Monday, 2 November 2009

Virtual Space - the future of movies and video games

Virtual Space - the future of movies and video games.
By Bob Yarwood

This is a continuation of my essay at

Anyone who has read the essay will know all the important details already. To summarise what I said in the essay, there is a way in which films and computer games can be made and shown so that the viewer appears to be inside the scene, with the action going on all round, instead of looking at a picture on a screen. This will give viewers the very strong impression that they are actually inside the scenes and travelling to the places being shown. The scenes might be real, filmed with a special camera, or they might be imaginary, made with computer-generated images

This seems to me an entirely natural and obvious development of movies - in fact it is what movies have been evolving into since they started. It does not yet exist, but with the technology we have right now it would be possible to make a good start on it.

As for why it hasn't caught on yet, I think there are several reasons. One might be that you can't show any pictures of how movies would look in the new system, because they would only be pictures on a screen or printed page, which is exactly what you wouldn't get! In other words, how things would look in the new system cannot be shown until it has been built. The only way to describe it is to say that it wouldn't look like movies at all - it would be like real life. When this idea becomes widely known and people realise what they could be enjoying, I am sure that someone somewhere will make the decision to invest in the technology. Whether I will live to see it is another matter!

Another reason might be that the most successful companies who are at present making movies and video games just don't want it. They are doing very well as things are and don't want to risk investing in a brand new technology. The idea might not work out commercially, and even if it does, the same companies might not be the leaders any more. Sound movies met the same kind of resistance in the 1920s, until the public got the idea and began to demand them. The movie "Singing In The Rain" showed all this in a comic way.

Apart from movies and video games, there are lots of other applications of virtual space (VS). It might start a completely new industry - the virtual travel industry. At present there are many people who would like to travel to other countries but are prevented from doing so by ill-health or old age. I am getting to that point myself - I have aways wanted to go to Rio De Janiero but it looks as though I am never going to make it. A small crew of technicians with a presenter could go to another country just like they do now but with a portable VS camera, and travel round filming. When the film is played back it can be shown to any numher of people who will feel that they had been there themselves. In some ways it would be even better than going in person, because in a lot of foreign holidays there is a good deal of fuss and inconvenience in a long, tiring and expensive flight, getting to the hotel (more expense), finding how to get around, being pestered by beggars and salesmen, and suffering from the heat, smells and flies. With a virtual holiday you would simply be whisked from one interesting place to the next. If you were going to Egypt for example, you could wander round the Pyramids and then straight over to the Valley of the Kings, then to the temple at Karnak, and finally to Abu Simbel, with proper guides, all in the space of a few hours, while sitting in comfort at home. If you met someone who had been there in reality, you could discuss the sights with them just as if you had been there also. Of course, you wouldn't see the incidental details - the ride from the airport, the look of the hotel room, and you wouldn't eat the food. But these are the things you would soon forget anyway - after a few months your memories would be the same as if you had been there in reality.

Besides, there are lots of places which are very difficult for tourists to get to. I was working in Iran just before the revolution, and I went to Persepolis, the tombs of the Persian kings like Xerxes, Cyrus and Darius, and the tomb of Omar Khayyam. That was 30 years ago, and I have never met anyone else since then who has been there. It isn't every country that encourages tourism. With VS travel films, everyone could go just about anywhere.

When someone goes on a a cruise on a modern cruise liner, they have to say what room they want. But cruise liners are very confusing things to someone going on one for the first time. How do they know what kind of room it is, where is it, how can they find it, what can they see from there, how do they get to places like the restaurant, ballroom etc. Of course, if they have been on that ship before they will know all about it, but if not, it wold be very useful to be able to get to know the ship before they go on it. With a VS set, they could order a disk from the shipping company, put on a helmet, and "walk" all round the ship before they even leave home, getting to know everything about it. They could go where they liked on the ship, as many times as they liked, so that when they decide what room they want to book they would know exactly what they would be getting.

