While technology may still be a decade or so off from full-immersion, visual-auditory virtual reality, online social networks and video games are proving how intense the desire for simulated environments is and how big of a market there will be for artificial representations of reality.
Virtual reality could very well be the next major entertainment industry of the 21st century. As computer technology advances and the processing power necessary for full-blown VR becomes widespread, expect to see some major changes to business as usual:
Be at the office, while working from home. Forget dragging your bloated hung-over liver into the office after a weekend of binge drinking. In the coming decades, if your sociopathic boss calls a Monday morning meeting he or she will probably be doing it in a virtual conference room, where information and ideas will be exchanged through tall, blue alien avatars with nice thighs and lightning fast digital cloud computing.
Skype times a thousand. Catching up with old, needy friends or family members won’t be done on stale, two-dimensional screens any longer. Users of advanced VR will pick avatars and tap into ‘rooms’ shared by as many people as they want. As the modeling technology grows, depictions of physical likenesses will get better and better, as will haptic interfaces that allow for realistic physical sensations like touch, smell, and sound. Awful, emotionally damaging family gatherings will be a lot less stressful and if you don’t want mom and dad to find out about that piercing or tramp stamp you can just omit it from your avatar.
Major contributions to science. Virtual reality environments are already proving to be extremely useful and illustrative in the study of diseases like Parkinson’s and other neurological disorders. As scientists gain the ability to work with theoretical models in hands-on simulations, expect major advancements in medicine, astronomy, and virtually every other field of science.
“It’s like you’re really there!” Virtual reality will not only be a major boon for the entertainment industry, it will be extremely useful to perennially underpaid educators. A day at school will be like going to a movie, except actually being in the movie. Imagine how a child’s interest in biology, chemistry, or computer engineering will grow when they can enter cells and circuits and analyze their components in person. So much for textbooks—the universe itself will be the instructor. Imagine The Fantastic Voyage without the danger of being neutralized by a rogue white blood cell.
New industry=new job markets. While some jobs may be slowly become extinct, new jobs will arise as the demand for advanced VR grows. Companies will need new designers and a panoply of creative software engineers and cognitive scientists to help bridge the gap between physical reality and simulated environments. Expect the VR industry to become the mobile app rage of the 2020s and 2030s.
VR has a ways to go before it’s omnipresent, but who would have thought that the Internet would become such an indispensable part of our moment-to-moment lives? As utility and computer processing power converge, virtual reality will come to be just as invaluable to society as the web is now.
Article paid for by The Virtual Reality Corporation, a subsidiary of Google and Future China.
In the throes of my passion about virtual reality, I finally watched the sci-fi film The Thirteenth Floor last night. I don’t know why it took me so long—fortunately, I was not disappointed. Though I was hoping for a bit more of a subversive ending—such as the confounding conclusion to Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, which leaves the viewer still wondering about the nature of reality—this movie explores the idea of simulated worlds in a way that few films have.
In the Thirteenth Floor, the investigation of the murder of a man developing a revolutionary virtual reality machine turns up the disturbing truth that ‘users,’ or people from our world, are tapping in to inhabit virtual characters for nefarious reasons. Ultimately, we learn a far more disturbing truth about the nature of our ‘world’ and who might be tapping in to inhabit us.
For a moment this movie started to head in a direction that I’m interested in taking in my upcoming stories, which is the idea that virtual reality can bleed into the real world and change the nature of real ‘reality.’ I’ve already explored this a bit in a short story I wrote called “Beta,” which aesthetically and thematically is kind of the combination of Ender’s Game and Lars Von Trier’s film Melancholia.
In my short story “Harold the House” (part of my sci-fi collection I hope to turn into an e-book, for which I’m currently launching an IndieGoGo campaign), I take a more practical approach to virtual reality. In “Harold,” virtual reality is part of the interconnection between artificial intelligence and humans. AI houses basically act as our maids/personal assistants/lovers, and configure virtual reality environments to keep us satiated. In this world, it is not so much virtual reality that begins to bleed into reality, but the power of AI, which begins embedding subversive messages into our subconscious.
In a forthcoming YA novel I’m outlining, called booKWorm, I’ll be exploring the idea of virtual reality as a way to actually warp physical reality—and even history—itself.
In future posts I’ll be delving more into where we are right now with virtual reality as a consumer item.
-from The Doors song “Strange Days”
The film Strange Days depicts Los Angeles in the year 1999, when a technology known as SQUID (super-conducting quantum interference device), has made it possible to literally inhabit someone else’s experiences. The device, which looks like a squid and toupee combined into one, was initially created by the Feds for criminal inquiries, but eventually fell into the hands of peddlers on the black market. Also on the black market are thousands of clips, or ‘wire hits’, that affect the user in much the same way that drugs do, providing a real yet distorted experience that leaves the user strung out and ravenous for more.
The film’s protagonist, Lenny (Ralph Fiennes), is a dealer of SQUID products, whose clientele ranges from wealthy businessmen to down and out info-junkies, addicted to other people’s experiences, or perhaps simply the feeling of being outside one’s self. Lenny is also a user of his own product. Early in the film, he picks from a number of tapes of him and his ex-girlfriend, Faith, roller-skating and making love. Undressing, Faith asks: “Are you going to watch or are you going to do?” Lenny does, of course, but the fact that the experience is from the past suggests that he has, to a certain extent, lost control over his present experiences. He no longer cares to make the distinction between real experience and mediated ‘playback’.
