Beyond the PlayStation 4: The deep future of games consoles

Something I wrote for my blog if anyone fancies a read:


Last month finally saw Sony announce the successor to the Play Station 3 – the Play Station 4. Given that the lifecycle of current gen consoles is seven years and counting, Sony’s new offering (along with whatever Microsoft announces this month) is very much the imminent future of gaming. From what we’ve seen so far Sony is doing some interesting things with cloud computing but essentially the next generation consoles will offer the same gaming experience we’re familiar with today, albeit with a few extra polygons. There is a revolution coming in gaming though and when it arrives things will be very different.

Video games at their essence are a form of escapism. A chance for the mind to wander off to another space and be distracted from the normality of everyday life. In this way their appeal is similar to film, television and books. But games are unique among these as they offer a secondary level of immersion, the player is given the chance to play a role within the world, a chance to influence the story.

A feeling of immersion and therefore escapism is not easily achieved though. Great storytelling is a crucial part of the best escapist art, and without it the individual can be left bored and very aware that they are sat in a dark cinema or on their sofa holding a game controller. To truly succeed, these art forms must transport you away leaving you completely absorbed and enthralled in their story and their world.

Great storytelling can lead us far down the escapist path, but there is still distance left to walk and in 2006 Nintendo took us by the hand for a few extra steps. The launch of the Wii introduced the world to the first mass market motion controlled games console. By putting an emphasis on the player acting out the actions of his or her onscreen counterpart the first step was made to a full body immersive experience.

If the ultimate goal of escapist media is to instil a full sense of presence within the participant, to make the individual feel as though they have been transported to a secondary world that is just as real as the real world they occupied seconds earlier, then the Nintendo Wii represents a mass market genesis of this goal. This year however has taken us significantly closer as at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January we were introduced to the Oculus Rift.

The Oculus Rift is your childhood dreams of virtual reality realised and at this early stage it looks like one of the most exciting products of our generation. Journalists rushed to their laptops to heap praise on the Rift with Joshua Topolsky of The Verge writing "The Oculus Rift changed my life. No, seriously… It’s really, really amazing. Truly and honestly a revelation, a trip, a rabbit hole. And I’m going in. Forever. Goodbye universe. Hello Universe".

On the face of it, it doesn’t look like a particularly exciting product. At its core it’s a headset that you wear over your eyes with two small screens inside and a series of motion sensors to detect the movement of your head. The results however are astounding, as what you experience is an exact recreation of sensory signals the brain expects from the real world, meaning your brain is utterly convinced that what it is experiencing is real. Instead of looking through the eyes of a soldier on games like Call of Duty, we become the soldier. Even the most subtle of head movements are reflected in the game world, creating a perfect feeling of reality and presence. The principle is simple, when you move you head up, you see the sky, when you move it down, the ground. To see behind you physically turn around, but since this parallels our everyday experience of reality the Rift succeeds in tricking us into thinking we’re still experiencing reality. The Oculus Rift doesn’t just give you more natural controls for a video game, it puts you inside a video game.

There is a problem though, a flaw that could unceremoniously rip you out of the experience, break the immersion and dump your mind back onto your sofa; movement. As it’s not practical for game movement to be controlled by actual movement (take three steps and bump into your wall), you’re still required to use a control pad for walking and running. Of course this isn’t consistent with the brains expectations of reality so we face a problem to overcome.

There could be a surprisingly solution though and one that comes from what your mind does every single night. Dreams are your brains own form of escapism and it has a neat trick to make sure the immersion is perfect. It’s called temporary paralysis and it involves your brain blocking motorory signals to prevent muscles acting on the brains instructions to move. Through this method the brain is able to give the conscious mind the feeling that the body is moving, without any movement actually occurring, and it is through this that a full virtual reality experience will be realised.

Exactly how we could mimic this behaviour of the brain is not currently fully understood but as science and technology improve in years to come we will surely discover the secret. In this predicted future virtual reality headsets (or more likely contact lenses) will be as commonplace as mobile phones are today and will have many applications outside of games, but it is games that will lead the charge and first introduce us to the idea of experiencing digital worlds with the same sense of reality as we experience the real world today.