IN 1896, or so the legend goes, a 50-second film caused panic in a Paris cinema.
So realistic and visceral was the experience, that the audience was moved to terror.
The film was Train Pulling Into A Station, by August and Louis Lumiere, and with it began a new era of media.
One hundred and twenty years later, there has been another arrival, one that also incites the audience to horror and wonder.
Virtual Reality (VR) has pulled into the station, and this time it’s going somewhere.
The proof finally came on January 24, 2017, the day Resident Evil VII was released.
One of the world’s biggest video game franchises took a chance on virtual reality, designing a big-budget game from the ground up for VR and the result is astonishing.
Aside from being a work of technical and artistic brilliance, it is also the first time this writer (and many of his friends) have screamed aloud in fright. There is nothing else like it in entertainment.
To understand why this moment is different — why this train is worth boarding — we must first account for previous arrivals at the station, the times when VR looked certain to take over the world, but didn’t.
As far back as 1991, video game company SEGA, then a giant of the industry, released the Sega VR in arcades. The company also planned to release console versions for the home market.
In principle, the Sega VR was quite close to modern contemporaries in design, with LCD screens and stereo headphones built into a headset, but the product never reached mass market.
Sega claimed that the experience was ‘too realistic’ and there were fears people would move and fall over while playing.
Other, more believable reports indicated that users were getting severe motion sickness and headaches after playing.
Around about the same time, a UK company called Virtuality Group release their Virtuality headset, also built on similar principles to today’s models.
This proved much more successful than Sega VR, albeit in a different industry, with Virtuality selling systems to IBM, Ford, Mitsubishi and Olin for research purposes.
In 1998, Virtuality even partnered with Philips to launch a consumer headset that sold thousands of units in Japan.
For that period in the 90s, it looked for a time like VR might take over the world.
There were even magazines dedicated to the technology, like PCVR and CyberEdge.
But the simple, inescapable reality (the non-virtual one) was that computing power and screen resolutions simply weren’t capable of producing a satisfying virtual experience.
The machines could simulate stereoscopic vision, the illusion of depth and place, but the experience was so poor, the graphics so weak, that there didn’t seem much point.
No amount of clever design or trickery would solve that problem, and so the technology remained both expensive and undesirable.
In addition, another technology was rearing its head at the time, itself becoming mass market after years of flirtation with the prospect, one that would suck funds and talent away like nothing before it.
It was called the internet. For the next 20 years, the world didn’t bend its knees to virtual reality, but instead bowed down to the world wide web.
The internet didn’t become just another train arriving at the station, hoping for passengers – it became the station itself. Then it became the entire rail network, one that covered every corner of the globe.
Sequestered away in one corner of that network, in a carriage of his own, was a teenager called Palmer Luckey.
In 2009, then 17 years old, he surrounded himself with the relics of virtual reality’s past, dead headsets and failed technologies, an expensive collection of over 50 systems that never made it to mass market, all collected in his parents’ garage.
He became a modern-day tinkerer, dealing in screens and wires and code. Palmer was determined to resurrect virtual reality, and he used the internet to do it.
The timing was right. Technology had finally caught up to the dreams of decades past.
Computing power was now good enough to create satisfying visual experiences. Tracking technology allowed users to move their heads and look around comfortably.
The clarity of the virtual image, dictated by screen resolution, had improved tremendously, driven by the progress of smartphone screens.
Most importantly, most of these components were now affordable. Luckey built his own headset, fusing together these modern elements, and the video game community swooned at the results.
A 2012 kickstarter crowd-funding campaign raised $2.4m, almost 1000% of its goal, to create the Oculus Rift headset. Two years later, Oculus was purchased by Facebook for $3bn.
Since then, others have joined the VR passenger list, realising that, this time, the train is likely to reach its destination. HTC have released a headset that allows people to walk around a room.
Oculus have released a commercial version of the headset, with another coming. Most importantly, Sony have released the PlayStation VR, a headset that connects to PlayStation 4 consoles, successfully putting virtual reality into people’s living rooms for the first time.
PlayStation VR is the home of Resident Evil VII, released just four months after the headset hit shops.
While modern technology has driven the renaissance of VR, the success of virtual reality lies entirely in the user experience.
It either works, or it doesn’t. It’s either effective, or useless. With such a physical, intense experience, there’s little room for in-between.
In Resident Evil VII, the first of those experiences has finally been released to the mass market. It’s not perfect, but it’s good enough to be called a watershed moment.
That’s why we know VR is here to stay, however much longer it takes to perfect.
In the past, the conversation revolved around the limitations of technology but now, with Resident Evil VII proving big-budget games can work, only the limitations of design stand in the way.
With a speeding train heading their direction, don’t expect those limitations to hold.
And don’t be surprised if you hear a few screams. Like the work of the Lumeire brothers, they herald an amazing future.
A few teething problems
Virtual reality can cause motion-sickness, depending on the experience in question and the sensitivity of the user. This is negated by conscientious design, but in the future will likely be eradicated by better technology like eye- tracking.
While the PlayStation 4 can produce VR experiences, they are limited in scale and design by the computing power of the console. Expensive PCs cost close to €1,000, not including the VR equipment. Over the next decade, VR computing power will become much more accessible.
While current headset resolutions are enough to drive a fun experience, there is noticeable pixilation during most situations. Higher resolutions will produce much more satisfying visual results.
Headsets are a pain to wear. While the PlayStation VR is admirably light and comfortable by comparison to competitors, all expensive headsets are cumbersome to some degree. This is exacerbated by the ‘tethered’ factor, as headsets must stay wired to consoles and PCs during use.
With many different hardware companies, each with their own ‘ecosystems’, VR must learn to standardise across all situations for the medium to really flourish.
Until this happens, the market will remain fragmented.