Prototype-SR: I’ve seen the future of virtual reality, and it is terrifying

[From Kotaku]

I’ve Seen the Future of Virtual Reality, and It Is Terrifying

Toshi Nakamura
Sep 21, 2012

Experience the big-screen in private. That’s the sales pitch for head-mounted displays. One would think that the only real areas for technological advancement would be in the screen resolution and the actual weight of the device. Introducing the Prototype-SR (Substitutional Reality), a new take on the head-mounted display.

Based on Sony’s HMZ personal 3D viewer head-mounted display, the Prototype-SR mixes real-time video with prerecorded video to create what Sony hopes is a unique new entertainment experience. The Prototype-SR is currently on display at the Tokyo Game Show 2012, and I had a chance for some hands-on time with the device in an interactive demo. This is a prototype, and there are currently no plans to launch it. Can you put a release date on the future?

The demo took place in a sterile white room with a chair, the Prototype-SR and a real female guide. The guide set up the device on my head and the demonstration began. She directed me to look left and right to show what I was looking at as a real-time image of the room was being fed to the display monitors via the camera on the front of the Prototype-SR. Then, I was shown a two minute movie trailer for Resident Evil: Retribution.

After the trailer, the screen returned to the video feed of the room where the guide proceeded with the demonstration. At this point, the lights in the room suddenly began to flicker, and the guide seemingly grew ill and collapsed. While I knew this portion was a pre-recorded sequence featuring the same guide, I was able to suspend my disbelief. The ability to move my head and look around made the whole thing all the more real. The guide then rose again as a zombie and lunged at me, causing me to jump. What can I say, it was a good scare. The display went black and I once again returns to a live feed of the room with the real guide.

The prerecorded sequence of the zombie guide was filmed from 360 degrees which allows for 3D viewing from all angles and leads to a frighteningly real experience. In further demonstrations, the guide continued to show a sequence of mixtures of live and prerecorded images, all of which was visually fascinating to see (At one point, the guide reached out her hand for me to touch to show that she was really there). By blending both the live and prerecorded 3D images, the whole sequence was like a highly immersive AR game.

The technology itself is for promotional use only, and in its current form has obvious limitations. As the prerecorded sequences were taken from the view of someone sitting in a chair, standing up can potentially break the visual effect. Audio is another limiting factor which can only really be overcome through the use of noise cancelling headphones. Another drawback is that while prerecorded sequences can be viewed from different angles, because they are prerecorded, they can be shown on top of live images, but not behind, so while you can reach out and see your hand in a live feed, your hand will not appear in a prerecorded sequence.

Nevertheless, even  with the current restrictions, the possibilities are astounding. I’d never seen anything like it. There were moments during the demonstration where I literally could not tell what was real and what was not.

As for the HMZ itself, the OLED screens led to a beautiful picture, though the head-mounted display has the standard flaws. Depending on the shape of the head of the user, it can be difficult to comfortably wear the device, and many people find the dual-screen setup to be disorienting. Kotaku had reporters at the Tokyo Game Show 2012 Sony booth, playing Metal Gear Rising Revengeance on a regular HMZ and there were complaints of lingering headaches. At the demonstration at the Prototype-SR booth, however, the staff went to painstaking efforts to ensure the best, most immersive experience with the Substitutional Reality System and that is indeed what was delivered.

The Prototype-SR is very much an experimental prototype (hence the name). As mentioned above, according to a Sony spokesperson, the purpose for its development is to showcase the potential of the HMZ and that there currently are no definite plans to market the Prototype-SR.

Still, the concept is quite intriguing, and the experience itself was a lot of fun. Private home-use would most definitely be restricted by the visual development side rather than the hardware itself, so logically, something along the lines of an amusement park attraction would probably be more feasible as a foreseeable use of this technology. Strictly promotional or not, however they end up using it, it will awesome to see, zombies and all.


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