Step into the future of game technology

Alex Dymoke gives a whistlestop tour of the history of humans and virtual reality

BLOGS and tech fans have been whispering excitedly about it for months, and last week, at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, it was finally confirmed: Sony is to launch a wearable virtual reality gaming headset to compete with the partly crowd-funded Oculus Rift. The latter won’t be ready for consumer release until 2015, and a release date for the Sony headset is similarly vague, but we’re sure to find out more concrete details at the Japanese company’s E3 show this summer.

Sony have called their virtual reality headset Project Morpheus, and though they’re keen to stress that it’s just a prototype, we can already tell they’re beating Oculus Rift in the looks department.

A powerful virtual reality experience relies on the concept of “presence” – a sensation in which a game player feels totally immersed in a world at the same time as knowing it’s not real. This is generated through big headsets with visual displays, motion sensors and audio input. The latest prototypes from Sony build on technology originating in the 60s when computer scientists developed the first head mounted displays. We’ve come along way since then, though – as our timeline shows.

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Descartes’ malignant demon

In his 1647 Meditations Descartes questioned whether it’s possible to be certain about anything. At any given time, how can we be sure we’re not dreaming? Not only that, how can we be sure that everything we experience isn’t an illusion, created by a malignant demon? This early musing on our possible virtual reality was the inspiration for the Matrix.

Morton Heilig’s Sensorama
In the mid fifties, virtual reality pioneer Morton Heilig began working on Sensorama, one of the first examples of a immersive, multi-sensory machine. A cinematographer by trade, he saw his machine as providing an experience akin to theatre. It included a moving chair, a stereoscopic display, fans, and audio speakers.

Ultimate Display
In 1968 American computer scientist Ivan Sutherland came up with the first augmented reality head-mounted display system. He didn’t hold back with the name: he called it The Sword of Damocles.

“Human Computer Interaction”
In the 1980s Nasa funded computer scientist Dr Michael McGreevy’s research into human and computer interaction. This led to groundbreaking developments in virtual reality technology.

Jaron Lanier coins “virtual reality”
Dreadlocked computer-scientist Jaron Lanier is credited with coining the phrase “virtual reality” in 1987. Lanier set up a virtual reality research company, VPL, in his home town of Palo Alto California. The company developed a range of software and hardware including a head-mounted display system called an EyePhone.

Virtual Boy
The first major point of contact between the games industry and virtual reality technology was instigated by Nintendo. In 1995 the company released Virtual Boy, a table-top console that offered “true 3D graphics” inside a box that gamers looked directly into. It was a commercial failure and was shelved after less than a year.

Red pill or blue?
Probably the most famous pop-culture virtual reality of the past two decades is the one featured in The Matrix. Morpheus (whose name Sony have borrowed for their virtual reality headset) offers Keanu Reeves’ Neo a choice: swallow a blue pill and remain within the virtual world of the Matrix or swallow a red one and enter the real world.

A breakthrough in virtual reality gaming
After demo-ing the Oculus Rift at various trade shows, tech company Oculus looked to Kickstarter to further develop its product in 2012. They rapidly raised almost $2.5m, which got the Rift into the hands of developers, who have been working on games ever since.

Oculus Rift progresses
The very first morning of E3 2013 brought the announcement of a newer, higher resolution Rift. At 1080p, developers were closer than ever to a slick head-mounted display gaming experience.

Sony finally gets on the bandwagon
For many, it seemed like an inevitability that Sony would eventually muscle in on the virtual reality action, and last week it finally did. Like Oculus Rift, it involves a bulky head-mounted display complete with motion sensors and headphones. There’s no release date yet and we’re not likely to have one for while. One thing is certain, though, it looks great – we can’t wait to immerse ourselves in the world of Project Morpheus