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Saturday, December 22, 2012

Is Sword Art Online The Future of Gaming?

Today the "final"* episode of Sword Art Online airs on Crunchyroll. Thought I'd come out of my little flu-induced hiatus from the week and celebrate the airing of this episode by going into another long scientific rant about the possibilities of technologies in an anime coming to life in the real world.  You can read a similar type of post I made concerning TTGL and how it's story and concepts actually do link up to real paradigms in Quantum and Theoretical Physics.  This time though, it's time to ask the question many of us wonder about  with both Sword Art Online and Accel World.... can this really become the future of gaming?

*(There's actually two more arcs in the ongoing story but as for this first season of the anime...this is the final episode.. concluding the 2nd arch.  We of course hope the next 2 archs get animated..and by the popularity of SAO...chances are, it will)

I've probably said this ad nauseum but to give people a bit of my background (and hopefully some validity in my understanding of said medium), I've been a gamer since just before I was 2 years old way back in 1985.  My first video game system was the Atari 2600, seen here in a recent photo I took while sorting my old systems...

It was given to me during the summer of 1985 as my father noticed I would constantly play with the VCR.  I didn't just mindlessly toy with the thing though, I used to actually program the clock and understand what was going on with the controls...so much so that little 1 1/2 year old me was teaching my mom how use it.  Thing was, I was fascinated by the TV but I wanted control over it.  The VCR was the start of that but the moment I first played Pac Man Jr. (my very first video game), I felt like I had more control on what was on the TV.  That was the spark that kept me a gamer even to this day..and as one would imagine, it's why I ended up becoming a computer scientist with my main goal in CS (though actually shunned by CS professors in the early 2000s) to design video games.  As another little tidbit, my birthday is November 8 and the first week in November is considered the video game focal point when the best titles for the year get released.  so, goes to say, gaming is in my blood.

I've seen the evolution of gaming from it's commercial beginnings.  Video games actually originated a few miles from me over at Brookhaven Labs in 1958 with their Tennis For Two machine.  Later on there was Computer Space and of course the game that got the ball rolling... Pong.  The year I was born, 1983 was actually the year people thought the new video game industry was done for good.  Arcades were losing popularity and corporate greed lead by Warner Bros. and their take over of Atari proved what happens when you bring suits in to do a visionary's job.  This is of course in reference to the messup that was the E.T video game launch.  To this day there is a stigma to video games based off movies and other non-game originating licences .. and for good reason; most don't do well and are usually known as shovelware thanks in part to the greed for selling a popular licence as oppose to understanding the medium and audience of which the product is for.  I can remember seeing the actual display for the E.T game but by 1985 it was in a local place called Cheap Johns in my home town of Selden (today it's the Selden Thrift) .  My mom got me the game that day and to this day I hold a piece of video game history... the game that almost ended video games for good.   If it wasn't for Nintendo and everyone's favorite plumber...the video games would have never came out from the ashes.

So, I've seen a good chunk of what video games have evolved into.  From Pac Man Jr. to my newest game, Dishonored... it's absolutely amazing how far the graphics have gone in roughly 30 years.  So, how does this tie into Sword Art Online? Well, the premise of Sword Art Online is that it's  November 6th 2022 and the biggest game release in Japan is a new MMORPG (see WoW, etc) called Sword Art Online.  Being this is the hypothetical future, it's not just a game with motion controllers, a WII U-like pad, etc.  Nope, it's a VRMMORPG;  A fully immersive virtual reality online RPG ran on a future VR helmet known as Nerve Gear.  In short, it puts the user in a "dream" state and the player can interact entirely in this game as if the body of the character in the game is their own.

