As video games have become more and more realistic over the past few decades, we are quickly approaching the dream of the movie Tron: to be able to actually physically exist within our games, to bring a new level of immediacy to the act of playing.
Improvements in graphics have made this partly possible; innovative systems like the Oculus Rift gaming headset, which you wear over your eyes to plunge yourself into those graphics, have inched us even closer. But with the Oculus Rift, you still have to be sitting down as your character moves, so you don't get the full out-of-body experience you might want with virtual reality.
A wild new concept from developer Aaron Rasmussen appears to take this idea to the next level. It's called Atlas, and it uses Oculus Rift, an iPhone and motion tracking sensors to allow you to insert yourself into the game you are playing, mapping the environment of a video game into the physical space you are inhabiting.
So, for example, you can turn a basketball court into a war zone, or your living room into Super Mario World. Wherever you walk in the real world, your character walks in the game; and looking through the lens of Rift, you sense that you really are the character moving about in the level.
This is heady stuff. Here's Rasmussen's Kickstarter pitch video, which shows in some detail how the system works and what it would be like to "play" in your own home:
As you can see in the video, the Atlas requires a few components: an Oculus Rift headset (not included); an iPhone running the Atlas app, which allows for the game to be mapped onto your space; a chest cradle for your iPhone, so that your every move can be tracked; Wi-Fi; a laptop; and several markers that you would place down on a surface in your room. (The gaming gun is optional though, come on, you're going to want the gun.) Rasmussen suggests running the system in a basketball or tennis court, or any open space with lots of room, so that you have enough space. The markers themselves can either be printed on your own, or bought as part as the kit in a sticky vinyl format that prevents movement when you walk over them. ("The majority of the markers need to remain in place," Rasmussen told me. "If too many markers are moved, the system will detect the inconsistency and stop gameplay.")
The potential shortcomings are fairly obvious: Not everyone has a large enough open space to lay down 20 markers, nor access to a private basketball or tennis court on which to run around freely within a video game. And, too, it would take a pretty intense gamer to lay these markers down in public, slap a headset on their face and run around with a toy gun for all to see. You already look pretty goofy just sitting down while operating an Oculus Rift; imagine traipsing around a public park wearing one.
And if you're not comfortable with the outdoors experience, and you happen to own a home with a large indoor space, there is another obstacle: walls. But Rasmussen rejects that concern. First, he says, game developers will be able to warn players when they are getting close to the walls within the game itself; the room mapping allows for that. And second, "What we found amazing when letting friends try the system is they are very resistant to the idea of walking through even virtual walls. Your brain has spent many years learning that walking through walls is a bad idea, which is why this sort of system can be so much fun."
Despite these immediate misgivings, though, the Atlas seems a promising-enough glimpse of a completely-immersed gaming future that it deserves an opportunity to flourish. Provocatively, too, Rasmussen noted to me that there could be two fringe benefits of a virtual reality gaming system in which you can track your own movements: First, he said, gamers could get into "excellent shape" if they were moving around rather than manipulating their joysticks on a couch; and second, primary education could become a far more immersive experience with a system like this. Imagine observing a battlefield by actually walking around in it, for example, or exploring the surface of a distant planet. A reality-distorting headset like Oculus Rift, and a motion-sensing system like Atlas, could make these next-level home-touring teaching experiences a reality.
Right now, the system is seeking funding on Kickstarter and is intended for developers only; the system could still change significantly before it becomes available to regular Joe Gamers. Part of the reason is that the Oculus Rift gaming headset, which is a required component of the Atlas, is currently also in Developer Only mode; Rasmussen needs for the Rift to be released to consumers before he puts out a system that relies on it. Rasmussen is also hoping that developers will port their games to Atlas so that his system can ship with some killer games when and if it becomes available to shoppers.
If the Kickstarter is any indication, a chest mount, iPhone app and location markers would cost $80; an Oculus Rift developer's kit costs $300. Put it together and you can walk around in your computer's video games for less than the cost of a PlayStation 4 (so long as you have somewhere to do it!)
You can learn more about the Atlas on Kickstarter, and perhaps be one of the first to use one, right here.