The late 1980s and early 1990s was a time of turbulence for virtual reality (VR). Many of today’s development community got their first taste of the technology in this period, thanks largely to the popularity of Virtuality head-mounted displays (HMDs) in the out-of-home entertainment sector, and most, such as Innervision Games’ Tony Davidson, came away disappointed. However, the pioneers of today wouldn’t let yesterday’s failures stand in their way, and this is exactly the story that Davidson has to tell.
Currently working on Ethereon as a one-man development studio, Davidson has a lot going for him. A project highlighted as having great potential by the VR community, easy to play, lightweight enough for mid-range PCs to run at a high quality and developed in such a fashion that ports across a wide range of HMDs wouldn’t be out of the question, Davidson has obviously built Ethereon with the intention of offering a large audience the opportunity to avoid the disappointment of VR that he suffered, as is retold in his own words below.
Tony Davidson: My first real VR experience occurred in 1993 but my interest in “virtual realities” actually began back in 1978 at the age of 8 with the arcade classic Space Invaders. Later on in the early 80’s when color monitors entered the scene I got hooked on Pac-Man and not long after that Donkey Kong made it’s way to the arcades and that was the game that inspired me to want to become a game developer. So at the age of 12 I saved up for a C64 and learned basic programming so that I could one day develop games.
Unfortunately it took about a dozen more years for that dream to become a reality and so after “flying the coop” and struggling with making a living as a manual laborer for some years, I stumbled across a computer magazine at a local store one day which showed someone wearing a Virtuality HMD and when I saw that photo I instantly knew at that moment that I wanted to explore and create these enticing new 3D virtual worlds.
I contacted the company from the magazine and requested some literature and when the packet arrived it contained a list of sites that would be hosting the Virtuality 1000CS system and the closest one to me at that time was over at the ResearchTrianglePark in North Carolina which was some 900 miles away. Not letting a little distance stand in my way I drove all the way over to the RTP and had my first real VR experience which was the infamous Dactyl Nightmare.
The experience was a little odd because it just wasn’t what I was expecting it to be but still it felt like I was in heaven! It was by far the coolest computer-generated experience you could possibly have had at that time, at least as far as I was concerned. But even though it was totally cutting edge tech it still lacked the believability factor and so it didn’t allow me to experience VR in the way I had hoped it would be.
After this experience I was so inspired that I decided to sell everything I owned and I moved to Raleigh to learn 3D and soon after that I created a virtual world which caught the eye of Robyn Miller and led to my first game development role on Riven back in 1994. By the time we wrapped up development on Riven near the end of 1997, the not-so-promising VR scene had already vanished from the mainstream view and it would be another 16 years before the advent of our current VR wave following the arrival of the Oculus Rift DK1.
After Riven I struggled to find the sort of work that inspired me as a game artist and I started up my own studio and worked on some game titles such as The Crystal Key II which was one of the many Myst-clone games of the time and I did a lot of remote contract work for companies like Sony, Intel and Hasbro. I also continued to develop the original concept that I had for a virtual reality experience up until as recently as 2005 using the LithTech engine though by that time I had mostly given up on the idea of VR and had settled for a traditional first-person PC game.
In the beginning of 2005 I was forced to abandon the project after losing everything to a house fire and it was then that I transitioned over to working full-time in the feature film industry where I spent some years holding a variety of creative roles on several popular animated features before finally resigning from Dreamworks in 2009 and entering into a 3-year retreat in the mountains of Colorado near a small Buddhist community.
By the time I returned the Kickstarter campaign for the Oculus Rift had just successfully ended and I was more than ready to get back to work but rather than accepting an offer at another animation studio in LA I decided that I really wanted to pursue my passion for VR and so I decided to go out on a limb and take another leap of faith which is when I ordered the DK1 and started development on Ethereon.
After receiving the DK1 I had my second-ever VR experience with Tuscany and I actually became very sick after just a few minutes of being immersed in the Rift and so I was really bummed out. I remember thinking to myself that after all this time I finally am able to experience VR as I hoped it would be but it doesn’t actually work!
Needless to say that I didn’t let that stop me from pushing forward with developing my virtual reality project and after nine months of non-stop work on Ethereon I made my way to GDC to try the new DK2 and the brand new Project Morpheus HMD from Sony. I was really relieved after trying the EVE Valkyrie and the Couch Knights demos on the new and improved DK2 and not feeling sick or disoriented, however I didn’t get a chance to try the new Sony HMD at it’s first public appearance since it was just too crowded at the time.
A couple of months later I attended the first-ever consumer VR conference hosted by SVVR where I debuted Ethereon on it’s one-year development anniversary and I finally got the chance to try the Sony Morpheus HMD and for the first time in my life (after waiting for more than 20 years) I finally was able to experience VR as I hoped it would be. There was something about the standing experience and the presence generated by the 1:1 tracking of the motion control system, coupled with the PS Move controllers, that enabled me to bypass any feelings of disorientation or simulator sickness and I was then able to cross over to “the other side”.
Needless to say, I can’t wait to see what the first consumer HMD’s are going to bring us in the near future and after more than 20 years I can honestly say that I’m more excited about VR now than ever before.
Tony Davidson is the founder of Innervision Games, currently working on debut project Ethereon. A VR exclusive title, Ethereon is currently being demonstrated on the Oculus Rift HMD but hasn’t been ruled out for other formats. You can find out more about Ethereon at http://innervision-vr.com/.