Friday, March 5, 2021

Augmented reality: the next big thing in MMOs?

Niantic recently posted this proof-of-concept video that shows off Pokemon Go as viewed through VR glasses.  You can already experience a really primitive/ terrible version of this with your phone by turning on the camera when you play.  I never do so because it makes throwing poke balls accurately absurdly hard, I much prefer the abstract cartoon backgrounds.  However, what is on display in the video looks much more interesting.  It also go me thinking about how augmented reality could be used as a major step in between current MMOs and something like the Multiverse from Ready Player One. 

Probably the biggest challenge remaining for creating truly immersive 3D worlds ala the Multiverse is the interface.  How do you make players feel like they are physically running around in and interacting with with a real place?  Science fiction authors would have us believe that the answer will be a neural interface that allows us to jack into something like the Matrix. Much as when we sleep, the connection between our motor cortex and our bodies' skeletal muscles will need to be temporarily turned off.  Electronics and software will then be used to interpret signals from the motor cortex, and perhaps also the cerebellum,  and translate them into the movements of a digital avatar.  At the same time signals representing the virtual world will be transmitted directly into the sensory centers of the cerebral cortex, or perhaps the major nerve groups that connect to it.  Simple enough!  

However, that's not really very simple sounding to me.  The technology for every part of that scenario is probably years off, and getting them to work well together likely years beyond that.  The simplest way I can imagine getting most of it to work would involved planting tiny electrodes directly into your brain. As much as I love Everquest and WoW, I am not going through surgery to play the next versions of them.  However complete artificial realities are not the only way forward.  For the next generation of immersive online roleplaying games, augmented reality is a good alternative that is very much in our reach already.  

Augmented reality neatly sidesteps a lot of the problems games based on neural interfaces will need to overcome.  You don't have to shut down a player's skeletal muscles, figure out how to translate signals from the brain's motor centers, or figure out how to beam complicated information about a virtual place straight into the brain.  Instead you take advantage of the real world and layer some fantasy elements on top of it.  To help create a highly detailed world players can walk around in, you let real life do the heavy lifting. The primary new technology that's needed is a way to project a 3D images onto what players are seeing, and we already have technology that's at least close.  For the illusion to be really convincing, a system of cameras and software that interpret the space around you and incorporate the game elements into that space is also needed.  This seems to be exactly what Niantic is working on in their work with Microsoft

Beyond technological considerations, I also feel that current augmented reality games have barely scratched the surface of what is possible.  Much like when you were a kid and you pretended the floor was lava, or a wrapping paper tube was a light saber, augmented reality games could take what is already available and work with it.  I want to something like Everquest, but where there are random mobs to fight in the woods near my home.   I want NPC vendors that buy and sell gear or consumables to set up shop at major landmarks in my neighborhood, or perhaps in my utility room.  I want to be able to see the avatars of other players that I run into and trade items with them.  I want to be able to spawn raid bosses in a park or in my living room by getting enough players together and performing a ritual.  I want a troll under every bridge, a dragon in every sewer tunnel, and spooks in every graveyard. I want monsters in my closets, and if they have a bit of treasure I certainly wouldn't mind that either.  

Basically, I want to be able to play a full featured fantasy or horror MMO in the neighborhoods, parks and shopping malls near my home.  I also want there to be something fun to do in my house or apartment when I can't or don't feel like going outside. I want classes, levels, gear, some kind of specialization system and all the other basic mechanical stuff we expect from a MMORPG (though certainly more on Kingdom of Loathing end of the complexity scale than EVE).  As much as I enjoy Pokemon Go, there is so much more we could be doing with augmented reality games.  It's such an obvious next step, I find it hard to believe someone isn't already building one.  The design writes itself once you start thinking about it.