Sword Art Online; you either love it or hate it. I’ll admit, I’m not the biggest anime fan. In fact, SAO is one of the few animes I’ve seen throughout my life. While there are some flaws with the series, I personally enjoyed the show. Then again, I am what a veteran weeb might call a “filthy casual.” I think the reason why I liked the show, aside from Kirito and Asuna’s relationship, is because the thought of a full-dive VR game fascinates me. Can a game like Sword Art Online exist?
If you’ve been around long enough, you may remember I answered this question, at least partially, in a past post. Bottom line, a game like SAO is not only plausible, it’s inception is actually closer to reality than you might imagine. In my post I talked about advances in technology and in the medical field. These advances, while aimed to help people with medical conditions, could be ported over and adapted to video games. The only hindrance would be developing a game to the massive scale of Sword Art Online.
However, today I’m not here to talk about Sword Art Online, I’m here to discuss Ordinal Scale, the AR game that exists in the anime’s universe. More specifically, I’m here to answer the question; can Ordinal Scale exist in real life. For the sake of this post, I’ll be focusing on everything from the movie, Sword Art Online: Ordinal Scale; from the hardware to the events that take place. I will be talking about the AR concepts from the movie only, and not about the real world upcoming SAO AR event taking place in Japan later this year.
So, without anymore stalling, let’s talk games, shall we?
First, let’s take a brief look at Sword Art Online: Ordinal Scale and what Augmented Reality is. By the way, there may be spoilers ahead.
Augmented Reality (AR) is very different from Virtual Reality (VR). While Virtual Reality is exactly that: virtual, AR is an augmentation on our own reality. Essentially, it is the concept of enhancing our reality digitally in order to improve our daily lives. Think of it like this, normally you’d have to use your phone to look up the directions to a coffee shop. With AR, you could be able to do that without touching your phone, using a few hand gestures or voice commands instead. AR is the way of the future, and it’s already being implemented, as you will soon see. But, what does that have to do with a show about VR games?
SAO: Ordinal Scale takes place after season two of Sword Art Online, and is used to bridge the gap between VR and reality in the show’s universe. In the movie, AR is the next big thing, and everyone is jumping on the bandwagon. The device gets further popularity from it’s very own AR idol, Yuna, and an exclusive game, Ordinal Scale. Being an SAO story, someone had to use the AR technology and its game for malevolent means.
The AR device the characters use is called the Augma, and it contains a secret feature that scans the users’ brains and steals their memories. This brain scan is only aimed at SAO survivors from the first season of the anime, Kirito and Asuna included. The creator of the Augma uses old SAO bosses to trigger flashback memories of SAO. As the player “dies,” the Augma scans the brain for triggered memories, essentially stealing them and leaving the victim with no recollection of their time trapped in SAO.
Asuna is one of the victims who has her memories stolen, and it’s up to Kirito (who sucks at Ordinal Scale at this point) to beat the game, become Player 1, and get his lover’s memories back. What follows is basically what you’d expect from Sword Art Online. Kirito becomes God and ends up wiping the floor with the bad guy. While the movie is arguably the best story arc of the SAO series, it is still generic SAO story-telling. What I liked was the return of life-or-death stakes, and a more personal impact on Kirito and his friends.
Augmented Reality adds a bit more depth to the SAO formula, and it furthers the plot by having things happen in real life and not in a video game. Given the massive success of the movie in Japan and in the west, I can assume it will help propel AR forward in the coming years, the same way Sword Art Online helped VR. While AR for the most part is currently aimed at training and helping people in the workplace, it won’t be long before game developers jump at the chance of making a full AR game. When that happens, people will be taking a closer look at Ordinal Scale, whether they are fans of the anime or not.
But, can Ordinal Scale be replicated in real life? And if it could, how would it work? To answer this question we need to look at everything from the movie and compare it to what we can currently do in real life. Things like game development, hardware, and even the players themselves. So let’s dive right in.