Essentially SAO represents the ultimate goal of video games.  In reality, we are on the cusp of reaching the first "goal" of video games... the ability to create graphics that 100% mimic the real world.  Look at new titles  like Farcry 3 and (though I know hard core gamers will hate me saying this) Black Ops 2 and you will see the line getting thinner and thinner.  Of course, as a gamer and game dev, graphics aren't everything so it's not a true "goal" of gaming so to say but a threshold many studios are very close to eventually breaking through.  With the Wii U now out, soon we'll see Microsoft and Sony take their swing at this decade's new gaming hardware. Square Enix already showed off a tech demo using the PS4's hardware (known right now as "Orbis")

We are about one or two more next gen systems away from having graphics that can 100% mimic (or surpass) reality.  Again, if graphics are your main focus... you are at the shallow end of the dream pool.  Since 2006, the Nintendo Wii has proven that immersion and control schemes are also a big part of making a great game.  Mobile games on the iPhone, iPads, Android phones, Windows phones and more recently, Windows 8 devices are gaining ground due to their unique touch/accelerometer control schemes.  Xbox has their Kinect and Sony has the seemingly dragging Sony Move devices to compete with the quickly evolving gaming scene.

Long before all of these recent paradigms in control, there was the virtual reality headset...which, like 3D in general, has been an on and off gimmick.  SAO tries to show a VR headset, the Nerve Gear done "right".  Without getting into the possibility of a thought-driven virtual world (yet)...some reasons why VR headsets  never really taken off is due to a couple of issues, particularly, frame-rate and eye strain.

As a game programmer, heck as a programmer in general, the goal is to create organized and fast code.  Video games and astrophysics simulations have been the driving forces for faster computers, faster graphics cards and overall quicker GUI.  Proof can bee seen in the recently announced supercomputer, Titan.   One of the main bullet points of game design is to have your game run at 60 frames per second.  Every game cycle/tick needs not be hampered by slow code or slow hardware.  This was one of the hurtles for Java before Android came to be.  I remember Java in the early 2000's just being a terrible coding language for games and other graphically heavy applications due to it's garbage collection functions and lack of real pointers.  Back then you were told to learn programming by Java...but make applications/games using C++ since the code was much faster.  Things have changed and as anyone knows, under the hood of Android is Java.  Virtual reality headsets have to update a 360 degree 3D environment in real time...which, as one can imagine, is a touch balance between graphical and processing power.  Having lag while in a 3D headset can cause a number of issues like eye strain, nausea and of course, a lack of immersion. Only recently have we being seeing any progress in that technology with the promising Oculus Rift.

Again, you might wonder.."Ok where's the connection to Sword Art Online?".  Well, as one can see, Reki Kawahara's vision for this series (and Accel World) delves into what will happen after we have graphics that mimic the real world and after all of the different controls schemes have reached their maturity.  If the connectivity of the Internet in just the past 5 years is of any hint...this future gaming world can, though a stretch be a possibility.  I doubt we will make it this far ten years from now in 2022 but we are already on a path to it if you observe the number of gaming and non gaming technologies that can be brought together in the future.

First off, let's list what we need to create a SAO world...ignore for now the main conflict (in the first story arch) where people won't be able to log off and their deaths i the game can kill them in the real world.

Here's whats needed:

  1. Graphics and frame-rates that mimic the real world
  2. A computer system able to handle the slew of data from not just one immersed player, but tens of thousands of online players.
  3. A VR headset that puts the body in a REM state and that is able to portray the players "dream" moments with the game's code.
This is granted, a truncated list but covers the main points.  As I layed out in my rant above, 1) and 2) are basically current technology.  In one or two more next gen (and PC) releases... 1 will be accomplished and we already have a number of extremely robust MMORPG communities that fit in line with #2.  Point #3 is the big hurtle and for point #2 to handle the data from #3...for even one player..then that's where we get beyond today's technology...or is it?

I'll break down point #3 some more:

  • 3a: Create a device that can read our thoughts
  • 3b: Keep us in a REM state when needed and out of it when we need to log out
  • 3c: Utilize and somewhat control the diverse thoughts of REM sleep and turn it into code for the game
Amazingly, we already have devices and game controllers now that do point #3a.  Granted, these are still very basic receiving devices as they only capture a broad array of our thoughts and mash the overall feedback to a simple command (still astonishing nonetheless) . As the the technology progresses, I'd imagine that the commands will become more specific as we are continuing to reverse engineer the human brain.  

