Guest contribution by Sebastian Bos – Rocketmill –www.rocketmill.co.uk
Games are giving back: how games are driving the VR renaissance
Some sectors have always driven technology. The space race gave us satellite TV and cordless chainsaws, the military gave us GPS and computers and science may have given us the internet, but pornography gave us broadband. Gaming has always been a by-product, until now.
Computers weren’t designed to play games. They were designed to do useful things like science, spreadsheets and calculating missile ballistics. The games industry has always been beneficiary to real world technology, taking advantage of developments designed to make money, wage war or further our understanding of science.
But one of the most fascinating aspects of the renaissance in virtual reality technology – and its predominant focus on gaming – is how clearly it shows how the sector has upgraded from technological also ran to prime mover in its own right.
You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would argue against gaming as the driving force behind the resurgence in virtual reality. Any commentator worth their salt knows that’s where the biggest market is, and as such, the technology is being developed principally with gaming in mind. Indeed, Harold Rheingold, author of Virtual Reality worries that new VR may be limited to gaming. Speaking to Mashable he said: “It’s a no-brainer to predict that there will be a market for gamers, but what else? As a scientific visualization instrument or architectural tool? It’s just not as large a market as, say, the Xbox is.”
Let’s be clear. Virtual reality technology has been a mainstay in enterprise applications such as flight simulators and in psychology departments for decades, but its mainstream resurgence is largely down to gaming. Oculus Rift, by far the most famous of the headsets about to hit the consumer market, is designed for games. Microsoft HoloLens is principally designed for games. Magic Leap, despite talk of helping surgeons, is designed for games. Between them they account for billions of dollars of investment for games.
But as this MIT Technology Review piece shows, the technological development going into something like Magic Leap is enormous. Eye tracking, limb tracking, software development… the amount of new technology involved is staggering. And once its developed, it can then be co-opted for non-gaming purposes, as is already happening – contrary to Rheingold’s pessimistic predictions.
The most obvious example is the New York Times-Google Cardboard partnership, using rudimentary VR technology to give a deeper understanding of current affairs, particularly in empathetic terms. Yes, Cardboard is primitive, but would Google have even bothered developing it were it not for the surge in interest in VR over the last few years? And isn’t that surge chiefly down to gaming?
Perhaps more important than the development of the technology itself – which has seen great leaps in just the last few years – is how mass adoption brings down the cost of both hardware and software, to the point that Oculus Rift is already featuring on Nabru’s ‘17 coolest gadgets‘. If the definition of affordable isn’t having enough left over from a mid-price sofa, then it’s hard to know where to draw the line.
It’s not just about watching Star Wars in immersive 3D. John McDonnell, chief executive of Soluis Heritage – who built a virtual Bronze Age roundhouse for the British Museum – credits “the billions being invested in gaming technology … [with] making it far more available for heritage use”, in just one example of how the affordability of VR is crossing over into education.
And if Magic Leap’s founder Rony Abovitz is to be believed, it won’t be long before his technology is seen in a medical context. He claims to have found inspiration for the project whilst working at Mako Surgical, which builds robotic arms for surgeons. From the Technology Review piece: “Although the robotic-arm technology could give surgeons the sensation of touching their instruments to bones, Abovitz also wanted to let them see virtual bones as they went about this work.”
In the most demonstrative example of the new VR affordability, we’re not far off from military training using consumer VR. The military has been utilising VR for years, using ultra-high-end proprietary systems that infinitely outstrip consumer gear, but the investment from gaming has seen the technological gap rapidly shrink, with Oculus Rift et al. overtaking military capability at a fraction of the cost. The army may have given us the computer, but gaming is giving virtual reality back.
I’m not saying that all this virtual reality technology is only being developed for games. One look at the official HoloLens site will show you that Microsoft is already thinking of wider domestic and commercial applications, but games are right at the top. If it weren’t for the sheer size of the gaming market, it’s doubtful virtual reality would be enjoying the renaissance it is today. And in the story of gaming’s socioeconomic role, that’s a dramatic about-turn. From technological by-product to technological driver, games have grown up.