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Chasing the 'holy grail' of the video game holodeck
Full-body immersion into a virtual world is the stuff of dreams. The developers behind Project Holodeck and Turbo Tuscany are chasing that dream, and learning a thing or two along the way.
Gamasutra's Advanced Input/Output week continues with a look at "holodeck" game development. If placing your body in a fully-immersive virtual world is the game developer's ultimate goal, then the holodeck is the holy grail. Of course, not all game developers are chasing the dream of a Star Trek-inspired full-body virtual world simulation, but the teams behind Project Holodeck and Turbo Tuscany certainly are. Project Holodeck is the work of a team of USC students in the Advanced Games Program who are working on various aspects of a virtual world, from art to game design to optical and gesture tracking. James Iliff is producer on the project, which he helped start back in March 2012 alongside Project Holodeck director Nathan Burba and one Palmer Luckey, founder of the hot virtual reality company Oculus VR. "Our goal was to create a platform that offered about 90 percent of the immersion of these super expensive systems, but for less than 1 percent of the cost," says Iliff. "And with that consumer-level price point, we wanted to start creating virtual reality games that everyone could enjoy and engage with." There are ways in which one experience near-holodeck-level immersion, but as Iliff acknowledges, developing a consumer-level system is the challenge. He and his colleagues have worked with professional-level motion capture systems that implemented multiple cameras, mocap suits and trackers all over one's body. That's on top of head-mounted displays with wide fields of view. All of this together provides near-100 percent immersion, says Iliff. All of this sounds expensive, and it is -- prohibitively so. Iliff estimates, "[It'd be] $200,000 for a mocap stage, thousands more for these military-grade HMDs, and you could scarcely imagine that a consumer could fit this into their homes. And because these systems were primarily used by research communities, the content was primarily research-related. There was nothing inherently entertaining about it whatsoever." A more reasonably-priced holodeck experience is within reach. Project Holodeck utilizes the Oculus Rift head-mounted VR goggles for video and a combination of PlayStation Moves and the Razer Hydra for limited body tracking. A ventilated backpack holds a customized laptop that powers the experience in a space that's around 12.5 x 10 feet. The team is using Unity for its game engine. All together, hitting 1 percent of the cost of an industrial-grade "holodeck" system is feasible.
Zombies on the Holodeck! from the Project Holodeck team
Meanwhile, at Finland's Aalto University, Tuukka Takala has been pushing forward with immersive worlds since 2010. With the release of Oculus Rift, he created a Unity-based demo called Turbo Tuscany, which takes people to a VR rendition of the Italian region.
His Holodeck-inspired dream is called RUIS (Reality-based User Interface System). Mainstream accessibility to full-body VR immersion is also at the forefront of his project.
"We set out to create RUIS software platform, with the intent to make it easier to build virtual reality applications using affordable, state-of-the-art interaction devices," he says. With different combinations of Kinect, Razer Hydra, PlayStation Move and Oculus Rift, and a few rubberbands, he shows how hobbyists can jump into a holodeck-like experience.
RUIS' Turbo Tuscany
"What might work in a 10-minute demo doesn't necessarily work in a full VR game or application," he says. "Ask yourself why you want to involve physical movement in your application, and how that enhances the user experience. This is an important question since motion controlled interfaces are often laborious to implement."
There are also ergonomic aspects that developers need to take into consideration (avoid the "gorilla arm", for example), and what kind of repeated movements players need to act out that might hurt the experience. Jumping with an Oculus Rift strapped to your head isn't ideal, and even though your body is virtual in VR, it's very real in the physical space.
"We had to be very careful about not breaking stuff in our office or crushing Oculus Rift signal box with our feet when testing the Turbo Tuscany demo," he says. "We kept tripping on cables from the Oculus Rift, and the solution to this would be to convert the Rift to a wireless version by creating a custom battery pack and using a wireless HDMI and USB transceiver."
Takala acknowledges that head-mounted displays are about as close to holodecks as game developers will get in the near-term. Perhaps in 10 or 20 years, he says, the issue of decent haptic feedback is solvable. "If the matter manipulation technology behind Star Trek’s holodeck proves to be beyond our reach, it might be that the next best thing will be achieved via plugging our brains into a computer using optogenetics or other neuromodulation techniques," he says. "That could take more than 20 years though."
But once humankind gets to that "holy grail," then what? "I personally would use a true Holodeck for acting out scenes from movies like One Million Years B.C., Ghostbusters" and Inception," he muses. "I would also hang out with a virtual George Carlin, and do some extreme sports like mixed martial arts and base jumping.
"The question is whether the geeks of the future want to return to the 'meatspace' once they have accessed a perfect Holodeck."
Read more about VR and Advanced I/O on Gamasutra's special event page this week.
If you'd like to read the full email Q&As with Iliff and Takala, check out Kris Graft's Gamasutra blog.