The AR device and the main focus of the movie is called the Augma. This device is worn around your head, and when activated can alter your perception of reality. You now have the internet on the tip of your nose. Boundless information is only a few gestures away. You even have a heads-up display similar to what you would have in a first person game. Imagine having a smart phone you can interact with seamlessly. This is essentially what the Augma is. While it sounds science fiction, the Augma is actually closer to reality.
Microsoft has been developing a similar device to aid in the work environment. The HoloLens is the real world equivalent to the anime’s Augma. With this device, people can answer calls, have real-time chats, look up information, design 3D models on the physical plain, and much more.
However, there is a key difference between the Augma and the HoloLens. The HoloLens projects images onto a screen in front of your eyes using the real world as a canvas. The Augma has no screen on which to project anything. Instead, the Augma projects images into your brain, simulating sights and placing them on a real world canvas. This makes a device like the Augma impossible to exist, right? Well, not entirely. As I already explained in my Sword Art Online post, simulating sight is already a reality using state of the art medical devices.
These devices are used to let blind people see again. If things like sight can be artificially simulated, then sound, smells, and more cannot be too far behind. However, for these medical devices to work it would take extremely complex surgeries. It would also cost thousands of dollars. The Augma requires none of these things.
In that sense, the device like the Augma is just too far from reality. As stated in the movie, the Augma changes your perception of reality, unlike the HoloLens. Although the core concept of the Augma already exists in the HoloLens and other medical devices, the Augma itself is far from a real device, at least for the time being.
But, can we make a game that makes use of the HoloLens the same way Ordinal Scale makes use of the Augma? Well, we could, but rendering visuals is just the peek of the iceberg.
Assuming we can use the HoloLens as our real world answer to the Augma, we still have to take other aspects into account. In the anime, character actions in VR games were made possible via the NerveGear. By intercepting brain commands to the body, the NerveGear interpreted those commands onto your virtual body in the game.
The Augma does the same thing, more or less. While you control your own body in the AR game, your actions are still interpreted by the Augma, resulting in effects in the AR world. For example, if you swing your arm down in an attack, the Augma reads that command, resulting in an AR enemy receiving a hit. The opposite is also applicable. If you fail to block an attack, a hit on your person will be simulated. We can already do these things in games using hand held controllers like the Wii remote or the PlayStation Move, however these methods are clunky at best, and would be a step backwards gaming wise. The best way to play an AR game like Ordinal Scale is by using a similar method; brain commands.
Scientists in both robotics and in the medical field have already developed prosthetic appendages that can be controlled by ones brain. These artificial limbs will help those who have lost their own limbs lead normal lives. Amputees will be able to make use of a new arm or leg seamlessly, controlling the robotic appendage with only their brain. Knowing this, it’s not far-fetched to assume that one can control AR elements using only thought. However, using the same medical system for games would be expensive, not to mention that they would probably require some sort of surgery.
The good news is that there is a solution for this. Just this year we learned of a new piece of tech that could read body movements and translate them to video games. This new technology was revealed during the CES earlier this month. By using sensors on a tightly fitted shirt, developers can map body movements in real time and translate them onto a screen. While currently being developed for VR as well as secular gaming, this suit can be used for an Ordinal Scale like game in AR.
The E-Skin from Xenoma has been in development for years now, and we got to see what it can do during CES this year. While the motion capture is clunky, you can still use this shirt to play video games. Set to release later this year for around $400, the E-Skin is a step towards a realized augmented reality game like Ordinal Scale. The reason why this shirt is so important is because of it’s real time interpretation of body movements. It basically turns you into the game controller.
For a combat oriented game like Ordinal Scale, the E-Skin would be essential in order to even play the game. Since non of our AR tech can currently interpret brain commands, smart clothes like this is the next logical step.
There is also an even more impressive wearable device used for VR games, called the Hardlight Suit. Not only is the Hardlight Suit designed specifically for gaming, it also features sensation simulation. This is perfect for a game like Ordinal scale.
