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ARTICLE

Carmack's [VR] Vision of the Future

Honestly? On first glance it looks like something whipped together by a thirteen year old kid over the summer holidays.

Black box casing. Grey tape generously slapped around the seams. Stretchy goggle bands repurposed from someone's deep-sea diving kit. The contraption screams Blue Peter grade. But two particular aspects conflict with this initial opinion. One is the thick cables that spill out the front of the VR helmet and disappear into a PC that looks like it could convincingly run NASA's Houston Space Centre. The second is the person whose hand is holding the makeshift visor out to me.

41-year old John Carmack, creator of Doom, Quake, games industry legend and aerospace engineer doesn't smile that usual smile, the one of a man trying to reassure press into overcoming their scepticism. Instead it's a smile of a design veteran who knows the technology will work. And despite entering his fortieth year, It's easy to see that smile is tinged with a boyish enthusiasm and excitement.

This is what Carmack does with his spare time now: creating beyond-the-curve technology with the nonchalance of someone changing a plug.

We're sitting in a booth behind the executive section of Bethesda's stand on the E3 show floor. The previous ten minutes of conversation - before the contraption is pulled over my head - is complete contrast to the hard sells by corporate suits on conference stages only the day previous. Twenty-four hours ago it was carefully synced auto-cues, talk of interlinking of devices, motion tech improving gaming, the joy of joint experiences. Slick, but lacking in passion.

John's different. Loose slacks, light-coloured jumper. You can't picture him wearing a tie. He talks fast but clear; opinions, ideas and tech jargon all spilling out a mile a minute. No pre-prepared speech here, yet he's as straight as an arrow with his points.

He's ripping apart the inner workings of the current industry darling motion control, yet he's not disparaging. Instead he suggests positive improvements. It's completely fascinating. Impossible as well, not to match his half smile at his casualness in how to better the latest revolution in gaming.

He's talking motion-tracking technologies. Of complete immersion in game worlds. Elaborating on a project that he's cobbled together in his spare time: a head-mounted, motion-tracking display unlike any other. One that's the product of twenty extensive years of programming skills and - amazingly - rocket technology ("I wound up using the inertial integration code for my rocket to replace what was being done on the sensors").

Working with external collaborator Palmer Lucky in its creation and putting in a few personal requests ("I got the sensor company, Hillcrest Labs, to burn me a custom firmware that upped the update rate in the software") we come to this: a frankenstein black box lavishly bolstered with gaffer tape and other bits, but offering complete transportation to another world.

Consciously or not, Carmack's also talking about, and to, the solo gamer. For this is what he's handing over. Complete integration with a virtual space. Just you, a devastated mars base, and a complex full of hellspawn.

"Doom 3 was this opportunity to turn the stuff I was tinkering with for fun and make it relevant to the company's business," he explains. "I could use this VR experience as something else that is cutting edge, that is worth people coming and looking at an eight year-old game and say some nice things about it."

The visor's hooked up to a short demo of the DOOM BFG Edition. "Doom 3's going to be the only software that natively supports this," he continues. He had a "better" version of the head mount that he was unable to bring along to the show - five others are sitting back in his office in different stages of construction.

We, apparently, are making do with second best. "The resolution's not very high - a 1280 x 800 panel back here that has each eye looking at half of it," the developer points out. "Each eye only has 640 x 800, and it's stretched over a huge area."

As we're about to find out, that's more than enough to convince us we're in the middle of hell.

Watch the GRTV Special below for the full Carmack interview and post-demo discussion on the technology, and read on for our first-hand experiences using the visor.

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