Ten-year-old Matt Kolsky Wandered into the BattleTech Center on Chicago's North Pier one day. He was looking to play a little Nintendo. Instead, he fell prey to the Narcotic. Five hours later he awoke, light of head and wallet, and in reasonably good health except for a slight tremor in his right hand and the vacant look common to those who survive the Narcotic. Young Matt had unwittingly stumbled into a brave new world called "virtual reality."
While some see VR as nothing more than the next downward step in the evolution of video games, adherents consider virtual reality—also known as cyberspace—a fascinating hallucinatory realm in which users immerse themselves in infinitely variable, computer-generated universes. Timothy Leary, the onetime "Messiah of LSD," calls VR the psychedelic of the '90s. The Narcotic.
"It could be lethal," says William Gibson, the writer who dreamed up the concept of cyberspace in his balefully prophetic novel Neuromancer. "It's like free-basing American television."
"If people can sit in front of a TV for eight hours a day," says Paul Somerson, a former computer-magazine editor, "imagine what will happen when they're actually able to get inside their TVs and interact with the images on the screen. If they could, say, play virtual basketball with a virtual Michael Jordan, then they wouldn't work, they wouldn't eat, they wouldn't bathe. Next to VR, reality is just not what it's cracked up to be."
Right now, the technology of virtual reality is mostly a trade-show curiosity. In the most advanced prototypes, entry to this make-believe world requires special cybergear, which is hooked up to a computer. These ultra-VR outfits feature 12-pound headgear that covers both eyes with three-dimensional video screens and both ears with stereo speakers. Sensors within the helmet track head movement and automatically change the 3-D images to match what you, the player, might now be looking at. Sensory wraparound gloves reproduce your real hand as a virtual hand. Point, and your virtual hand points. The "dataglove" allows you to reach out and grab objects in virtual space, yank them wherever you want and drop them. By extending your gloved fingers, you can fly, pass under objects and through them.
With the helmet and gloves selling for thousands of dollars, VR games are not the sort of thing Dad can pop under the Christmas tree. And the gadgetry isn't getting any cheaper. Jude Million, an editor of Mondo 2000, the Berkeley, Calif.-based bible of cyberpunkery, outlines three possible paths along which VR may develop: "Computerized, head-mounted displays; huge, high-definition screens that engulf viewers like an extended Cinerama; or, my personal favorite, skull implants. After all, the ultimate game arena is the interior of your skull."
Until Mondo 2000 is upon us, practically the only place you can sample the technology is at the BattleTech Center, a 4,200-square-foot game parlor that houses 12 enclosed VR consoles. From the cockpit of each "BattleMech"—a walking armored robot-tank straight out of Return of the Jedi—combatants square off in simulated 31st-century warfare.
The premise of a BattleTech VR duel is simple enough: You get them before they get you. The combat zone is displayed on a color monitor while short-and long-range scanners track the enemy. A throttle powers the vehicle. Foot pedals steer it through a futuristic wasteland. A joystick blasts opposing mechs with lasers and particle beams.
A primary difference between BattleTech VR and Nintendo, says Matt Kolsky, is "you're not playing a machine, you're playing other kids." Of course, BattleTechies aren't always all that young. A lot of 40-year-olds seem to be stalking the Starship Enterprise-like corridors. Many are doctors and lawyers on lunch break, professionals who can afford to shell out $6 for 10 minutes of star-warring. After 200 games, they get a gold card, which entitles them to a dollar discount each time they play. After 500, they go platinum—$2 off. Virtual bargain.
VR visionaries foresee virtual adventures in which you'll use your body as a joystick: scaling virtual mountains, swimming virtual oceans, floating in virtual space. VR manifestations that already exist were exhibited last fall at the Cyberthon, a sort of Nerdstock Nation gathering in—where else?—San Francisco. Wearing souped-up scuba masks and Lycra gloves bristling with electronic ganglia, cyberpunks on stationary bikes steered and leaned into turns through 3-D landscapes. Pedaling faster than 20 mph launched them into Spielbergian flight. They swung real rackets at imaginary balls and saw a computer racket swat them back. Linked by telephone, racquet-bailers in two different cities will someday play matches that way.
While simulated warfare is an obvious avenue of VR exploitation, Somerson predicts one of the most popular applications of VR will be fake sports, because men who play these games often find sports interesting. In virtual baseball, you might one day find yourself pitching to a virtual Babe Ruth. But things are endlessly tailorable—you could have the Babe pitch to the Babe, have him called out on strikes by an ump with the Babe's face, and have 40,000 spectators, all of them Babes, yelling, "Throw the bum out."
Someday. Judging from the Cyberthon, the state of VR wizardry is still a mite medieval. The imagery is too cartoonish, and there's a slight delay before the virtual world responds to human interaction. VR's defenders insist more powerful computers will fill in the gaps. "In 30 years you'll be able to completely fool your brain into believing what you're seeing is real," says Trip Hawkins, the mind behind such conventional computer games as John Madden Football. "You'll be able to suspend disbelief indefinitely."
VR detractors say the electronics featured at the Cyberthon and at BattleTech are no different from the entertainment innovations that preceded them and will, like the rest, soon become outmoded. Who plays Pac-Man today? Then there's the philosophical argument that all reality, after all, is virtual, and can be enjoyed as such. "Believe me," says Leary. "There are some things only the human body can do. For all its magical properties, virtual reality will never replace sweat."
Still, since opening last July, the Battle-Tech outpost has sold more than 150,000 tickets. "It's gets so real, it's scary," says Hitman, nom de guerre for a gold card-carrying ex-Marine. "It reminded me a lot of basic training. At first I'd imagine I was a 31st-century mercenary running search-and-destroy missions. I spent all my spare time at BattleTech, all my spare change. But I kicked the habit."
Hitman still plays 10 games a week.
"I could quit anytime I want," he insists. "I could quit anytime I want."