“A well designed game can even transcend reality and transplant the player into the world of the game, putting us into different bodies, different times, and different places.” — Dave Beaudoin
It’s hard to discuss the future of virtual reality without addressing its relationship to gaming.
Industry analysts anticipate 2016 will be the breakout year for virtual reality and no doubt gaming will be key to its success. And as the excitement builds around VR, it’s worth remembering that gamers have been patiently pining for VR for decades. Perhaps it’s telling that Palmer Luckey, who has support from the gaming community, got his start modding Nintendo consoles.
For the short-term success of VR, all eyes are on video games to do what they do best: convince consumers to make the costly investment into new hardware platforms. As first-gen VR headsets hit the shelves soon, companies look to develop new games for established fan bases and adapt popular games to VR in hopes of giving the technology traction and living up to gamer expectations.
But surely VR means more to gaming than just enhancing the experience?
Whether it was on their old school Atari 2600 or the PS4, gamers know what it’s like to get sucked into video games. Often, at the heart of the best games is immersion. In a fascinating 2010 post titled “The Psychology of Immersion in Video Games”, author Jamie Madigan summarizes that force that pulls gamers in, known as spatial presence:
The process starts with players forming a mental model of the game’s make-believe space by looking at various cues (images, movement, sounds, and so forth) as well as assumptions about the world that they may bring to the table. Once that mental model of the game world is created, the player must decide, either consciously or unconsciously, whether she feels like she’s in that imagined world or in the real one.
Now, getting sucked into a video game isn’t necessarily dependent upon having stellar graphics or sound. Board games can achieve the same sense of immersion using paper, dice, and cardboard (though a good dose of imagination and focus is required to pull it off). With video games, the barrier to immersion is lower because the slew of sensory information provides dynamic and real-time engagement.
As Steven Kotler has described, the immersion that derives from spatial presence in games promotes mental “flow” states. Today, the combination of context, theme, and challenges allow games to achieve relatively mild flow states compared to what could potentially be designed in the future once flow and other mental states are reverse engineered.
And herein lies VR’s potential to take immersion to a whole other level.
Thanks to improved computing hardware, VR offers a sensory richness that can approach real world depth. Additionally, the ability to completely saturate sensory fields lies in stark contrast to the sights and sounds coming from the black monoliths we play games on. Today, those fields are visual and auditory alone, but tomorrow, they very well could be smell, taste, touch, and beyond. Finally, achieving operating speeds that match the brain’s processing of sensory information will fool the brain into crossing the Uncanny Valley, literally putting the ‘reality’ in virtual reality.
In this way, future VR could make it effortless to achieve immersion and promote flow, and not just with games. What does this look like on a long enough timeline? Like hacking the brain. VR headsets won’t just enhance gaming, they’ll enhance our lives cybernetically in ways yet unimaginable.
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