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Virtual reality’s mad scientists are trying to make our bodies disappear

This article is part of a collaboration with iQ by Intel.

There’s apocryphal Silicon Valley folklore that says when Jaron Lanier was famously pioneering virtual reality, he’d occasionally be found floundering around on the carpet in his office, VR goggles firmly strapped to his face. This was in the ‘80s, and his mind was already exploring far-out digital reveries free of physical limits. The rest of him, however, was crawling around under his desk, like a fish out of water.

The catch with VR is that our bodies don’t easily adjust to virtual places. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the exhibit hall at the 2014 PAX game conference, where a disorderly mass of human bodies gropes for plastic game controllers. This is what the early cyberpunk author author William Gibson referred to as meatspace. But virtual reality as both a techno-utopian fantasy and a new, awesome way to play games is a different beast altogether. Most of today’s virtual reality games ape the controls of non-virtual reality games: you play by pushing forward on the left stick and the right stick. But this can defeat the purpose of going face-on with virtual reality in the first place.

“If you think about it, VR is the [quest] to make the ideal Holodeck experience. You’ll want new input devices to track your movement, your fingers,” says Daniel Pohl, a scientist within Intel whose work making virtual reality headsets less blurry was demoed at PAX last week. Getting a convincing-looking second body into the game is the easy part, although there may be intermediate steps, he concludes, such as “cartoon-style universes.” Eventually, our virtual arms, legs, and Mickey Mouse shoes will be sculpted in thousands of tiny triangles, Pohl explains, the same as any other in-game character. It’s not until we try walking in our new polygonal body that we run into issues, like the fact that physical space is physical space, and virtual space is virtual space, and never the twain shall meet.

This is why the mad scientist experiments of people like Drew Skillman are so important. His firm Skillman & Hackett uses a Kinect motion-sensing camera to scan the player’s body and project it into neon-colored virtual constructs. This way, when you reach out to touch the ball of pulsating energy levitating before you, your virtual arm does too. “You feel like you’re in another place, and your body buys it. Looking down and seeing your body is crucial,” Skillman’s partner Patrick Hackett tells me. However, the looking glass is easily shattered, he confesses, say, “if you’re holding a [virtual] gun and you bend your [real-life] finger but your [virtual] finger doesn’t bend.”

Despite our best efforts, there’s still a bit of a disconnect. We may be able to see a realistic virtual world through the VR headset, but we don’t forget the room in which we’re sitting and wearing it. Skillman jokes that in one portion of the player’s brain, “I’m either slapping other people in the room, or I’m knocking drinks off my table.” The other portion of the player’s brain feels like a ghost in the virtual world, in that she can travel through and sometimes move objects but never actually feel them.

Jamie Kelly, another virtual reality gaming mad scientist, says that a fairly common attitude among players is that “I’m going to hide inside this wall,” something they’re not supposed to do. What he means is that while their virtual character may have run up to a wall in an attempt to get away from something in the game, the person actually playing will move his or her body or somehow try to continue moving, since they feel no wall in the real world. Kelly has helped develop and now operates the VRcade in Seattle, Washington, which has large empty rooms where players strap on wireless virtual reality headsets and sometimes even bodysuits, allowing them to run through shark-infested waters, a haunted house with zombies, a multiplayer first-person shooter layout, or a fantasy realm where they wield magic wands like Harry Potter. “You might have ran inside the wall,” he says, “but you left your character over there.” As VR advances, it’ll need to figure out a way to make those virtual walls a little more solid.