Here's some promising progress to getting the exact commands our brains are sending... just recently,   scientists at the University of California, Berkeley created a map of how our brain organizes different thoughts

A future real life SAO programmer could very well make use of this map to command map the different functions for the game.   In essence, it's not much different than mapping the button controls on a current controller (granted if we can fully tap these branches of the brain and know 100% of the time).  

On of the other hurtles is the data collection size.  The more we delve into the brain, the more data it'll take to decrypt the specific message our brain is sending.  Remember, our brain is a complex and extremely fast biological computer with trillions of calculations per second.  It's also thought that the brain might even be a bit of a quantum computer at times...granted, that's probably a bit far fetched yet quantum computers are the next step in computing.   A quantum computer would be more than enough to handle the thoughts of thousands of online real-life SAO players in real time thanks to the odd realities of the quantum world.

The last hurtle is the crux of the struggle in Sword Art Online.... the Nerve Gear (and the later iterations of in in ALO, etc).  In SAO, microwaves and lasers in the Nerve Gear are what control the player's physical state.. and thus turn deadly when the game's creator,  Kayaba Akihiko makes it where the microwaves kill the user when they die in the game.  There is such a machine currently that is somewhat similar to the Nerve Gear, yet using magnetic waves, to change the state of the brain. It's called a TMS (Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation) Machine.  In short, it changes the magnetic field of the brain... and used to study the various paths of the brain's thoughts as well as supposedly help with a number of neurological disorders like the one the plagues me, migraines.

It's a stretch to say that one day we will be playing the very pinnacle of video games shown by the anime series, SAO...yet, in my honest opinion, I feel one day we will have the ability to make games like this.  The popularity of the series will probably do what has often happened in science fiction... science fiction will open the venues to the creation of said devices.  I wouldn't put it past Japan to make a real life SAO game and Nerve Gear system.  If we continue to decode the brain, utilize quantum computing, and continue to innovate virtual reality and game control schemes, this can happen. 

The series in addition to making you fall in love with Kirito and Asuna in their Cloud/Tifa-like relationship and struggles also brings out the moral questions such a game could bring to humanity...If you die in the game and in the real world, what would you do?  How would you react?  Would you jump to your death like many players did in the first few episodes when they thought there was no hope?  Would you fight on like Kirito, Asuna and the others?

Would a company or game developer go as far as Kayaba Akihiko to test the "reality" of being stuck in the game?  Would we get corporate maniacs like Nobuyuki Sugō who'd want to control people's minds and instill thoughts? (the way suits almost ruined gaming in the 1980's I wouldn't put it past them to do that)

What would a world having a 100% immersive video game universe be like?  Would players ever want to return to the real world and would the meaning of "real" become fuzzy?

The story as played out in the anime has me as a game designer and dreamer of the future think of these questions and I'm certain anyone seeing the series now think so too.  I simply loved for once seeing a male lead in an anime actually take the lead and give no forgiveness to a terrible antagonist once he had him in the corner.  Anime needs more Kiritos and Simons and less Shinjis.  In addition to the prospect of the real future of gaming... it's why this series lead me to make this blog post.  I identify myself with Kirito and as a game developer, I also can peer into the mind of Kayaba Akihiko with some understanding to his thoughts.  Reki Kawahara's anime is one to behold...yes a little over rated at some time by some fans but if you haven't seen it yet, check it out.  Come 2022, maybe we can all play these kinds of video games....just of course, hopefully no life threatening consequences happen.

As a little bonus, here's the awesome battle theme from the anime.  Now go watch it... the last episode just started simulcasting as I finished this post.

Bonus content x2:

Get this.  It's postulated that our world is actually a giant computer simulation. It can explain the number of  issues we have with the quantum world pairing up with the "macro" world...

This post was just from just last week..so maybe,... maybe we are already in a game ;-)


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