Unfortunately there is only one thing we currently cannot do; create synthetic limitations. What I mean by this is that we cannot create a virtual/artificial limitation for your body. Think of it like this; you swing your arm in an attack, striking your enemy. Your action is recorded in real time by the game and results in an AR enemy receiving a hit.
But, say the enemy blocked your attack? In that case, your arm would have to stop mid-swing in order to make the act as realistic as possible like in the movie. This small aspect of Ordinal Scale is something we cannot simulate. It would require tricking the brain and the body into acknowledging a limit, perhaps paralyzing the arm if it goes beyond said limit. Something like this is not possible, and if it was, it would probably be unethical.
Never the less, this is only a small aspect to a much bigger picture. Using the technology we already have, and taking into consideration the many advances in our technology today, I can conclude that a game like Ordinal Scale has all the tools necessary to be reality. But, even if we could play a game like that with our technology, could the game itself even be possible to create?
Bottom answer; no, at least not by a developer’s stand point. While we do have AR games in real life, none are even close in complexity to Ordinal Scale. Pokemon Go was a phenomenon that swept the world in 2016, but this AR game is a bare bones comparison to Ordinal Scale.
Similar to SAO, Ordinal Scale is equally difficult to even try to create. Again, things like smells, sights, and other sensations must be developed for simulation, which is currently next to impossible. I say next to impossible because, as I have already said, scientist have managed to simulate sight to help people with bad or no eyesight see. Sight, however, would not be a constraint for an Ordinal Scale game in the real world, because as we can see with the HoloLens, rendering objects onto a real world canvas is already being done. This is also much easier than simulating sights, which is how VR and AR games in the anime and movie work.
What the HoloLens cannot do is simulate sounds and smells, as well as other sensations such as cold, hunger, and pain. One also has to take into account things like wind, which has a simulated effect on character clothing.
This is where science fact becomes science fiction. Unfortunately, for a game like Ordinal Scale to exist, things like sounds have to be simulated. While the argument can be made that all we need for sound are some good headphones or speakers, the anime does not suggest that the Augma possesses either. Sound would have to work the same way it did in the VR games of the show, via simulations to trick the brain into “hearing” them.
One has to remember that although the game Ordinal Scale is an AR game, it runs on re-purposed Nervegear hardware (as explained by Yuuna near the climax of the movie). There are no screens on the Augma; sights and sounds and other sensations are simulated like in a VR game. Much like Sword Art Online, developing a game and gear that can simulate real world situations is plausible, but unfortunately not a reality, at least not currently. And no game created for the HoloLens could even come close to Ordinal Scale. In that sense, Ordinal Scale could not work in the real world.
But, if we didn’t have to simulate sounds, and we paired a device like the HoloLens with some high quality speakers, we could get as close to an Ordinal Scale game as we can, given our technology. The problem then would be having a device powerful enough to render clear graphics at a consistent frame-rate.
Developing something like this is much more realistic and possible since developing a massive game like Ordinal Scale can be done if we exclude any simulated sensations. Games like Skyrim, The Witcher 3, and Grand Theft Auto: V are massive games with insane levels of detail and complexity. Porting a game with similar formulas to a powerful AR device would result in a real world rendition of Ordinal Scale, or at least something really really close.
So, if a game like Ordinal Scale could be created, what about the massive events that take place in the movie? Could we be able to do that in the real world?
Real World Events
Remember the Pokemon GO Fest? If you don’t, here’s a quick rundown. The game community had to go to a specific location where an event was supposed to take place. Hundreds of people flew to Chicago in hopes of catching some epic Pokemon. Needless to say, the event was a complete disaster.
Ordinal Scale has events similar to this, where bosses from SAO appear at random locations for players to defeat. While this works perfectly in the movie, in reality something like this would be a catastrophe. Only a decent crowd shows up to these events in the movie. In reality, the people showing up an event like this would number in the hundreds, as could be seen with Pokemon GO Fest (especially when XP earned is multiplied and there’s the possibility of the game idol appearing).
