The goal of gaming has always been to escape reality, at least for a little while. We’ve come a long way since the single-dot of a Pong game and the 8-bit animations that featured in the earliest incarnations of the industry. But, as with most things in our lives, we always dream bigger.
Virtual reality (VR) came along with the promise of in-game immersion, and in some aspects, it succeeds, especially if by immersion you mean the feeling of stomach-dropping nausea you get from a roller coaster. While strapping on a VR headset and some headphones do provide a more immersive experience than a computer screen or television, there are still some aspects missing.
We’ve seen full-body or full-dive VR featured in popular media like Sword Art Online or Ready Player One, where the player is fully immersed in the virtual world, enabling them to see, feel and interact with their digital surroundings. Will full-dive VR ever be possible, and how close to this technology are we?
Full-Dive VR in Fiction
Becoming able to completely immerse yourself into a virtual world is a popular trope in modern science fiction stories. Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One novel, and subsequent cinematic adaptation starring Tye Sheridan, transported people into The Oasis — a massively multiplayer virtual world accessed through headsets and gear that provided haptic feedback.
The 2009 anime Sword Art Online introduced the idea of full-dive VR. The NerveGear featured in the first season of the show immersed the players in the virtual world by redirecting their brain’s signals from their body into the game. This effectively cut them off from the physical world — and allowed the game’s designers to kill players in the real world when their avatar died in the game.
Even the iconic 1999 sci-fi blockbuster The Matrix could loosely be considered a type of full-dive VR. Instead of using headsets and interfaces to control virtual avatars, the characters in the movie were connected to the virtual world by a neural link connected directly into their brain stems.
Some of these interfaces are a little more extreme than others, but the goal is the same: to provide the most immersive experience possible.
From Full-Body Tracking to Haptic Feedback
While the idea of disappearing into a virtual world is appealing, especially to the younger generations that are so fond of escapism, the technology isn’t quite there yet. That shouldn’t discourage any augmented or virtual reality fans from pursuing their favorite worlds — and it isn’t slowing the industry down. Experts expect the VR and AR industry to be worth upwards of $210 billion by 2022, with manufacturers expected to ship more than 70 million AR and VR headsets the following year.
We have a handful of VR headsets currently available that offer full-body tracking, such as the Valve Index or the Deca Gear 1 — but while these allow you to control every bit of your avatar’s movement, it doesn’t provide any sensory feedback other than the visual interface, the sound from your headphones and maybe some vibration from the controllers.
Haptic feedback suits are still currently only available in science fiction, though a few prototypes are in the works. Once the technology catches up with our imaginations, these suits will provide sensory feedback, usually in the form of pressure and vibration, over the entire body.
Moving Toward a NeuraLink
Elon Musk, of Tesla and SpaceX fame, is also working on the first functional man-machine interface, allowing us to control computers with nothing more than the power of our thoughts. In 2021, he released a video showing a monkey with one of his NeuraLink implants, capable of playing simple video games with its mind.
Now, if we’re opting for full-dive VR, we’re going to want something more immersive than “Pong” to sink our virtual teeth into. Plus, the current incarnation of NeuraLink does require minor brain surgery to place the implant. But this sort of human-machine interface could be our best tool for creating a full-dive VR like the ones we’ve seen featured in science fiction for decades.
This is only the beginning, and while NeuraLink won’t separate you from the physical sensations of your body, it may make it easier to disappear from the real world for a while.
How Far From Full-Dive Are We?
Stores like Ready Player One aren’t set too far in the future. That one happens in 2045. For the moment, Sword Art Online-style full-dive VR is out of reach. But with things like NeuraLink on the horizon, we may have our own version of The Oasis before too much longer.