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Today is November 6th, 2022, the day of the SAO Incident. Thousands of VRMMORPG gamers were trapped by a mad scientist inside a death game that could only be escaped through completion. If their hit points dropped to zero, their brain would be bombarded by extraordinarily powerful microwaves, supposedly killing the user. The same would happen if anyone in the real world tampered with their NerveGear, the virtual reality head-mounted-display that transported their minds and souls to Aincrad, the primary setting of Sword Art Online.
This type of scenario has been a staple of science-fiction for decades, but Sword Art Online exploded in popularity at exactly the right time to have a massive impact on the real world. The already-popular web novel was adapted into an anime series that aired just as the Oculus Rift went from internet forum curiosity for turbonerds to siren of the games industry, endorsed by giants like John Carmack, Gabe Newell, and Cliff Bleszinski – the 4th episode of SAO, “The Black Swordsman” (黒の剣士) aired in Japan just as the Kickstarter for the Oculus Rift DK1 launched!
The popularity of SAO led to massive otaku enthusiasm for Oculus, especially in Japan, which quickly became our 2nd largest market. In turn, the existence of the Rift made SAO itself seem far more plausible and grounded – a story that had been written in a world where VR was a dead technology was now straight out of the gamer hype headlines. This synergy had meaningful impact on our dev kit sales and adoption – literally thousands of people reached out to me asking variations of “Have you seen Sword Art Online? When will you make the NerveGear real?!”. The Oculus SDK was the closest thing to SAO’s World Seed, a software tool that enabled anyone to create incredible VR worlds.
There are dozens of stories I could tell, many of them worth a post of their own. How we ended up with a Kirito mural on the wall of the first Oculus office, how it was eventually moved to Facebook HQ, why it was removed shortly after I was fired. Personally showing Oculus DK2 to Reki Kawahara at Anime Expo, my wife meeting him while cosplaying as Sinon at the next Anime Expo, getting into minutiae of SAO canon at the Hollywood premiere of SAO: Ordinal Scale, the audience screaming as Yuuki came back from the dead to perform a two-user Mother’s Rosario attack combo with Asuna against the 100th floor boss of Aincrad. Arguing with people who only watched the anime about the supposed plot and tech holes, explaining that the anime was only ever meant to act as a companion piece for fans of the novel series that so frequently predicts the future of AR, VR, AI, and more. The beautiful wedding gift from Kawahara-san that shows he is a double-threat writer/artist combo!
But that isn’t what you are here for. You want NerveGear, the incredible device that perfectly recreates reality using a direct neural interface that is also capable of killing the user. The idea of tying your real life to your virtual avatar has always fascinated me – you instantly raise the stakes to the maximum level and force people to fundamentally rethink how they interact with the virtual world and the players inside it. Pumped up graphics might make a game look more real, but only the threat of serious consequences can make a game feel real to you and every other person in the game. This is an area of videogame mechanics that has never been explored, despite the long history of real-world sports revolving around similar stakes.
The good news is that we are halfway to making a true NerveGear The bad news is that so far, I have only figured out the half that kills you. The perfect-VR half of the equation is still many years out.
In SAO, the NerveGear contained a microwave emitter that could be overdriven to lethal levels, something the creator of SAO and the NerveGear itself (Akihiko Kayaba) was able to hide from his employees, regulators, and contract manufacturing partners. I am a pretty smart guy, but I couldn’t come up with any way to make anything like this work, not without attaching the headset to gigantic pieces of equipment. In lieu of this, I used three of the explosive charge modules I usually use for a different project, tying them to a narrow-band photosensor that can detect when the screen flashes red at a specific frequency, making game-over integration on the part of the developer very easy. When an appropriate game-over screen is displayed, the charges fire, instantly destroying the brain of the user.
This isn’t a perfect system, of course. I have plans for an anti-tamper mechanism that, like the NerveGear, will make it impossible to remove or destroy the headset. Even so, there are a huge variety of failures that could occur and kill the user at the wrong time. This is why I have not worked up the balls to actually use it myself, and also why I am convinced that, like in SAO, the final triggering should really be tied to a high-intelligence agent that can readily determine if conditions for termination are actually correct.
At this point, it is just a piece of office art, a thought-provoking reminder of unexplored avenues in game design. It is also, as far as I know, the first non-fiction example of a VR device that can actually kill the user. It won’t be the last.
See you in the metaverse.