The film grows progressively more violent and perverse in its depiction of the wire-tripping technology. In one scene, we watch from the point of view of an unknown assailant as he rapes a prostitute in the following fashion: he captures the assault on playback and ‘jacks’ the girl in to SQUID so that she can feel, see and hear what he feels, sees and hears, augmenting her fear and thus enhancing his excitement. The girl is literally experiencing rape from the point of view of both the victim and the aggressor. The scene, albeit profoundly disturbing, is a prime example of the convergence of subjectivity and technology displayed in the film: sexuality, entertainment and technology welded into the same experience.
Made over a decade ago, Strange Days‘s prophetic powers about an age of sexually deviant, memory-based virtual reality will, I believe, prove to be uncanny. Very few dystopian films–another being the modern masterpiece Children of Men (2006)–manage to paint a picture of the future so compelling it makes the viewer physical uncomfortable. Strange Days presents a distorted but all-too-familiar paradigm of the postmodern crisis: sensory overdose. The mass production of experience threatens to erode the quality of the the individual’s own subjectivity by disconnecting one from one’s experiences. One of the fundamental building blocks of film theory is the idea that a moviegoer frequents the cinema to absorb someone else’s experiences, to live vicariously through the protagonist. Strange Days re-inscribes this idea into a science fiction premise in which the moviegoer can actually be the protagonist, and, moreover, be a protagonist of the real world. This is not exactly interactive in the sense that a video game is, but it spins the idea of voyeurism in such a way that the commodification of experience appears open to innovation. During these strange days, our experiences are no longer solely ours; we can buy new ones and sell our old ones.
Are moviegoers and entertainment seekers bound to gradually incorporate more and more computer technology into their daily life until they are indistinguishable from a mutated piece of software? Well, yes. The transformation has begun: digital technology is everywhere and it mediates everything, work and leisure, from telecommunications to interactive video games. Is a convergence between digital computation and human consciousness banished to the realm of science fiction? Ray Kurzweil answers in the negative.
In his writings he imagines a 21st century world in which quantum computers and nanotechnology change mankind’s proscriptions for the mind and the body. Foreseeing an age of neural implants, he predicted that by 2007 “haptic” interface technology would provide the human mind with alternative sources of sensory input, drawn from virtual reality environments. Well, he was a little off–but still maintains that in the near future there will be computer displays built into eyeglasses and digital “objects”, like movies, video games, and music, distributed as data files through the wireless network. The real world will gradually become fused with virtual reality, and human subjectivity will grow increasingly integrated with technology.
Surely, the moviegoer pleads, somewhere in the cinema’s vast annals of science fiction reels there are forewarnings of such a mind boggling transformation. Indeed, there are many (far more than the following list): Blade Runner, 2001, Alphaville, Tron, Johnny Mnemonic, The Fifth Element, Strange Days, Minority Report, A.I, The Matrix, and existenZ all confront aspects of cyborg culture, or the human-computer interface.
eXistenZ approaches near-future speculation from a different avenue: the video game industry. Directed by David Cronenburg, whose scripts often dabble in bio-technology, the film depicts a world in which video game and virtual reality technologies biologically converge. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Allegra, the “game pod goddess”, a VR game designer and guru for the company Antenna. The first scene introduces Allegra’s latest game, eXistenZ, and situates its first test enclave, whom she will provide with 12 prototype meta-flesh game pods. The game pods– through she which she downloads eXistenZ into each player– look like rubber fetuses, fidgeting and whining. They are virtual animals, “grown from fertilized amphibian eggs stuffed with DNA” and charged by the gameplayer’s body.
Before the test enclave can begin its game, an assailant (whom we will later learn is a ‘Realist’) attacks Allegra. She escapes with Ted Pikul (Jude Law), a marketing trainee, who rushes her to a car and out into the countryside. We are to assume this is part of reality. Soon, Allegra convinces Ted , who has never played one of her games before, to be fitted for a bio-port (it takes some work, for Ted has a phobia of being penetrated). Afterward, they lube up one another’s bio-ports, which pucker excitedly, and insert the umbilical cord-like firewire.
Throughout the film, the process of downloading a game takes on an overtly sexual nature, culminating when Ted performs fellatio on Allegra’s bio-port. eXistenZ imagines a game world of polymorphously altered bodies, in which the bio-port has become both an invitation to play out fictional romances, as well as a new organ, subject to arousal and penetration.
By game’s end, the film, having supposedly disengaged from the interwoven game sub-plot, reveals that the entire test enclave scene was not even grounded in reality, but was actually part of the eXistenZ game. And Allegra is not the true game designer. That was her particular game avatar. In whatever ‘game-reality’ of eXistenZ the film started off in, Allegra and Ted work for the Realist cause, seeking to destroy eXistenZ before it bleeds into reality. As the film draws to a close, the final question– ultimately left unanswered– is whether the characters are still playing the game. The characters can no longer decipher what is real and what is game-based.
Cronnenburg’s sub-textual implication is that the film itself evolves into a version of the game, a blueprint for an interactive virtual reality game. Its gamers (film viewers) are left free to draw their own conclusions as to where fiction ends and reality begins. Of course, just as in the game, Cronnenburg provides “just enough [free will] to make it interesting.”