Mice and keyboards, two great tastes that taste great together

The final post in my rant about why virtual worlds are only creeping along, instead of already being the total freedom universes we thoroughly expect them to be. Frankly, I'll be glad to be done with this topic: I should know better than to start things off with a multi-episode blogging saga.

To review: worlds are expensive to make, and the horsepower to run worlds of great sophistication is limited. Finally, and what I believe to be the most important â'' and interesting â'' reason why virtual worlds are slow to progress is that of interface and input devices.

The user interface is how you communicate with the game world. The input devices are what you use to operate the interface. For most virtual worlds, the input devices are the mouse and keyboard, and the interface is the avatar, heads-up display, and the cursor. With that, you are to do anything and everything possible.

Now, think about your daily existence, and think about those things that you do unconsciously, like walking, opening doors, sitting, standing. Now think about the things that are so unconscious that you don't even think of them as things you do, like glancing left or right without moving your head, or moving your head to the side without moving your body, or immediately identifying the direction and relative distance of a nearby sound. Thousands of actions, every day, that we engage in that gives us context in our world. That's a lot of very important, but very subtle, interactions that can't be done in a game.

Given your ability to issue commands to the game, how many effective commands can you issue, moment to moment? How many relatively instinctive actions can you effectively issue without thinking overly consciously about it, using a mouse and keyboard?

You can move, your can look, and you can "do" something, and I think that taps out 90% of the people right there. Keys on the keyboard to control your direction of movement, moving the mouse to steer and look around, and mouse buttons and a keyboard button or two to issue a couple of different "action" commands. Some folks can't even really handle the steering/looking with the mouse, and have to move and look sequentially, not in parallel. It is this low-bandwidth pipe of commands that most holds back virtual world design.

You just have no really fast way to get what is in your brain into the computer. And the speed and effortlessness of our thousands of tiny interactions with our environment are what is required to truly advance virtual worlds. Microphones are the new big input device, but of course, the second reason â'' technology â'' is a roadblock there: a number of streaming audio sources can saturate most network connections. So while the mic is good for low-player-count games of the sort you get with, say, XBox Live, for a virtual world, where hundreds or thousands of audio sources need to be broadcast to one another... mics have a long time ahead of them before they're anywhere near as vital and necessary as mice.

This has all been by way of saying that there are very good reasons why virtual worlds are very incremental in their changes as the years move on. Developers are not reticent about doing new and different things, developers are people who truly see the possibilities of what can be done, and can separate those from what we fantasize about doing on some future day.

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IEEE Spectrum’s gaming blog was retired in 2010, but it is preserved here for archival reference.

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