Apart from the obligatory first-person shooters, the first wave of games made for a new virtual reality headset lets you explore imaginary worlds. First published as part of a New Scientisttechnology special on VR’s second coming.
DON’T think, just feel. Games-makers are embracing the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset and using it to create an entirely new kind of gaming experience. They are also changing the idea of what a game can be. “Right now we’re on the precipice of a new wave of video games,” says Robin Arnott, a sound designer based in Austin, Texas. “The Rift is such a gift for us.”
Around 75 existing games are being adapted to work with the goggles, including classic first-person shooters like Half-Life 2 and racing games like Race Driver: GRID. But Arnott wants to move beyond such games to create what he calls video dreams. He is part of the team behind SoundSelf, which he describes as a meditative trance experience. Players strap on the Oculus Rift and headphones, and sing a note. The game listens to your voice and sings back to you, shaping sounds and visuals in harmony.
Without full immersion, the game probably wouldn’t work. But players trying the demo at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles reported getting lost in the kaleidoscopic visuals and forgetting where they were. “You get into a trance, it’s very trippy,” says one.
Instead of looking at a screen and hearing sounds from external speakers, the VR headset shuts out all visual distractions and pushes the player into the virtual world. “We can make these abstract, unreal environments feel real,” says Arnott.
Other Oculus Rift games on show at E3 included If A Tree Screams In A Forest, in which players try to survive a short walk in the woods; Irrational Exuberance, described as a mix of stargazing and structure-building in a playground at the edge of reality, and Homework From Another World, a game about extraterrestrials and high school.
“I’m fascinated by the concept of lucid dreaming,” says Los Angeles-based game developer Julian Kantor. His E3 game was called The Recital, in which the user moves from a realistic sequence playing the role of a pianist getting ready for a performance to a surreal environment of vast, illogical spaces with a soundtrack that adapts to your actions. “When you take off the headset at the end of the play session, it’s as though you are waking up from a crazy dream,” he says.
Arnott hopes the Oculus Rift will encourage people to make non-violent games that are more about exploring a new environment than completing levels. But more shocking experiences are certain to prove popular. For example, another early game made for the device is a guillotine simulator, while a firm called Sinful Robot is working on “immersive erotic encounters”.
A piece about learning to use a new body part. First published as part of a New Scientisttechnology special on VR’s second coming.
Virtual worlds are fun to explore, but what about virtual bodies? It turns out we can quickly learn to control an avatar in the form of an animal if our movements are mapped on to its digital representation.
William Steptoe and colleagues at University College London gave 32 volunteers an avatar with a tail and allowed some of them to control it by moving their own bodies. The volunteers then played a virtual-reality game in which they had to use the avatar’s hands or tail to hit coloured lights that lit up in rings around it. Lights in the outer ring could only be hit with the tail, which could extend about half a metre beyond what the avatar’s hands could reach.
None of the volunteers was told how to control the tail, but half of them were given the ability to move it by twisting their hips while the other half had a tail that moved at random. Those with a controllable tail had their hip position tracked by cameras 60 times a second, with the readings mapped on to the position of the tail.
The team found that people who could control the tail learned quickly. By the end of the 10-minute game they were as good at hitting the lights with their tail as they were with their hands.
But while they were learning, they temporarily became less competent with their hands. Steptoe thinks this is because mastering a new body part requires the brain to give less priority to existing ones.
The idea of extending the body, whether in real life or virtually, is not new. For example, performance artist Stelarc has strapped a mechanical third hand onto his right arm, which he could control using muscles in his abdomen and legs via sensors that picked up electrical activity.
Back in January I talked to Chris Reed, Professor of Electronic Commerce Law at Queen Mary, University of London, for an article about the way our digital rights are shifting in the cloud. The following comments didn’t made it into the piece, but I like Chris’s railway analogy.
Historically, it’s the way all these things go. Think about railway transport in the Nineteenth Century. These trains come along and eventually the train companies invent terms and conditions that say, “If we kill you, tough.” And people put up with that because it’s more useful having the trains than having to walk. After a long period of time the whole thing settles down and eventually they row back and they’re forced by legislation and consumer pressure to work out a settlement. But to begin with they have all the power – “We’re running a train, we’ll take you further this week than we took you last week. If you want to sit down and argue about liability that’s fine, but you’ve got to travel by canal barge.” People say, “Ok, I’ll take the train.” That’s kind of the trajectory that we’re seeing with Facebook and others. Facebook is the interesting one because it is the most aggressive in this.
But every bit of law is the product of a kind of dialogue – almost an adversarial dialogue – between the various people whose interests are involved. And you get a kind of regulatory settlement where everybody sits down and says, “This is how we think society ought to work.” Then you get a shock to society like the internet and we’re busy negotiating a regulatory settlement. There’ll be a point in 10 or 20 years time when all this stuff is just so blindingly obvious and part of normal life that we will collectively find it quite easy to work out what the right rules are. But it’s going to take that period of time. We’re in that turbulent period where everything is changing.”
The most comprehensive maps yet of the the internet’s infrastructure could help shore it up against disasters and sabotage.
IN MANY ways the internet is like another country. It has its own communities, cultures and even currency. But its infrastructure – the fibre optic cables that span the globe, and the thousands of buildings housing servers and routers – passes through almost every nation.
Internet cartographers have tried for years to chart its extent in the physical world, in order to manage traffic and assess weaknesses. Such vulnerability was shown on 27 March, when three scuba divers were arrested for trying to cut an undersea cable off the coast of Egypt, where several critical cables come together in one of the internet’s “choke points”. And last year, superstorm Sandy’s impact on internet connectivity in New York rippled all the way to Chile, Sweden and India.
Previous attempts to map the internet have been from within, using “sniffer” software to report the IP addresses of devices visited along a particular route, which, in theory, can then be translated into geographical locations. But this approach doesn’t work, says Paul Barford at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “After 15 years nobody can show you a map of the internet,” he says.
Such software is often inadvertently blocked by internet service providers (ISPs). Routers also try to find the shortest route between points, so sniffers end up mapping the internet’s major highways, but few of the back roads. “It leaves a very large part of the internet effectively invisible,” says Matthew Roughan at the University of Adelaide in South Australia.
Barford and Roughan head up two separate projects that are attempting to change that. Instead of relying on sniffers, they are scouring ISP databases to find published information about local networks, and piecing these together into a global map. Roughan’s Internet Topology Zoo is a growing collection of maps of individual networks. Barford’s Internet Atlas expands on this, adding crucial buildings and links between networks to flesh out the map. So far the Internet Atlas, perhaps the most comprehensive map of the physical internet, maps 10,000 such structures and 13,000 connections. Barford presented the work at the University of Cambridge on 28 March.
KYLE GOODWIN wants his stuff back. One day, he decided to set up a company in Ohio to film local sports events. For a while, business was good, but then he got a shock.
To keep his valuable footage safe, Goodwin had placed it in a popular storage facility. On 19 January last year, all those assets disappeared without warning. As did everything put there by more than 150 million others. When he asked for his livelihood back, he was refused. So he decided to go to court.
Goodwin’s experience represents a much deeper problem – and it is at the heart of the way we use technology today. “This is about internet users and the future of internet usage,” says Corynne McSherry of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which is providing Goodwin with legal help. Why? Goodwin’s video footage was digital, and stored on a computer in the cloud.