There is no doubt that video games are in their golden age at the moment. Since 2007 sales of consoles and games have grown by 57 percent in spite of the economic downturn. During March 2008 1.7 billion dollars worth of games products were sold. The games industry is now bigger than films and is gaining more and more mainstream appeal and recognition.
Nintendo have helped to bring games to a much wider audience than was ever thought possible. Many families and older people are joining in what was traditionally a hobby for young males. The current generation of technology has pushed games further than they’ve ever been before. Games on the PC, Xbox 360 and PS3 are pushing graphical realism to new heights while the Wii is looking to break the boundary between virtual and real space with motion sensitive controls.
An interesting question to pose is where the next generation will go, and where video game entertainment will end up. A common theory is that they will move away from being purely games and end up as virtual reality experiences. The starting points of the necessary technologies to achieve this are already in place.
Motion sensitive controls are a significant stepping stone toward virtual reality in the home. Imagine if when playing a bowling game instead of watching the screen with cartoon characters mimicking your actions you were wearing a headset and being fed photo-realistic graphics from a first person perspective. The experience would be far more realistic than anything available at the moment.
It is my opinion that there will be two distinct directions that electronic entertainment will take. One path is that of the Wii, appealing to a mass market with easy to pick-up games that are designed for a quick dose of fun with family and friends. The other side I think will go down the ultra realistic route and end up trying to give the user a virtual reality experience. With technology as it is, the scope for providing this in the home is limited. The Wii remote requires users to physically move their bodies. Obviously this will not work in the living room once games require you to do more than swing a tennis racket or bowl a ball.
A workaround for requiring physical movement from the participants is to read brain activity. While currently the stuff of science fiction there are significant strides being made into reading human brain waves and converting them into mechanical movement. On the 28th of May 2008 the BBC posted a news article stating that scientists from the University of Pittsburgh had managed to get a monkey to control a robot arm to feed itself by just using its brain. The monkey had tiny probes the width of a human hair inserted into the primary motor cortex in order to read the electronic impulses that control movement. With a little training the monkey was able to manipulate the robotic arm as if it was its own.
Such invasive procedures are obviously out of the question for simple home use but it is certainly feasible to see the technology being adapted to read the brain from outside the head. It would be in this way that thoughts could be read to control movements in a virtual reality. This technology would also have other significant advantages, such as restoring movement to those crippled by spinal injuries and motor neurone diseases. I would see a difficulty when using these systems in separating virtual and real movements. Once trained to control movements in a virtual world with the brain would one be able to move their real body properly afterwards?
With technology such as this in place combined with ultra realistic graphics, we may see some virtual reality games created that are almost indistinguishable from real life. Would this lead to a mass migration to a virtual world where people can be as they please? Perhaps the topic for another article but certainly it is a scenario explored in many science fiction books and films.
In 1999 action film The Matrix famously told of a future in which mankind lived unknowingly in a virtual reality, their physical bodies were used to power the machines which had enslaved them. While unlikely to happen, when you read stories of Korean men starving themselves to death while playing MMO games it certainly makes you worry about how many people would abandon their bodies should such technology become available.
In reality though it is highly unlikely that virtual realities this complex will be able to exist, at least not in the foreseeable future. The computing power required to process them is trillions of times greater than what can be achieved today, with some theories suggesting that it would take a computer the size of a planet to process a virtual reality complex enough to fool the human mind.
I do think that games will reach an extremely high level of realism though, just not in entirely virtual worlds. The biggest barrier isn’t just processing power, but how to give enough feedback to trick the senses. I think that vision and sound will be relatively simple to reproduce but taste, smell and touch will be much harder. The issue of balance and orientation is a sticking point as well. Without direct input into the brain these senses may prove impossible to mimic inside a computer simulation.
Of course in the end it also comes down to what is financially viable for a company to put out and sell. The consumer will dictate the direction that games end up taking by what they’re willing to spend money on. With the dominating success of the Wii over the other platforms it would suggest that users are more comfortable using controls that mimic real life actions than they are using a traditional control pad or keyboard and mouse.
Graphics and simulations will continue to improve over time and I’m sure that one day it will be quite standard to wear a headset to play games. Whether that headset reads the thoughts of the user or not depends on whether it becomes cost effective to sell to consumers and whether people are ready to embrace the technology. I’m sure the possibility will exist at some point in the future but whether it represents the future of video games and is actually used remains debatable.
Everything considered the future of electronic entertainment is certainly a bright one. Eventually the technologies will merge and we’ll see virtual reality games integrated into TV, radio and the Internet. The only question is when all this will happen.