It’s 2030. You’ve just downloaded the latest Call of Duty in moments via your wireless 10gig connection and you pick up the helmet and gloves belonging to your beloved games console. Slipping them on, you are immersed in a world displayed in definition so crisp the eyes can see only half its potential.
The cold metal of the AK47 fills your hands, the smell of fresh sulfur accompanies the clouds of pungent smoke and your ears are met by a deadly symphony of whistling projectiles and distant explosions.
You feel your heart racing, chased by genuine fear. Your brothers in arms are running, screaming, wounded, dead. You duck behind a low wall, alone but for the dreaded metallic ping as bullet meets brick inches from your skull. You see an enemy and pull the stiff trigger with a paradox of hate and glee.
But he has seen you first. There is a confusing flash and you stumble, accompanied by the sensation of a dull thud to your head. You realise you are hit. You are met by a bright light – not that of Peter and his pearly gates – but of the mocking “Game Over” sign that’s flashing before your eyes.
Virtual reality has been a concept that has excited me for as long as I can remember. But that’s just it – it’s still merely a concept. Truth is, we’re categorically bad at predicting the future and we have a tendency to exaggerate the pace of technological progression. If Space 1999 were accurate, we’d all have been wearing silver jump suits and living in moon colonies for the past decade!
That’s why I’m still very hesitant to get excited about virtual reality in relation to gaming. Every now and then, though, there are some evolutionary and revolutionary developments in gaming that push the boundaries of technology, and I’m finding it difficult not to get deeply excited about one such potential development: Project Natal.
I know I’ve questioned the integrity of casual gaming in the past, but there is no denying that the Wii made perhaps the first significant step in bringing the physical and digital worlds together. Hats off to them, but I stand by my statement that “the technology is, of course, very innovative, but sadly the execution is often dated”.
But with these physical Wii games, the imminence of stereoscopic (3D) gaming and, of course, the birth of Natal, it seems that we are ready for our games to burst from our television sets and take place in our front rooms and to take hold of our senses in new and exciting ways.
Let’s hope that Natal can gain credibility rather than succumbing to an early and gimmicky grave. It has the potential to be a magnificent stepping-stone into an evocative future for gaming. I can only imagine the possible joys of becoming a physical part of my games and to feel and fear and move around within their virtual worlds.
Of course, having a digital representation of yourself is far from becoming a physical component, but the idea that every movement is an echo of your very own is still exciting and is nonetheless a technological leap in terms of gaming and virtual reality. The bridge between the physical and digital world is, indeed, shrinking.
Since William Gibson coined the term in his novel Neuromancer, the idea of “cyberspace” has come a long way. Though we may be far from a Matrix-style simulation of reality, technology is constantly evolving and allowing us to interact with virtual worlds in more dynamic ways.
Working alongside existing and forthcoming technology such as visors (which are already available but, frankly, rubbish so far) cybergloves and omnidirectional treadmills (pictured), Natal could, in a generation or two, evolve into something incredibly special indeed.
I think we were all a little surprised that Natal has emerged on the 360 and not awaited the next generation of consoles. But, if Steven Spielberg reckons it represents “a whole new world; a whole new beginning” for video games, then surely it is a world that feels ready and clearly it has impacted quite heavily within the imaginative world of entertainment. Of course, pads will not instantly become obsolete, but hopefully Natal will be revolutionary not only as a peripheral, but as the next phase in our beloved world of video games.
The holodecks from Star Trek are arguably the epitome of what we could achieve with virtual reality, but this is surely a concept that could never be realised within our lifetimes. Or is it? When you consider that a mere 20 years ago we were enjoying games with characters that existed as little more than a dozen polygons, it boggles the mind to think of what we could achieve in the next couple of decades. Taking this into account, my futuristic Call of Duty seems much less far-fetched, doesn’t it?