Virtual reality: Still a sham

Remember virtual reality? The “futuristic” technology that got massively hyped in the early 90s, promising total immersion and incredibly realistic fun via a giant, bulky helmet and hilariously primitive, blocky polygon graphics? And that died as soon as the PlayStation showed what a sham virtual reality really was?

Trimersion I had forgotten too. But a company has a new virtual reality-style helmet meant to make shooting games even more immersive. 3001 AD’s (nice “futuristic” name, there) Trimersion system consists of a wireless VR helmet and gun controller. The company sent me a unit to try out, and I can’t say it was a good experience.

There’s little setup involved; a small base unit plugs into the console’s controller port, the gun has a cable that hooks into the helmet, and you’re off. Except when I put the helmet on, the “screen” was twitching and full of jagged static lines; the headphones were playing only static. The manual says wireless interference can be a problem, so I turned off my wireless router in the room and two cell phones in the vicinity. Still couldn’t get a clear picture. So I played a little with the shaky screen just to get a sense of how it works. After a few minutes of the helmet weighing down on my nose and the controller’s buttons only somewhat responding, I had seen enough.

There are two main problems with Trimersion (aside from the basic not working thing, which hopefully could have been solved by calling them or moving to another room — though consumers normally expect their tech products to work out of the box, in the room where they want to use them, without having to shut off everything else in that room). The first is that the helmet works for games on the Xbox, PlayStation 2, and GameCube (also PC) — so you’d be paying $300 to play games on obsolete systems. The product FAQs say an Xbox 360 adapter is coming, but come on — the Xbox and GameCube are dead. PS2 is still going strong, but way to be on the cutting edge.

The second and bigger problem is that 3001 AD is trying to latch onto the ’90s vision of virtual reality — but that vision has been soundly trounced by the incredible advances in gaming technology of the past 10 years. Fifteen years ago, the idea of turning our heads to move a camera and shooting giant block-polygon aliens seemed amazing compared to the flat, cartoony graphics on the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis. But the subsequent three generations of game systems represent an almost unimaginable leap in graphics and immersion. Gears of War and MotorStorm on a big screen are more like virtual reality than any VR system ever made. For VR to keep up and stay relevant, it would have to basically be a personal, 360-degree IMAX screen combined with that Minority Report touchable-graphics-bulletin-board technology. Instead, it’s the same old bulky helmet with a small screen in the eyepiece, so instead of being immersed by a surrounding view it seems like you’re looking down a short corridor at the screen, or at a screen set deeply in an arcade cabinet.

I’m sure there are good therapeutic or training uses for this vision of virtual reality. But for gaming purposes, it’s a joke. The future of gaming is already here, and it’s not virtual reality. It’s reality — at least the kind generated by the crazy innards of the Xbox 360, Wii, and PlayStation 3. And an uncomfortable, glitchy helmet only gets in the way.

— March 26, 2007

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