Hey there readers of Ahotaku39! Last week, I published my first ANIME THEORY exclusively in Bahasa Indonesia. It was my view on Kill la Kill’s absurd amount of fans service. I managed to link fans service to menstruation and nudity to communism. In the second ANIME THEORY, I’ll revisit Sword Art Online and its gaming equipment, the NervGear! (urgh, I’m sick already)
UPDATE! (26 June 2014): For Indonesian readers, you can now access the translated version of this article at INIOTAKU.com! Just click here. Enjoy!
The idea is that we want to be physically involved in our games. Isn’t that the dream? To be fully immersed in a virtual world where we can be rid of our physical limits and cast destructive magic while swinging a big-ass greatsword? Or to be able to experience the thrill of killing people virtually without any real-life repercussions? Or to be able to live the life of a master hacker roaming the streets of Chicago with an almighty phone capable of hacking everything? Immersive gaming may be the future.
Heavily inspired this particular MatPat Game Theory video, this time, let’s visit (or revisit for the umpteenth time) the anime series which rebooted gamers’ faith in immersive gaming technology: Sword Art Online. Seriously, I find a buttload of posts on Facebook about people desperately wanting to enter the world of SAO. I’ll be talking about NervGear this time, the helmet which allows Kazuto to become the overpowered black swordsman with swag in SAO, Kirito.
A quick heads-up: Since the anime lacks technical exposition (it lacks exposition overall), I will refer to the light novel sometimes, as it provides a better explanation of SAO’s technical side. And please do mind that the only research I’ve done is Internet research. I’m not an expert in engineering and only have a basic grasp of physics, so if I’m wrong (and I will be wrong), please do tell me in a civilized manner.
Immersive Gaming and the NervGear
First, let’s start with the status quo of gaming. To play a game, you need three things: a screen to display the game, a machine to process the game, and a peripheral which allows you to control the game. In simple terms: TV/monitor, console/CPU, and controller/mouse and keyboard. And let’s not forget the game itself. You, the player, are separated from the game world by a monitor and are only limited to witnessing the character on-screen and controlling its movements or choices. This is normal, everyday gaming. The only barrier between you and the game world is a thin LED monitor.
Now, immersive gaming means that these boundaries are non-existent. You are fully ‘immersed’ in the virtual world, just like Kazuto/Kirito in SAO. You do not need the controller anymore; you control yourself in the game.
The idea of NervGear is that it uses tech to transfer the ‘consciousness’ of a person into a game, allowing that person to operate the in-game avatar as if it were his own body. Thus, the person is said to be ‘fully immersed’ into the game, without any physical boundaries like a TV screen. While the idea of transferring consciousness may still be sci-fi fantasy like Johnny Depp in Transcendence (Or is it? Because I’ve learned that we can save a backup of our memories on a machine), engineering has already made strides towards more immersive gaming. For example, the Oculus Rift, standing at the forefront of immersive gaming technology, allows us to experience the in-game character’s point of view and add that with the Omni-Directional Treadmill which allows gamers to literally live the experience of being a soldier. Certainly these machines are steps to fully immersive gaming.
But do we really want them? As MatPat argues, we may not want to be fully immersed in a game. Sure, it’s cool to live in the game world where only your own imagination is the limit, but do we really want that?
Brain Surgery on Every Login
Which brings me to the NervGear. The NervGear, according to the first volume of the light novel, is a helmet the player wears to ‘enter’ the virtual world. I’m no engineer, but I’m pretty confident in my Biology, so I’m pretty sure that the NervGear sends impulses to the optical nerves to ‘trick’ the eyes into seeing a virtual world. And according to Kirito in the LN, the NervGear receives all signals that the brain sends from the back part of the brain and reroutes them to the in-game avatar. I’m guessing he’s referring to the brain stem, the part of the brain responsible for sending signals to the entire body. And while you’re wearing that helmet, you can’t do anything else until you logout, because the helmet takes over your brain stem.
The idea is really cool. But when you think about the process, you may want to stick with adding peripherals with the NervGear.
The first thing to consider is that we are not walking Wi-Fi transmitters. So, in order for the NervGear to have access to our brains, it would require a method to first access the body’s neural network. How to do that? It’s quite complicated, but it has been done. People with cutting-edge prosthetic limbs have had their neurons rerouted, a process known as “targeted muscle reinnervation” or TMR for short. I don’t want to delve deep into technical details here; just read about TMR here.
TMR is cool and all, but it does not mess with the central nervous network. And NervGear wants to access our brain, our central nervous network. If TMR was hard enough, imagine how hard it would be to reroute the entire brain, or at least all motoric transmissions, into a helmet?
