Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Return Of VR: How Games Saves Lives

One of the more recent means of media presentation in the modern world is that of video games and the soon to be reborn: virtual reality.

Reborn I say because virtual reality was the hot topic ever since author William Gibson coined the term in his book Neuromancer. Since that time the term that often accompanies virtual reality cyberspace has been floating in the minds of the tech savvy for decades. Cyberspace and virtual reality has been one of those technologies that was always "just around the corner" and it was one of those technologies that could not advance fast enough to meet its own promise.

Visionaries like Jaron Lanier, who became its first Messiah back in the 1980s with several articles for my favorite magazine of the time was citing its soon to arrive marvels and the new age of computing and tele-presence. Despite the advance of processing power predicted by Gordon E. Moore in the years before the turn of the millennium, virtual reality fell into obscurity. It became another discarded icon of computer pop culture as it moved on to the user friendly and immediate gratification offered by html and peer-to-peer file sharing.

While in that limbo space of forgotten technology and vaporware (non-existent software or hardware) it became one of the technologies whose time had not yet come. Investment money scarce as public interest. During that time a number of key technologies matured and by the turn of the millennium workstation graphics were slowly becoming possible on consumer level computing equipment. The technology of APIs, Application Programming Interfaces allowed software developers to access a set of features common to all hardware, without having to learn a new set of commands to use those features in their applications. In essence thanks to APIs hardware support in software become somewhat trivial. The first of the heavy hitters in the graphics world in terms of APIs, OpenGL (Open Graphics Layer) was developed by SGI as the API level graphics routines for writing software for their powerful graphics workstations. Used in everything from engineering to movie making, SGI workstations that powered their OpenGL graphics was the choice for those fields.

At the turn of the millennium the power of both CPUs and Graphics hardware available on the PC had grown in leaps and bounds paid for almost entirely by the video gaming community and the interest in creating the most realistic end user experience in video games. One of the early proponents of OpenGL from the game developer community was John Carmack of id Software. He'd been part of the team who created Wolfenstein 3D, one of the first 3D first person shooters available (essentially it created the genre). Other games had existed that utilized 3D geometry such as the aforementioned Elite (see the prior post) and a long forgotten game by Activision called Hunter (perhaps the first sandbox 3D open world game based on an island much like Just Cause or Farcry).

John Carmack along with John Romero had been pushing for the development of an API standard in 3D graphics for some time during the 1990s before throwing id Software's weight behind OpenGL and its little brother, GLIDE for 3DFX based graphics cards. Shortly thereafter Microsoft developed its own 3D and 2D graphics layer API calling it DirectX. It had been using GDI (Graphics Device Interface), the graphics layer powering Windows allowing direct access to hardware capabilities at the driver level. That left out "the middle men" in terms of the processing pipeline required to describe to the hardware what to draw and then getting it to the end user's screen thirty times a second for best results.

Memory prices had been declining and CPU performance had been increasing making the first decade of the millennium a prosperous one in terms of graphics computing power. This had been amplified by the fact that object orientation was making reuse of software technology more and more possible (and more and more stable). As well video game companies were turning out Hollywood level blockbusters complete with motion  capture performances, cinematography and art direction and bigger than life music and sound tracks like big budget movies. Theaters began employing stereoscopic 3D technology once again, something that it had not done since the 1960s. The technology had come a long way and seeing a feature film in stereo scopic 3D gave theater goers an experience unlike one they'd ever had before. Films like James Cameron's Avatar heralded the return of 3D to the theaters and soon everyone was following suit. Ironically James Cameron had been one of the first to use entirely CGI characters in his sequel Terminator 2: Judgement Day since Disney's Tron. Technology had come a long way since Robert Patrick as the T-1000 (a mimetic poly alloy) made his first appearance on the screen. The two technologies most required for realistic virtual reality had made their return to the forefront and had grown up. Once again bringing Jaron Lanier's initial predictions to life and returning the possibility of a cyber-Pleroma in our lifetimes to the table.

John Carmack who'd been id Software's chief programmer and their developer of new technologies had left id Software (the company he'd cofounded with Romero). The story of id Software's beginnings was that John Carmack and John Romero had bought their first development computer with only enough money to pay the cab fare one way. They had to walk on foot several miles to make the purchase of their first NeXT workstation so they had enough to take a cab back to their homes with it. Talk about humble beginnings. id Software since Wolfenstein, Doom (legacy) and Quake have been one of the leading developers of 3D first person shooters. They were first company to offer shareware, giving away the first part of their games for free, then charging for further content and levels much like modern DLCs (DownLoadable Content) and a similar model to how I've been distributing my books.

John Carmack even gave a lifetime opportunity to programmer Seamus Mcnally who died of Lymphoma Hodgkins on March 21, 2000. He took Seamus for a trip to id Software to try out id's latest technology and to talk programming together as two game developers. Here's a shrine with a few memories from the time in honor of Seamus. The Butterfly Dragon story was one of my ways to direct a little attention to Lymphoma Hodgkins as well and my part in giving a bit back to Seamus and the senseless loss that results from such diseases. Seamus is the developer of the game Treadmarks and an independent developer for the company Longbow Games. The game itself was a marvel of 3D technology and a great multiplayer experience.

