hear most often from concerned parents, is that their kids spend most of their time in the virtual world. Their eyes are constantly glued to their smartphone’s screen.

“How can those kids live like that?” They demand to know. “Are we raising a new generation of zombies, totally dependant on their screens?”

My answer, always, is to remind them just how recently ago smartphones appeared on the world stage. Until 2007, there were no smartphones for the public. That means that this innovation is basically eight years old – a ridiculously short period of time compared to the history of humanity, or even to disrupting innovations like trains or cars. We’re still figuring out how to use the smartphones, well, smartly, and how to engineer our gates into the virtual world. And I tell those concerned parents that in ten years time, their children won’t look into their smartphones to find the virtual world, but will find the virtual world coming to them instead, unbidden.

To understand what I’m talking about, you just need to take a look at one of the hottest scenes in technology today: the virtual and augmented realities (VR and AR). Devices like Oculus Rift, Vive and Samsung Gear VR are coming to the consumer market in this year and the next, and the experience they provide is like nothing we’ve seen before. Trust me on this one: I’ve tried both the Rift and the Gear VR, and found myself swimming in the ocean with whales, visiting Venice, and running from real-life monsters in a temple… without actually getting up from my chair.

A trailer sample of the new generation of VR headsets: the HTC Vive, created by HTC and Valve

The forecasts for the virtual reality are incredibly optimistic, with Business Insider estimating that shipments of VR headsets will double in number every year, and will create a $2.8 billion hardware market by 2020. The Kzero consulting firm has forecast that annual revenues for VR software will reach $4.6 billion by 2018. This growth rate leaves the iPhone’s far behind, and will mean that – if those forecasts are anywhere near accurate – VR is about to take the world by storm in the next three years.

A forecast by Business Insider for the near future of VR devices. Notice the 99% cumulative annual growth rate - which essentially means a doubling of the number of shipments every year.
A forecast by Business Insider for the near future of VR devices. Notice the 99% cumulative annual growth rate – which essentially means a doubling of the number of shipments every year.

For myself, I’m still hesitant to believe that the VR market can rise so rapidly to prominence. The VR devices, while creating beautiful sceneries for the users to explore, are still cumbersome to wear on the face, and leave you disconnected from your immediate surroundings. So I prefer to stick to the old adage (allegedly by Arthur C. Clarke, and later proven by research in foresight) – “Experts are too optimistic in the near future, and too pessimistic in the long-run.”

These limitations will change in the future, and will most probably lead to the creation of augmented reality (AR) devices, which will look more like a normal pair of glasses, but with the pictures being displayed on the glasses themselves. In that way, the user will be able to see the physical world, along with the virtual world being overlaid on it.

Such AR glasses as described are already in existence, though they are still quite limited in capabilities. The Lumus glasses do just that, as do the Meta glasses. While both are still clunky, cumbersome, and have a limited field of view, they’re the early birds in the AR-Glasses field. If we assume that technology will keep on progressing (and honestly, I can’t see a way for it to stop!), we can be sure that the next AR-Glasses will be thinner, more energy-efficient, and more usable in general.

Let’s talk a bit about the games that AR and VR could open up for us in the future.

Gaming and VR / AR

Using VR for gaming is a no brainer. In fact, that’s the main use analysts are thinking about for VR in the next five years. Imagine running in the virtual landscape of Azaroth in World of Warcraft, or climbing the virtual towers and cathedrals of Paris in Assassin’s Creed. Those are experiences that will make the hardcore gamers flock to VR.

However, I would like to consider a different sort of gaming – one that might be accomplished by means of AR. The gamer of the not-so-far-away-future may actually be the athletic sort, because many games would be played on the streets of the city. By using AR-Glasses, every player would see a different image of the street: some will see the street as a dungeon with a dragon at its end, while others will find themselves forced to evade virtual deadly robots on the prowl, and still others would chase virtual butterflies on the pavement. Admittedly, that’s one crowded street!

Ok, this idea sounds a bit silly when you consider all the human congestion and potential traffic accidents that could occur, but there is definitely a case for streets and physical infrastructures that would be used as playing ground for the hard-core gamers. Even ‘soft gamers’ like most of us could find themselves taking a walk or a jog in seemingly-ordinary streets, with the AR-Glasses in our eyes turning the jog into a run from a dragon (with extra points if you make it out safely!) or involving some interesting activity while walking, like finding and picking up virtual playing cards on the pavement.

There are tantalizing hints in the present for this sort of outdoors-gaming. The “Zombies, Run!” game for the smartphone, is all about being chased by zombies in the real world. The zombies, of course, are virtual and you can only hear them behind you as you run, with the narrator giving you missions. Also, the more you run, the more supplies you collect automatically to build up your base. Another app, by the Mobile Art Lab in Japan, lets you see butterflies through your iPhone’s camera, and swipe at them to catch them – and turn them into discount coupons for restaurants.

Perhaps the most impressive example (although it’s more of a publicity stunt than anything else) of what augmented reality could do for the gaming world has been shown recently by Magic Leap – an AR company, obviously. Take a look!

Obviously, these are only hints for the future, but they’re pointing at an amazingly colorful and fascinating future for us all. The virtual world will no longer be far away from us, or force us to take our smartphones from our pockets. Rather, it would be all around us, and we’ll be able to see and hear it via the AR-Glasses and earbuds that we carry all the time.

The Challenges

Why isn’t this future not here by now? The challenges can be divided into two sorts: technological challenges and societal ones.

The technological challenges consist mainly of battery limits, which have been the ban of smartphones and other wearable computing so far. In the case of highly-sophisticated equipment such as AR-Glasses, the size of the projectors that send pictures to your eyes or onto the glasses is also a problem, and makes for extremely unfashionable glasses. Interestingly, the computing power does not seem to be a real challenge on its own, since AR-Glasses and other wearable computing devices could use the smartphone in one’s pocket to do most of the toughest computing tasks for them… which brings us back to the need to invent more efficient and long-lasting batteries for the smartphone as well.

None of these technological challenges represents an impassable barrier. In fact, if there’s one thing we can promise, it’s that future devices will have more efficient batteries, and will have the potential to be smaller. The trends indicate clearly that batteries are rapidly making progress towards better energy density.

The growth in batteries energy density over time. Originally from "Thermodynamic analysis on energy densities of batteries"
The growth in batteries energy density over time.
Originally from the paper “Thermodynamic analysis on energy densities of batteries“, which was brought to my attention in Quora.

The other big challenge is the societal one, and this is where Google Glass crashed into a wall. People simply did not like the fact that the person they’re speaking with could take a picture or a video of them at any time, or may even watch porn during a face-to-face conversation. The design of the Google Glass itself did not do anything to ameliorate those anxieties, and thus people just stopped using the Glasses to avoid becoming social pariahs.

While many believe the Google Glass has completely failed, we must remember that every device begins as a partial failure, since nobody knows how it will be used or how people will react to it. Google Glass was an experiment in design, and Google is now working relentlessly towards Google Glass 2.0, which will fit better with people’s desires and uses.

In short, while there are still challenges to the AR scene, they will be solved sooner or later. Any other conclusion forces us to think that somehow technology will cease to evolve and that companies will stop adapting their products to the consumer market, and I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

Conclusion

There are plenty of uses for virtual and augmented realities other than gaming, and in future posts we’ll deal with them as well. For now, I hope I’ve convinced you that at least part of the gaming activity would not take place solely in front of a screen, but in the streets and the parks. It’s going to be a pretty interesting world to live in, full of colors and messages and experiences that will blend seamlessly with the physical world.

And wouldn’t you like to play such games?

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