Entertainment and Virtual Reality

Author: Mike Burton


For the topic of entertainment, this article will focus on computer and video games. The first question that must be asked is, "Why games?" Isn't this suppose to be a serious collection of articles? Games have had an important role in the development of human - machine interfaces and the introduction of I/O devices to the public. Games have been a force in making computer peripherals affordable to the general public. There is a huge demand for video and computer games, and the competition between companies continuously pushes technology.

There seems to be an inevitable evolution of games to be constantly more engaging and improve the sense of presence. The following examples show this evolution of computer/video games that has made technology available to the masses:

Adventure games

An early example of this type of game is the original Unix Colossal Cave adventure. (This game was later sold commercially on several personal computers under the title ZORK.) These early games understood one or two word commands and had very limited vocabularies. The games had a fixed sequence of steps that had to be performed to win the game. By todays standards, the game would have to be ranked very low in engagement, the interface was text descriptions of rooms on a screen and no graphics or sound. In their day, these games were very popular. It was not rare for people to get disciplinary action for excessive use of these games on their employers computers.

Later text adventure games introduced more natural language interfaces with simple sentences and larger vocabularies.

After this, adventure games evolved in several different directions with the addition of graphics, sound, input devices such as joysticks and mice, alternate methods of command entry and displays of party status, direction, etc. The games also evolved with richer worlds that could be explored instead of a single thread through the game. Examples of these are Dungeon Master, and Wizardry. Each of these additions improved the level of engagement of the game as well as increasing the sense of immersion.

Another evolutionary path was the multi-player adventure games now commonly called MUDs for Multi-User Dungeons. These games have areas to explore, and puzzles to solve like the earlier games. They also have economies based on killing computer generated characters for the money and possessions they are carrying. Beyond this, the interaction with other characters added much to these games.

People hang out and socialize and form groups to solve puzzles or conquer tougher computer characters in these games. The interface to MUDs is still text. Even with the text interface, many people get quite engaged in these games, even to the point of addiction. Many colleges have banned playing MUDs on school computers, partially because they tie up school computing resources, but also partly because students would get very tied up in the game and skip classes and homework. More evidence of the high engagement level of these games is to watch people's reactions to their characters death or another person stealing there belongings. Some people react to these very strongly.

In the future, the graphics, sound and command entry capabilities will be integrated into the MUDs. At this point, the games will be even more engaging and have a stronger sense of presence. Some time further in the future, these games will no doubt support 3-D display and 3-D sound for extremely high sense of presence and engagement level. (And I can not picture what the next area will be for these games to evolve to.)

Video games

Video games followed a similar evolution. Video games started with PONG. Engagement was low, and there was no sense of presence. The point was to not let a blip on the screen pass your paddle. Next in the arcades was Space Invaders and Asteroids. The biggest improvement in these was the orientation changed to avoiding getting killed. Engagement was improved by the natural reaction to protect your life instead of watching a blip go by.

After this, there were many varieties of shoot-em-up up games. The graphics gradually got better and the motion smoother.

Next came the first game that I would consider Virtual Reality (before I knew the term existed). The game was Battle Zone. This game achieved a good sense of presence by very carefully controlling the amount of the environment that had to be simulated and still be believable.

The display was set up to have you hold your head right up to a mock periscope. The controls were two control sticks, one controlling each tank track, and a fire button. The graphics were crude wireframe drawings with a grid for the ground. There were obstacles and mountains on the horizon. Enemy tanks were also wire-frame drawings. With the grid in perspective and obstacles, depth was very easy to judge and there was a very good sense of being in the game. Judging from the number of quarters I invested in this research, I considered the engagement level very high in its time. I also very much enjoyed the touch of quickly drawing cracks on the screen to simulate a broken periscope when you are finally killed. The first few times I experienced that, I was quite startled. I was in the tank, and my windshield just got destroyed! The controls were very responsive and the updates very smooth. Further evidence of the engagement level of this game is that a very close copy has been available for years on the IBM PC and Macintosh called Spectre. Recently, an update has been released for the IBM PC and Macintosh called Spectre supreme. This new version also allows multiple players via network.

The latest step in this evolution is the recent introduction of the video game Virtuality. This is the first game employing an immersive stereo 3-D display. Although the game itself is a simple shoot-out, this is the first exposure for the public to the goggles and glove Virtual Reality made famous in the movie Lawnmower man and now appearing in recent Honda commercials.

With the imminent release of the Sega's Virtua Virtual Reality goggles and many game companies work on 64-bit graphics processors for home game machines, it seems obvious this evolution will continue until there are affordable, high power Virtual-Reality capable game machines available for consumer use.

Class recommendations

Graphics - Computer graphics are the most visible part of many computer games. An understanding of high speed 3-D graphics will be necessary for immersive Virtual Reality games.

Data Structures - To support the high speed generation of the scenes, a large amount of data must be manipulated, and it must be manipulated in an efficient manner. An understanding of data structures and efficiency is a must.

Mathematics - Trigonometry is necessary as background to understanding the graphics requirement above.

Algorithms - These topics are all inter-related since they are all being used for the same application, a flight simulator. This is a case in point. Algorithm development and analysis skills are used to keep the graphics efficient and must be used in conjunction with the efficient data structures. New algorithms will constantly be developed in data compression and scene generation as games keep evolving to be more realistic.

Software Engineering - New sophisticated games can get large, requiring many programmers. As programs grow, so does the need for properly engineered software.

Data Bases - The storage and retrieval of the data used in cyber- world generation must be done in an efficient manner.

Operating systems - Many games handle I/O and interrupts directly without an operating system. They must handle multi-tasking, resource allocation, and other typical operating system concerns. An operating systems class will equip the game writer to handle these situations.

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Human Interface Technology Laboratory