In the 1992 Sega Genesis game Kid Chameleon, the boss of a virtual reality game-within-the-game begins abducting players, trapping them inside. The player, as the titular Kid, is tasked with breaking into the game's virtual world and rescuing his friends. For all its leather-jacketed 90's charm, Kid Chameleon is a straightforward, middling game. It's not particularly difficult, and its art style goes in dozens of directions without succeeding at a single one of them. Its sole unifying principle is the notion of what it might be like to be inside the video game.
Inhabiting a fully-immersive computer-generated world has been a seductive idea for basically as long as we've been generating worlds with computers. The appeal is immediate: Our actions would feel real, but their consequences would not. Every vicariously-thrilling NBA Jam dunk, every Resident Evil dog-through-window jump scare, and every immaculately-groomed Mario mustache would become as much a part of our experiential vocabularies as a trip to the store, but the embarrassment of being dunked on or bitten by a zombified dog would be a relative non-issue. Our current standards for interactive entertainment would suddenly feel as quaint as one of those vibrating electric football tables.
With AR and VR, we're closer to achieving these things than we ever were. Great works of art will likely be created. People's lives will be improved. Additionally, as is necessary for most serious technical advancement, people will almost certainly become very rich.
The stakes are high, and the gold rush has already begun. Apple has built AR into its newest phones and is expected to release a full headset as soon as a year from now. Facebook has continued to give Oculus all the money it needs. PlayStation VR, bless it, is still chugging along.
The stakes are high, and the gold rush has already begun.
With high stakes, of course, comes the risk of failure. For every Oculus and PSVR, there's Virtual Boy and Snapchat Spectacles. VR and AR might seem lofty from a philosophical and sensory standpoint, but some of their biggest roadblocks are awfully pedestrian. Even with the promise of infinite physical ability, it's tough to imagine becoming totally comfortable with wearing a large, heavy headset while the real world buzzes around your oblivious face. Ridding participants of motion sickness, while much further along than it was even a few years ago, remains an issue. Omnipresent AR remains enough of a privacy concern that the Google Glass project was abandoned for just that reason. But perhaps most importantly: A VR/AR setup is another thing to buy, so it had better elevate itself above being a mere novelty, lest it risk gathering dust next to the Rock Band drum set. Even John Carmack, CTO of Oculus VR and co-creator of games such as DOOM and Quake, noted in a 2016 talk that "[VR companies] are coasting on novelty, and the initial wonder of being something people have never seen before."
From a formal standpoint, VR/AR games are attempting to essentially rebuild the concept of interactive entertainment from the ground up. Where a controller is currently the sole conduit between player and game, VR developers are forced to reckon with more complicated parts of human physicality. (What happens when someone tries to duck?) AR developers, by contrast, must cope with turning our gigantic and mundane world into something resembling a game. Pokemon Go made Nintendo a lot of money, but its developers first had to populate the entire planet with Pokemon in a way that wouldn't bore adults, frustrate children, or accidentally lure anyone into the Korean DMZ.
Additionally, it turns out that fooling our brains into thinking they're interfacing with reality creates some outsized interactions with the uncanny valley. On a television, unconvincingly rendered or animated human faces might be fodder for a laugh or slide under the radar entirely. In a VR scenario, however, it's enough to trigger a very specific and creepy kind of revulsion. Learning to work around this piece of human instinct without spending untold amounts of time and money will surely take some refining, and some of the most successful pieces of VR gaming have been savvy enough to avoid attempts at naturalistic modeling. In his 1970 article coining the term "uncanny valley," Masahiro Mori notes, "[An] artist who makes statues of Buddhas created a model of a human hand that is made from wood. The fingers bend at their joints. The hand has no fingerprint, and it assumes the natural color of wood. But we feel it is beautiful and there is no sense of the uncanny. Maybe [the] wooden hand can serve as a reference for future design."
The game GNOG, for instance, sees the player exploring cartoonish, brightly-colored puzzle landscapes that take the forms of gigantic mechanical heads. SuperHyperCube is a neon distillation of the most exciting tenths-of-a-second in a given Tetris game. Neither bear any physical resemblance to our reality, but their art direction and physicality are so strong and internally consistent that they occupy a "virtual reality" all their own. Besides being creatively impressive, these games have found ways to sidestep the medium's more practical restraints.
To hear Apple or Facebook tell it, VR and AR will soon replace most of the physical ways we consume media. When the biggest businesses in human history put this much muscle behind an idea, it's easy to sense an air of inevitability. Game systems, smartphones, and televisions will be relegated to apps on headsets. Watching a movie on a full-sized hardware screen will feel like an affectation. Pokemon will run wild and free. Everyone will wear expensive and fragile accessories over their eyes all the time, and our relationship to reality will be mediated by them. Kind of like a shoddily-animated face; however, whether that sounds amusing or horrifying can depend on how you look at it.