Virtual Reality

Valve Announces Half-Life: Alyx, a Virtual Reality Exclusive

Over the past several years, the game development studio Valve has shifted its focus from developing new titles in its various critically-acclaimed video game franchises to developing Steam, its content-delivery platform and investing in innovative technology like virtual reality. As such, it came as a surprise when Valve announced Half-Life: Alyx, a new entry in the famed Half-Life series which revolutionized the first-person shooter genre when its first entry was released for PC in 1998. Half-Life: Alyx, the first entry in the series in more than a decade, is not the highly-anticipated Half-Life 3 that fans of the series have waited for, but instead takes place before the events of Half-Life 2 and puts players in the shoes of Alyx Vance, a supporting character from the main series. As the game is built from the ground up for VR, it will not resemble a first-person shooter in the traditional sense, but rather will ask players to use motion controllers to manipulate objects in virtual 3D space to solve puzzles and engage in combat.

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Valve has not released all of the details about the upcoming title, but has announced a launch date of March 2020 and has promised the game will be a full-length experience. The game’s trailer, posted to Youtube a few days ago, showcases the improved graphical capabilities of the Source 2 engine, which enables advanced lighting and other high-quality effects. Additionally, the trailer gives players a hint of the kind of gameplay they can expect, as the player character is depicted firing weapons and interacting with the visually-updated dystopian world first featured in 2004’s Half-Life 2. The title will only be available for PC, but will support all virtual reality platforms that can be used with a Windows computer.

It doesn’t seem likely that a real Half-Life 3 will ever see the light of day, as Valve has seemed to move on from traditional game development; however, fans may experience some long-awaited closure in the form of Half-Life: Alyx.

While fans are of course excited by the announcement of a new title in the Half-Life series, the game’s exclusivity as a VR title has drawn criticism. For one, though their price has lowered in recent years, virtual reality headsets continue to be prohibitively expensive for most, and they require a similarly-expensive high-powered gaming PC to function well. One of the biggest challenges in VR game design is the problem of locomotion, as allowing players to move freely within a virtual world while remaining physically stationary in the real world causes sensations of nausea in many people. As such, the locomotion system featured in Half-Life: Alyx is likely to be extremely limited compared to the movement systems featured in previous titles in the series. 

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Half-Life: Alyx will mark the first commercial use of the company’s Source 2 engine, an update to the revolutionary Source engine upon which previous titles in the series were built. Valve is also opening up their game development tools to the public, updating Hammer, the company’s free level authoring tool, for compatibility with the new game. Valve has promised that Half-Life: Alyx will be a flagship experience for the VR format, and the game’s $59.99 price tag reflects this ambition. While Half-Life 2 featured the “Gravity Gun” weapon as a tool to manipulate objects in the environment, showing off the game’s then-unique use of a full physics engine to breathe life into the game’s setting, Half-Life: Alyx gives players “Gravity Gloves,” allowing them to pick up objects, like guns and puzzle items, from a short distance.

The last entry in the series, Half-Life 2: Episode 2, ended on a major cliffhanger that after twelve years remains unresolved; while Valve’s newest title in the series takes the form of a prequel, fans still hope that the game will shed light on what happens in the aftermath of the precious title. It doesn’t seem likely that a real Half-Life 3 will ever see the light of day, as Valve has seemed to move on from traditional game development; however, fans may experience some long-awaited closure in the form of Half-Life: Alyx.

Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality as a Medical Tool

In recent years, virtual reality devices, including the Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive, and Sony’s PSVR system have exploded in popularity, primarily for their application as gaming devices. Gamers use virtual reality to immerse themselves into their favorite game worlds, racing around a track from the point of view of a racecar driver or looking down at the world from the eyes of a pilot in a flight simulator. Although the technology was originally developed for this purpose, the proliferation of VR headsets has led to their applications in unexpected fields. For example, digital artists have taken advantage of virtual reality to view their creations from different angles or even created sculptures in 3D space using handheld controllers, and businesses have experimented with using virtual reality to hold meetings in a collaborative environment with people hundreds or thousands of miles away. But perhaps the most consequential application of virtual reality is in the healthcare field, as medical professionals are experimenting with using the headsets to treat a variety of conditions.

One application of virtual reality is pain management. For patients with certain conditions, the reality of living with chronic pain, which is resistant to traditional pain medications, can border on the unbearable. Chronic pain can prevent patients from engaging in a number of stimulating activities, confining them to their houses or the hospital. For some patients, pain management is less about reducing the amount of pain felt and more about developing strategies for coping with it. It is theorized that virtual reality can help in this regard by taking the patient’s mind off of their painful experiences by immersing them in a more relaxing environment. Virtual reality has the potential to bring sufferers of chronic pain the experience of sitting by a waterfall, or lying down at the beach, helping to shift their focus away from their pain towards more enjoyable sensations.

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Virtual reality shows particular promise in helping with the treatment of psychological conditions. Exposure therapy, for instance, is a method of helping patients address their phobias by introducing the person to their fears in gradual steps, until they are no longer so overwhelmed that their fears negatively impact their lives. Virtual reality can provide patients undergoing exposure therapy with a controlled environment to introduce them to their fears before tackling them in the real world. Someone with a fear of flying, for instance, can have the experience of being inside of an airplane through virtual reality, and would be able to take the headset off at any time. Additionally, variables such as turbulence, or other triggers such as taking off and landing, can be controlled by the therapist, to introduce the patient to these elements when they are ready for them.

Virtual reality has even been used as a pain management tool for women who are in labor, in a study that provided women giving birth with VR headsets which simulated the experience of scuba diving alongside dolphins and manta rays. In this study, the experience of VR lowered the womens’ self-reported levels of pain and anxiety, and 82% of the participants said they very much or completely enjoyed using the technology.

Virtual reality has also been used as a motivational tool for patients who otherwise might neglect to participate in physical therapy as often as they should by making the experience of physical therapy more engaging and entertaining. Certain VR applications require the user to stand up and physically move around, making them useful supplements to some physical therapy. For instance, a VR skiing game might require patients to shift their weight from foot to foot. Additionally, VR programs have been used for patients with mobility or balance issues undergoing physical therapy to provide them with visual feedback to improve their skills.

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Doctors, in addition to patients, have seen benefits from using virtual reality. In Minneapolis, doctors recently prepared for a surgery to separate conjoined twins using VR. A medical team took detailed 3D twins of the scans, then used visualization software to project these models in a 3D environment, and used VR headsets to examine the scans in close detail from a variety of angles to determine how best to approach the procedure. 

It should be noted that virtual reality comes with its own health risks. People with photo-sensitive epilepsy should not use virtual reality, as rapid changes in the display could trigger seizures, and many people experience a kind of motion sickness when the movement of images in VR headsets do not perfectly line up with the movements of the user’s head. Nevertheless, virtual reality is an exciting new technology, which still has plenty of areas of potential improvement, and the application of VR in the medical field shows promise for bringing relief to patients with any number of maladies.