There’s also the issue with the servers and other gear needed to allow all these players to participate in these events. Granted, the movie establishes the need for drones to counter the strain on the network, but this strain would still be a problem in reality. A massive group of people showing up in one place and logging on at the same time would almost certainly crash the servers.
Safety is also a major factor that plays a big role in any event. While Pokemon GO Fest was made up of people simply rushing around on their phones, Ordinal Scale involves people running, jumping, and swinging simulated weapons. Put a large group of people in one location, all trying to get at one single boss, and you’ll end up with a recipe for disaster. Dozens of people rushing to one single point while swinging “weapons” is a major safety issue, no matter how big or spacious the location is.
My point is, it doesn’t matter if you have an entire city block to work with, if there’s only one boss, everyone present will rush to it’s location in hopes of getting a piece of the action. Even multiple bosses wouldn’t solve this issue, as there will probably be dozens if not hundreds of people present for a single event. There is no way an event like the ones in the movie can function safely unless the number of participants were limited, but the movie doesn’t say this is the case.
If we can’t limit the number of participants for events, then any event like the ones in the movie would be a complete and perhaps dangerous failure. Unfortunately, this aspect of the movie cannot be replicated. Whichever way I look at it, there are just too many variables that can cause a Boss Event to fail, not to mention network service failure and property damage. People got hurt playing Pokemon GO, a game where all you do is walk. I can only imagine the injuries a combat-oriented game like Ordinal Scale would inflict.
Sadly, events like the ones we see in the movie would not be possible to reenact in real life. This is a bummer since the events play a major part not only for the plot of the movie, but for the game as well. While an ARMMORPG is possible, massive events are sadly not.
The final part of Ordinal Scale envolves scanning the brain, stealing memories, and potentially killing players. This is mostly just for plot and to give the protagonist of the movie, Kirito, something to overcome. Could something like this take place? In real life this could not be possible. Why not?
Well, aside from the fact that manufactures go through rigorous quality control to ensure products are safe for users, a device that could scan your brain for memories being sold for the general consumers is highly unrealistic. And, since we’ve already establish that a device like the Augma is far from reality, it’s safe to say that deadly brain scans are impossible.
There are other safety concerns, of course. Using an AR device while driving, or being so engrossed in a game without minding one’s surroundings could result in injury or even death. However, no device would be made specifically to harm it’s user. It’s just not realistic, and as I said, only used as a plot device in the movie.
While a game like Ordinal Scale seems like science fiction, it’s actually closer to reality. The core features already exist using different forms of technology to varying degrees. At the moment we cannot create devices that can simulate sensations for the general consumer, but these devices are being created. Likewise, being able to control things, devices, and more is possible thanks to advances in medicine and robotics.
While getting a game exactly like Ordinal Scale is not possible, we can still make use of our technology to create something similar. AR and VR are the way of the future. Just like laptops and tablets replaced books in schools, AR devices will be the next step forward. Virtual and Augmented reality are more than gimmicks for gaming, they are the next leap in technology, able to bridge the gap between reality and the digital world.
I think we should be excited for these new advances in technology, and we should embrace them as well. Our world is ever changing, and eventually new technology will replace VR and AR. When that time comes, I just hope we were able to enjoy some great games on both of these new platforms.
I know this post was long, but I hope you enjoyed it. If you would like to read more about VR technology and if a game like Sword Art Online game is possible, please read my post: Sword Art Online; Could it Happen?. Sword Art Online is as relevant as ever given the success of the movie and an upcoming season three later this year. Netflix has also purchased the franchise in order to make a live-action adaptation, so it’s not going away anytime soon.
Whether you are a fan of the anime or not, the concept of a full-dive VR game should fascinate both anime fans and gamers alike, so expect some more posts on the topic. If you would like to read more about gaming remember to subscribe and like us on Facebook.
As always, have an incredible day.