John Carmack since leaving id Software took a leadership role in what will likely become the next wave of the realization of virtual reality until we figure out a way to get at sensory perception through our nervous system. Headsets offering 3D stereoscopic view and motion tracking had been one of the first predicted milestones of the coming wave of virtual reality foretold by Jaron Lanier. Oculus is a recent incarnation of this utilizing the lastest in sensors for motion and a stereoscopic headset for viewing. With such a system one could conceivably watch big screen movies they rent through the internet on a virtual large screen television (in a virtual living room) or as if they were sitting right in the cinematic universe themselves (with a camera fixed perspective). Gaming environments come to life as cognition is fooled into believing what it perceives via depth perception. Try a thriller like Alien: Isolation which offers 3D headset support and you'll likely find yourself responding in terror. Other realities become possible like motion sickness, vertigo and other maladies one might discover as they fool their cognition into believing they are really a experiencing such situations as being high atop a building, falling from an airplane or orbiting an alien planet (Elite: Dangerous which also offers headset support). Open world experiences would likely bring a whole new level of reality to the game play.

What about exercise and a social life? What ill and foreboding future will this bring to people and their propensity for spending money and losing their social lives?

Video games were often criticized with the same arguments and have been for a long time though with little truth to any arguments leveled at them. It was much the same for comic books and television in the 1950s and 1960s just as it was against radio in the 1940s and film in the 1930s. What video games have brought in the way of benefit has far overshadowed their detriment. Many medical advances which are powered by workstation graphics were paid for by renewed interest in graphics technology funded by video game sales. Realism might be a vanity in a video game simulation, but in the medical world, giving medical professionals tools that allow them to put their expert eyes into places where it could not otherwise reach except by graphics and 3D representation of medical data, and you're saving lives with video game funded technology. In other words the processing power was paid for by the entertainment industry. Once again the vanity arts once scorned for their shallow appeal are actually saving lives.

This cosmetic beauty applied to seemingly frivolous art once again is the metaphor for the cosmetician that is scorned for their furthering of vanity. Those perpetrating such scorn then find the cosmetician working in a burn victim unit, helping to apply and design the reconstructive surgery to a burn victim. How shallow is that? No more shallow than a Brain Surgeon who is operating a micro controlled surgical device for a precision operation that was completely planned by a virtual reality system whose data was drawn from countless MRI images of the patient's own brain so that they could conduct the ten hour procedure safely and soundly. The virtual reality system's hardware is built by a company that for years had been operating on a profit from the sales of video game hardware and putting their return into cutting edge research into graphics processing technologies. The same technologies that are helping some people to get over their real world phobias. Possibly such technology might help patients overcome Parkinson's in the future as well as depicted in the movie Awakenings. Perception and cognition may hold the cures to many illnesses that we have yet to understand.

What about sitting on an exercise bicycle with a lightweight headset and going for a virtual ride through a European villa on a sunny day. Or a stretch of Californian beach with your significant other, whomever that might be. Exercise combined with video game technology does away with procrastination or making excuses. It even makes the idea of doing the real thing more palpable. What better way to warm up for real ride on a holiday by practicing for that ride before your holiday? Networked computers already make multiplayer experiences possible so why not two stationary exercise bikes with WiFi that act like video game controllers and power a virtual bicycle? There's your social and exercise. People have long been using systems like Wii (at my brother's parties its usually the hit) and Kinect to have interactive games at social gathering and parties. Virtual reality headsets and other interaces will offer a different kind of experience and no doubt will as visionaries like Jaron Lanier, John Carmack, Bill "Wild Bill" Cody and Tom Clancy predicted lead to things we can't even begin to imagine. Baseball and Hockey did not stop because of the advent of video games. As a matter of fact fans of those sports have been increasing as a result of non-fans being introduced to sports and gaining a respect for them through gaming.

Another use for the technology that people forget is often best cited in the movie Strange Days (Kathryn Bigelow directed and co-written by James Cameron again and one of my favorites next to Anne Druyan, Carl Sagan's and Robert Zemickis' Contact and Zhang Yimou's Hero). In Strange Days, the technology exists so that people can record and sell each other's experiences directly from all of our senses and onto a disc that can be played back by someone else, who of course will relive that experience as if they'd done it themselves. In the movie the protagonist played by Ralph Fiennes who trades in these experiences sometimes even in the shady underground one, brings a gift to a friend of his who is confined to a wheel chair. The recording he brings for his friend is a simple one that most of us might take for granted. The recording is of the experience of going for a morning jog on a beautiful day on a beach on the west coast. Something most of us with working legs would likely take for granted. That's the power of virtual reality and technology.

Brian Joseph Johns
Shhhh! Digital Media