Virtual reality has come to theBy Burl Burlingame
Schofield Barracks Sports Dome and
patrons are lining up to
THERE'S a theory among paleobehaviorists that the reason men generally handle a TV remote control differently from women is a gene-wired hunting instinct. Men handle the remote as if it were a weapon and the channels are likely targets. Bang bang bang.
So what are we to make of female Star-Bulletin photographer Kathryn Bender, who -- seconds after being "killed" by a monster while testing a state-of-the-craft virtual-reality arcade at Schofield Barracks -- grimly started over, hurtling down creepy castle corridors, snatching up weapons and surprising the monster on its own turf. "Hah!" Bender chortled as she blew up the monster.
Atlantis Cyberspace debuts its virtual-reality game parlor today at Schofield Barracks' Sports Dome, a large complex already studded with video games, a boxing ring, pool tables, sand-volleyball arenas, a one-hoop basketball court, an awesome sound system and food that runs toward carbos and veggies.
You'll either need to be military or a guest to try out the Sports Dome's VR pods. Even if you are, it's first-come, first-serve. It's a place for steaming away testosterone, and judging by soldiers' keen interest in the virtual-reality parlor as it's being tweaked, ought to do gangbusters.
"We're not even ready yet, and they're already lining up to play," chuckled Laurant Scallie, AC's president.
"These are young men who don't have any hesitations about using technology," said Steven Takekawa, chief marketer for the Army's Morale, Welfare and Recreation office in Hawaii. "They dive right in."
The set-up includes four "pods," platforms with safety rails with helmets and "weapons" attached. The helmets fit snugly over the eyes and block out peripheral light contamination, and stereo headphones provide sound effects, music and an intercom link to "mission control," the guy running the computer server.
What: Schofield Barracks Sports Dome
When: Opens today to military personnel and guests only; if the business is successful, a location may open to the civilian market
Hours: 6 p.m. to midnight Monday to Thursdays; 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. week days; 5 to 10 p.m.
Cost: $5 per half-hour game
Players must first receive a membership card -- it's only $1 -- that contains a magnetic-swipe strip with the player's pass codes and "handle," his playing name. AC's computers have a data base that keeps track of a player's progress and scores, and will eventually be able to download replays of a game over the Internet, so you can watch yourself being set upon by monsters.
The games and scenarios will be familiar to anyone who's seen or played "Doom" or similar immersive sports; you range over unfamiliar territory, there are bad guys out there, and the quickest reflexes win.
The Army is concerned, public-relations-wise, about the games in the wake of recent high-school shooting incidents, but the fact is, these games are played by millions of people with no ill effect.
And there is an important difference. The scenarios developed by AC can interact with each other -- you can be in someone else's game -- and so stress the buddy system, planning and teamwork. Briefings and debriefings bookend each game, and postgame analysis is an important part of the playing. In this way, it mirrors traditional military training.
"The social interaction is critical, it's not a gimmick," said Scallie. "It's like virtual paintball. It's like you're an actor in a virtual play. The soldiers totally relate to social activities and the buddy system."
"No doubt about it, the demographics are good for this to be a success here," said Takekawa. "It's a win-win. Atlantis Cyberspace makes back their investment, and we have something fun and useful for the troops."
Each pod has a monitor suspended above it, broadcasting what the players see through their helmets. "Oh!" exclaimed Take-kawa as a player ran along a daunting precipice. "I don't like that part! He's right on the edge! My vertigo is setting in! I can see where this would be a good training tool as well. Every soldier that stops by can't wait to play."
Each game will cost $5 and last roughly half an hour, including briefing and debriefings. Actual virtual time generally runs 5 to 8 minutes.
Scallie, originally from Paris, discovered the world of virtual reality in the early '90s and learned all he could, traveling to London to sample the first demonstrations. "I decided that was the future of computing."
He wound up working for a Japanese electronics manufacturer and often paused in Hawaii on his way to Tokyo, "falling in love with the place." He decided Hawaii would be an ideal place to set up a virtual shop.
After six years of research and testing, one of Scallie's design criteria is that the system use off-the-shelf components, both for cost and ease of maintenance.
The headpieces cost approximately $8,500 each, and yet will be replaced within a few years by systems that beam the video image directly on the retina. He tested a magnetic-feedback tracking device before abandoning it for a simpler gyroscopic tracker that works like a cordless 3D mouse.
"One of the biggest problems with virtual reality so far is that they try to make everything proprietary, software and hardware, and there's really no need for that," said Scallie.
"It's more important to have a viable business model, organization and available technology -- that's the only way it'll work for the public. This is the first step from expanding from our garage space into the real markets out there."
If it flies at Schofield, the next step is civilian markets.
We tried the system out briefly. The helmet gives 65 degrees of view, rather like a scuba mask. If you wear glasses, the eyepieces can be very tight against the lenses. The weapon has a trigger for firing, but more importantly, it has go-forward and move-back buttons, which is how you navigate. One thing to get used to is that you aim your head, not the weapon, more like a tank turret than a sharpshooter.
The interface is picked up fairly quickly, and feeling of moving down a spooky corridor is more like dream-flying than walking.
"Force-feedback" features in the weapon and in the floor give some tactile response to the virtual world. In the background, the mission specialist often gives disembodied advice over the headphones -- "Is there a monster up there to the left?" -- and nearby monsters often give themselves away by growling.
And when the monsters finally nail you, and they eventually do, you see your electronic self lying there dead. It's a virtual out-of-body experience.
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