The NervGear would require access to the place where all signals are transmitted from, in this case the brain stem. If we were to think in very simplistic terms (and I mean VERY SIMPLISTIC TERMS), the process would be as simple as sticking something into our brain stem which allows the neural signals traveling along the brain stem to be rerouted into the helmet to be processed by the helmet’s central processing unit and then translated into in-game movement. But then, would you want a machine puncture through your skin to latch onto your brain and paralyze you? Unless you’re absolutely desperate to escape reality, I’m guessing not all gamers would want a helmet that performs brain surgery on them every time they put it on.
And don’t let me get started on how fast and sophisticated the helmet’s central processing unit would have to be to handle that sheer amount of raw information coming from the brain. We’re talking military-grade equipment, perhaps even more advanced.
Sadly, Reki doesn’t provide an explanation on how NervGear would actually work if it existed.
You’re Wearing a Microwave
Next, let’s talk about the killer potential of NervGear. In the light novel, Kayaba mentioned that anyone who died in-game would have their brain fried by the NervGear in real life. Which makes you think, just WHAT is actually inside a piece of revolutionary gaming hardware?
Now, when they say “frying a brain”, I’m imagining the brain being burnt to a crisp. I don’t think that’s gonna happen with NervGear. First of all, the EM waves generated by the NervGear would need to be the type that causes things to heat, in this case, microwaves. Also, microwaves could burn your brain to a crisp… it would melt your face first though. Skin starts to melt at 72 degrees centigrade. And your brain won’t be burnt… it would be BOILED or explode. The fluids your brain floats around in would heat up first and your skull (bone cannot melt per se, and can only be turned to ash at 1000 centigrade) acts as a closed pot. The execution process would be unnecessarily messy, but it would work. So, that’s not just a piece of gaming hardware on your head, it’s also a great device to make popcorn with!
There is another scenario though. Perhaps Kayaba did not literally want to burn the brain to crisp. Perhaps he just wanted everyone’s brains to stop functioning. I thought he could achieve that by ‘frying’ the brain’s neural network just like how an EMP fries electrical circuits. But then again, an EMP can only fry mechanical electrical circuits and not our biological neurotransmitters because our nervous system is the LEAST radio-sensitive tissue in our body. The most radio-sensitive one is bone marrow. But then, to make a brain not function, all you have to do is to destroy its cells. And perhaps that’s what Kayaba wants. So, he would need to mount a radioactive component capable of shooting up to 10 sieverts of radiation. Why 10 sieverts? Because 10 sieverts is a fatal dose of radiation, a guaranteed kill. Chernobyl workers were exposed to 3-6 sieverts of radiation, but some lived because the body’s cells could regenerate. At 10 sieverts, a person would die in weeks because their cells will be damaged beyond repair. Still, not exactly an effective way to kill people, though.
So, what kind of EM wave does the NervGear emit? Unfortunately, the answer to that remains in the dark, unless we’ve seen (or Reki decides to kill Kirito one day) a victim of NervGear. But, I’m thinking that it is highly unlikely that the NervGear is packing gamma rays or any ionizing EM waves. Why? First of all, a piece of gaming hardware containing an obviously radioactive component inside it would definitely not be on the market. Especially if it can pack 10 sieverts of radiation. Even if they managed to bribe officials and sell it, the NervGear would have to cost more than what Indonesian Parliament politicians make every year (corruption and graft included). In the anime, anyone can buy a NervGear, meaning that either Japan’s standard of living skyrocketed in 10 years’ time or the company, ARGUS, is desperate to go bankrupt.
Second, I’m skeptical of the household’s power capacity. To power a stationary X-ray machine, you need at least 11 kilowatts of power and anywhere from 30 to 150 kilovolts. The high voltage is required for the machine to generate X-rays. And an X-ray machine only shoots 0.1 milisieverts (mSv) of radiation. You get exposed to 3 mSv of radiation every year by natural means. Imagine how much juice a component shooting 10 sieverts of radiation would need. Unless you want a REALLY huge electricity bill or work in heavy industry,
So, I’m guessing the NervGear would just be a fancy microwave that you put over your head.
While immersing yourself into the game world is a fantastic concept, the NervGear may not be one of the safest devices to fulfill your fantasy. Aside from the potential EM radiation and the prospect of getting your face melted by a microwave helmet, integrating the NervGear with our nervous system still seems like fiction. That is, until they find a painless way to connect the NervGear to our brain stem. Or they find a way to transfer our consciousness into the game.
So, before you want that NervGear, think again.
To paraphrase MatPat, “But hey, it’s just a theory. An ANIME THEORY!”