As the Space Age dawns, anywhere a space probe, manned or unmanned, can go with a VS camera, we can all go, in a virtual sense, where no astronauts have in been in person. We could have been travelling around Mars right now on the Mars rovers "Spirit" and "Opportunity". We could have travelled on the Voyager probes right across the Solar System, visiting all the planets and their moons in turn, and now we could be speeding right out of the Solar System into interstellar space. In years to come we can stand on Titan and see Saturn's rings filling the sky. It is unfortunately true that the vast majority of the human race will never get into space, but this is a way for us all to do just that.

One of the great disappointments of my life has been the way that space travel has not captured the public's imagination, and consequently space exploration has slowed down considerably since the first Moon landings. Who could have predicted that we would go to the Moon and then ignore it for the next 30 or 40 years! When we can all go into space using a VS set, I think that things may well change as many more people get involved in space flight and exploring the Solar System.

Looking further out into space, everyone could have a personal planetarium. Using what is known of stellar positions and distances, combined with animation, we could go zipping across the Galaxy faster than light, and even lift out of the galactic plane altogether and see the Milky Way as it is - a spiral galaxy. We could then nip over to the next galaxy, Andromeda, and be back in time for lunch! And for anyone wanting to learn the night sky, this would be a way of doing it in comfort sitting in a chair at home.

I sometimes get very frustrated to think that right now we could all be standing inside the completed 2012 Olympic stadium or even travelling round the whole site, as all the drawings must have been finished long ago. And we could go anywhere we liked in the site, without having to keep to a set route.

There are websites on the Internet which show researchers working on what could be parts of a VS system, although they obviously are not intended as such. They are all about one person tinkering with bits of equipment in a laboratory. What would be needed to get a VS system up and running would be a proper team of a dozen or so experienced design engineers and technicians in a well-equipped workshop. There would be specialists in optical systems design, control systems, and software engineering. There are already such teams in the aerospace industry working on flight simulators, so we are not talking about science fiction!

25th November 2009

It looks as if things are really starting to move in the head-mounted display business. This is an ad I have just found:

Notice that this has head tracking as well, which is an essential part of the VS system. It is what I called "motion sensing" in the essay, and is the part which tells the computer which way the viewer is looking so that it can present the right view . This is the nearest I have seen to a system for VS video games as I have described them. As for buying one myself, I am rather reluctant to do so, partly because of the cost and partly because they give a helpline and a forum where customers can discuss their problems with each other. It seems to me that when a technology is mature and reliable, that would not be necessary. It's like when people who bought a car spent as much time underneath it as driving it (I can just remember when that used to happen!) I don't fancy spending hours tinkering with the equipment, trying to get it to work. Maybe in a few years time when things have improved I will try it.

However, we are obviously well on the way to something which could form part of a Virtual Space system. Now all we need is for someone to develop an all-round view camera and we will be in business!

Actually it shouldn't be too difficult to assemble a number of small cameras in a spherical framework, so their fields of view overlap slightly. It would be quite a job to connect up the outputs from all the cameras and assemble them into one all-round view, but it would be a straightforward job with nothing radically new about it.

And for animated films and computer games, we wouldn't even need a camera.

In dramas, the audience will be an invisible observer standing right in the middle of the action, so I can see that it will be quite different from what we have now. It might take some getting used to, but I think it will be accepted eventually because, as I have said often, it will be more like real life. There are some scenes in a film of "A Christmas Carol" where Scrooge and the Christmas ghosts are looking at scenes from Scrooge's past, present and future. They are standing in the middle of the scenes but the other characters can't see them.

31st December 2009

I am interested in the pilotless drones which the Americans have flying about the tribal areas in Pakistan. They are armed with missiles and can be used to attack the Taliban by operators 20 miles away. The operators must be getting something like a virtual-space view of the ground so that they appear to be in the aircraft.

I am getting so that whenever I watch a movie on television I feel that I am peering into another world through a silly little window. It is as though someone had invited me to a party, but when I got there I had to stand outside and just look in through the window! I always want to get through the window and be inside that world. If VS ever happens, I and millions of other people will be able to do just that.