The Future of Virtual Reality Hat

The Future of Virtual Reality

A Thought Experiment

Over recent years, the trend in computer games has been towards increasing realism. The images are more detailed, the animation more believable, the sound effects more atmospheric. With customers always greedy for something even better, market forces can only push the technological boundaries yet further.

Let us hypothesise as to what the future may hold...

Well, photo-realistic, real-time images can't be far away, and there are companies right now which are close to 3D sounds - the ability to make a noise seem to come from any point in space, given co-ordinates relative to the listener.

After that, well, true 3D images that don't induce head-splitting migraines won't be far behind, and with them will come affordable head-mounted displays that extend to peripheral vision to give a more immersive experience. Microphones and earphones will be built in, and there is electro-gyro technology in use today which can detect sub-millimeter motion in real space using a device the size of a roulette chip.

Projecting further, we can assume that there'll be some system for generating smells (or at least for masking out intrusive real-world ones), and that today's cumbersome datagloves will be replaced by something more light-weight which is capable of graded resistance to motion, in addition to the usual ability to induce sensations of texture and temperature (fur, sandpaper, water...). Once that technology is available, we can begin to think about entire body-suits, with people suspended in 3D-orientation fields so that even the inner ear can be fooled into reporting the world as being a different way up to what it is.

This kind of intensive virtual reality isn't the end of the story, though. Sooner or later, someone is going to come up with a safe, reliable means of making digital connections to human nerve cells. Instead of fooling the senses, you can bypass them completely by jacking your computer directly into the spinal cord, telling the brain exactly what sensory input it is receiving, down to the last nuance, whether it's possible in the real world or not. It's the cyberpunk's dream!

So is this the logical end of the projection, then? Nearly, but not quite: there's one more step. With this kind of VR, we're still talking to the brain through its senses, which means everything must be processed and interpreted before it gets to the mind. What if, instead, we were to cut out all senses completely, and transmit data directly to the mind itself? We could insert concepts, emotions and experiences way beyond anything that mere tinkering with the body's I/O devices could! It would be the ultimate in virtual reality - a system so potent that it would let us interface to the human imagination!

We've looked ahead a long way to reach this possibility, however. Stepping back and casting a cold, objective eye over it, is a technology such as this really, in practice, ever likely to be developed?

Well, yes, it is. In fact, it was invented in Mesopotamia some five thousand years ago, and it's called "text".


Play all the graphic-intensive games you like, but so long as you can read there's always something better.

Copyright © Richard A. Bartle (
21st January 1999: vrfuture.htm