Monday, June 20, 2016

The Problem With VR or You Could Have Someone's Eye Out With That!

Virtual Reality. Is that a thing yet? I guess it must be because people keep talking about it.

Somehow it isn't shaping up quite how I imagined. As Pete says, back in the 80s, when William Gibson's Neuromancer was stoking the zeitgeist and cyberspace was all over the mainstream media, there was a general feeling that Virtual Reality wasn't just the future, it was our future.

Somehow, I don't think this is what any of us were imagining back then, especially not after three decades of technical innovation. It doesn't even come with straps.

With the default cardboard you have to hold the whole thing up to your face

Pete's description of Google's VR on the cheap sounded so bizarre I had to go to Amazon to see for myself. It does indeed look like half a shoe box, "Made from High Quality, Hard-Wearing Cardboard", into which you shove your smartphone. It reminded me of the old ViewMaster we used to have when I was a child, all the way back in the 1960s. 

And guess what? ViewMaster is still going. And they've spotted a marketing window they probably never dreamed would open for them again. Here's the ViewMaster Virtual Reality Starter Pack. For not much more than the cost of the Google Cardboard you can get something vaguely retro-futuristic in red plastic. And you shove your smartphone into it and hold it to your face. Again.

I don't know. I had something a little more...sophisticated in mind. Forget William Gibson and cyberspace. My desire for VR goes back a lot further than that. I grew up reading Philip K Dick, where housewives spent the day immersed in the lives of soap opera stars, their lonely monologues seamlessly integrated into the action streaming from their giant wall-screens.

Further down the VR rabbit hole, entire PKD families subsumed their consciousnesses to the doll world of Perky Pat. I wanted to join them  but when you've been waiting all your life for CanD and layouts, retooled ViewMasters and Skylanders just aren't going to cut it.

Image found at this blog

 Then I started wondering. What are the long-term implications for your sight of holding a smartphone four and a half centimeters from your eyeballs? Sure, it was never going to do any of us much harm, looking at  static three-dimensional images of the Grand Canyon for a few minutes, but if this whole thing takes off we could all end up strapped in for hours. Every day.

C. T. Murphy, in the comments on yesterday's post, wished for VR support for EverQuest. It sounds fanciful in the extreme, retrofitting the latest technology onto a game that many would believe should have been retired long ago. But is it? 

When a new medium successfully supplants an older one there's usually a rush to convert past successes to present standards. How many times have we bought the same music or movies, on vinyl, cd, dvd, mp3...? Who's to say that if VR goes truly mainstream we won't see everything and anything ported over, especially if it turns out that the process can be automated?

EverQuest was famous - infamous - for its addictive nature.  The whole MMORPG genre is. Gaming sessions frequently run for many hours even with the unimmersive pseudo 3D we've all been pretending to enjoy on our primitive flatscreens all these years. Wrap that drug in 360 degree sensory overload and who's going to want to stop?

So I turned to Google again. Someone must be researching the side effects and the downsides, right? Well not so much as you'd think. I read half a dozen articles on the web, from journalists, scientists, industry analysts and concerned bystanders. The takeway I got from all of them is that no-one has a clue.

Sharples is cautious about linking known “effects” with “problems” - the evidence, she says is simply not available.
 when it comes to understanding how VR affects the brain, scientists "don't really know what's going on," said Mayank Mehta, a neuroscientist at UCLA
I asked whether using VR systems for long periods of time could result in long-term vergence-accommodation problems.
“Well, we don’t really know,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a smoking gun out there, but what we don’t know is long-term use — let’s say 12 hours a day — would that have any long-term effect? I doubt it, but I can’t prove that to you scientifically.
 the lack of long term studies on the possible impact of VR headsets may make caution sensible

All quotes from the linked articles. No one knows. Go ahead. Be your own guinea pig.

I think I need glasses.

Of course, if you're a gamer, chances are you won't be content with a twenty dollar strap-on for your phone. Most likely you'll be in for a few hundred when Playstation VR arrives just in time for Christmas; that's if you're not already in hock for your Oculus Rift.

Does a higher price tag mean better health outcomes? Possibly, at least when we're talking focal length and comfort fit, but definitely not when it comes to all those many imponderables from nausea to vergence-accomodation to psychological dependency.

