In fiction, the idea that you could die in a simulation or videogame can cause your death in real-life is a well-known allusion. Oculus co-founder Palmer Luckey made this a reality.
Luckey describes a VR headset that he designed can kill you in reality. It uses three embedded explosives charges placed above the forehead and can “instantly kill the user’s brain.”
Luckey says that the lethal explosion is activated by a narrow-band photosensor, which detects when the screen flashes at a particular frequency. This makes it simple to set off during a “Game Over” screen.
To be clear, Luckey states that his deadly headset, which looks in images almost like a modified Meta Quest Pro, is “at this point…just a piece of office artwork, a thought-provoking reminder to unexplored avenues of game design”.
Luckey also writes that linking your real life with your virtual avatar has always fascinated him. It instantly raises the stakes and forces people to rethink their interactions with the virtual world and its players.”
Luckey links this fascination to Sword Art Online, a series of Japanese novels and spinoff video games. The same name is used in a virtual reality MMORPG. That fiction states that thousands of SAO players were imprisoned in their NerveGear headsets. They were threatened with death by a hidden microwave generator if the headset was damaged or removed from the game.
Luckey says that more than realistic graphics, “only the threat and severity of serious consequences can make a video game feel real.” Luckey compares these consequences to “a long history of real-world games revolving around the same stakes.” However, it is essential to remember that sports injuries are not necessarily fatal.
Luckey claims that this area of video game mechanics has yet to be explored, but that isn’t true. Wired described the PainStation art installation as threatening players who lost a Pong game with “sensations like heat, punches and electroshocks of different durations” in 2001. The “Tekken Torture Tournament” was also created that year. It offered a fighting game competition where “32 willing participants” were subject to bracing but non-lethal electric shocks. This corresponded with the injuries suffered by their avatars on screen.
Last year, the Food and Drug Administration approved a virtual reality pain management program that used “established principles in behavioral therapy intended to address pain’s physiological symptoms and provide pain relief through a skills-based treatment plan.”
Luckey says that “a lot of failures that could happen and kill the user at inappropriate times” to explain why he has not been able to use his new headset. The project shows that Luckey is still interested in virtual reality five years after being fired by Oculus’s parent company Facebook, now Meta, amid controversy over political donations.
Luckey has spent most of his professional life focusing on Anduril, his military tech startup. In an April blog post, he wrote that the anniversary of Oculus’ 10th birthday was the right year to “finally unveil some VR technologies, which I haven’t been able to talk about for many reasons.”
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