Through A Glass, Darkly

It's the movie "Rollerball," on a motorcycle. And I'm playing it on my glasses. The arena seems boundless, a gray sphere dotted with brightly colored geometric obstacles. I'm chasing a white ball, trying to catch it before the other cyclists can. But I keep slamming into them, flinching each time. Oh no, there's a guy coming at me from 10 o'clock. He's going to destroy me. I can't wake up, so I pull off the virtual-reality headset instead. Phew. until now, experiences like that one were confined to labs and amusement parks. But virtual reality is finally coming to the living room. Atlast week's Winter Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, four companies presented virtual-reality head-mounted displays, or HMDs. Equipped with tiny screens that fit over the eyes, HMDs immerse the wearer in the images they see. As players move their heads, the view changes, too. These gadgets range from about $400 to $1,000 and promise to work plugged into PCs and television sets.

The first home HMD -- the clunky Stuntmaster, made for Sega and Nintendo systems two years ago -- bombed badly. Since then, most manufacturers have avoided the home market, fearing to tread where Sonic and Mario rushed in. But the popularity of first-person perspective games such as Doom (and its progeny) has rekindled interest in the idea of synthetic environments.

The most promising of the new VR helmets is Virtual i-O's i-glasses. They rely on two tiny liquid-crystal monitors to display two slightly different images, which the brain combines into one 3-D view. It's an optic trick called stereoscopy. But unlike other sets, i-glasses don't blanket the entire fieldof vision. Instead, they givethe illusion of looking at alarge television screen about 10 feet away. I-glasses plug into personal computers, TVs and game systems, and they can leave peripheral vision unfettered; the image can even become transparent.

The first step to success, says Linden Rhoads of Virtual i-O, "is moving away from a helmet paradigm to a glasses paradigm." Glasses are lighter than helmets, and that helps reduce motion sickness -- too much weight can throw off the brain's sense of how to move. In the trade they call it "barfogenesis." Similarly, Rhoads says, blocking peripheral vision robs the brain of clues to head position. The eyes signal motion, but the inner ears don't, and that contradiction can be as barfogenic as riding a boat through rough seas.

But virtual reality is subjective, and there's more than one way to get there. Forte's VFX1, for example, is a helmet in which Luke Skywalker might feel at home if he didn't mind having his face covered along with the rest of his head. "We feel that virtual reality needs to be immersive to be virtual reality," said Christopher Reddy, Forte's director of sales. VictorMaxx, maker of the Stuntmaster, offers the CyberMaxx, a sort of intermediate step between i-glasses and the VFX1. It, too, fills the wearer's view, and it works with PCs and game sets. The Maxx helmet is not very comfortable, but the company plans to cure that in future models.

A company called Virtual Entertainment Systems will market the 7th Sense, by far the cheapest and sleekest of the group. It also features the worst picture resolution, it doesn't have stereoscopic imaging, and it works only with a PC. "It's basically a really neat peripheral for the PC if you play games," said technical director Arden Strasser.

Right now, entertainment drives the industry. Flight simulators, for example, become much more realistic to some players when played with an HMD. Linda Jacobson, author of "Garage Virtual Reality," hopes VR will eventually transcend entertainment and become a business or multimedia tool. "There's a much bigger world out there than games," she said.

The big names in electronics -- the Sonys, the Panasonics -- haven't yet dropped their quarters into this particular video game (Virtual i-O does have support from cable giant TCI). Nintendo introduced the Virtual Boy at CES, a stereoscopic viewer with monochrome graphics and no head-movement tracking. "We have a couple of years before the Japanese come in and buy us all out, or marginalize us," said Strasser. Most consumer technologies follow a pattern of increasing quality and decreasing cost. If the new HMDs are any indication, this industry just got a little less virtual, and a little more real.

Through A Glass, Darkly | News