Of course, as some of the writers of the quoted articles point out, every new technology arrives with a slew of  fearful warnings and dire threats. Even reading a novel was once considered a danger to your health. We all seem to muddle along with books, radio, cinema and television somehow, and all of them were reckoned in their early days to be harbingers of the end for civilization.

Still and all, I think I'll wait a while. Much though I'd love to wander the mean streets of a three-dimensional Freeport and watch as The Overlord pushes another dissident into the pit, I'm holding out for a tabletop hologram system. Should be along any day now. Delivered by drone, naturally.


  1. I am less interested in playing EQ in VR than I am seeing the sights in VR. Few MMOs are fondly remembered in first person, but EQ - for me at least - is.

    1. That's very true. I tend to forget that I played MMOs in first person perspective for more than five years - not just EQ but AO, DAOC, Endless Ages and more. First person is already half way to VR I guess.

      I play GW2 in first quite often, but only in very small bursts. When I changed to 3rd it somehow broke my innate connection with first and I've never gotten it back.

  2. Dammit, my Ono-Sendai cyberdeck is still on back order.

    I reread Neuromancer a couple years back and was surprised at how prescient much of the book was. But I am still not jacked into cyberspace.

    As for our own timeline, we tend to adopt things over time that make sense and make things better, for various definitions of "better." CDs were "better" than vinyl because they were smaller and didn't scratch up so easily. And a decade years after they were mainstream we had enough hard drive space to rip them to our computers and make them MP3s, which were better still, taking up no space at all and never getting scratched. Over that time, portable music players... Walkman to Discman to Diamond Rio to iPod to iPhone... didn't change all that much. Somebody who had a Walkman would "get" and iPod.

    VR though... having played with both Google Cardboard and Occulus Rift units... is neat, but it feels like a step on the path and not a destination. The ability to look in a game by turning your head is great. I love that. Not being able to see my keyboard... or my drink... or my wife annoyed at me because I am still on the damn computer... that needs to be solved in some way.

    1. One of the articles I read had some interesting insights from someone who'd done a lot of work on VR for the army and he was stressing the importance of being able to see both the real world and the virtual at the same time. I think he called it "transparency".

      I would be a lot happier to have something that overlaid a virtual world in my field of view yet left me able to see through it to the real world. I imagine it working by that trick of concentration and focus that made those 3D hologram patterns work, that were so popular for a while a few years back.

      I am definitely wary of having all my sight and vision wholly enclosed in an imaginary world. Leave aside the claustrophobic aspects of the device itself, just imagine the real-world disasters that could happen while you were unaware of your surroundings. If you're talking a few minutes then it's not a problem but we all know that in gaming "immersion" already means lost hours, not minutes. A lot could happen in a gaming session.

      I imagine VR addicts needing to be babysat the way people used to babysit each other on acid's not a pretty image.

  3. "What are the long-term implications for your sight of holding a smartphone four and a half centimeters from your eyeballs?"

    Well like you alluded to, the actual distance isn't so much an issue as is how to overcome the difference in vergence and focus. If nothing in the 3D virtual world was rendered closer than about 2 metres away there'd be no problem. Without some kind of as-yet uninvented lightfield projection system*, I'm not sure how this problem can be solved.

    * maybe Microsoft's hololens does something clever here

    1. Oh wow! I hadn't heard of the Hololens. I just googled it and it is very much along the lines of what the scientist I mentioned in my reply to Wilhelm above was talking about. I'd be much more interested in trying that than any of the enclosed headsets. Going to go read up on it and watch the videos.

  4. The Avegant Glyph is more what I want out of 'gaming accessories'. It overcomes the issues with having a screen 2" from your face, but still has some obstacles. Basically I just want a VR desktop to work in vs having to arrange your life around a screen. This generation is close but just not there yet.

    1. Another one I hadn't heard of. And, yes, that's getting closer but still not there. The more i think about it, the more I'm convinced it needs to be a virtual projection overlaid on normal vision, where you choose whether to see the imagined or the real by a trick of concentration. It can't be that hard - think about watching a tablet in sunlight, when the screen acts as a mirror. There's a point at which you cease to see the reflection and see only the image on the screen. The brain seems to have the functionality built in - it just needs devices designed to work with it.


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