The consumer release of immersive gaming headset the Oculus Rift, expected in 2014, will be the first step on the road to creating true virtual worldsby Juan Mateos-Garcia / December 30, 2013 / Leave a comment
Virtual reality (VR)—defined by the OED as “the computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional image or environment that can be interacted with in a seemingly real or physical way using special electronic equipment”—is a common trope in science fiction, from Neal Stephenson’s Metaverse, where users’ avatars interact with each other in a virtual world, to Star Trek’s Holodeck, a room where people and objects are simulated using holographic images, to The Matrix. VR has long represented a frontier for software engineers and digital entrepreneurs, but their attempts to take us there have been disappointing because of technological limitations.
That could be about to change. Oculus VR, a Californian company founded by 21-year-old “hardware geek” Palmer Luckey, are developing the Oculus Rift, an affordable and powerful VR headset made possible by advances in 3D printing, LCD displays, gyroscopes and accelerometers, and even crowdfunding (Kickstarter users pledged $2.4m to the project in 2012).
Last Spring, Oculus started selling $300 development kits to anyone who wanted to tinker with its 3D technology. Since then, we have seen an explosion of creativity in VR prototypes that allow their users to walk down dreamy Tuscan villas, get into interstellar dog-fights, experience the guillotine first hand, or explore the wonders of the solar system. Oculus announced that the program will also run on Android phones. Microsoft and Sony are rumoured to be developing their own VR headsets.
This combination of bottom-up creativity, hobbyist excitement and corporate interest suggests that 2014 may be the year when virtual reality finally becomes a reality; when we have a technology capable of immersing us in believable, interactive digital worlds. Venture capitalists seem to agree—in December, Oculus announced it had raised another $75m to take its technology to market.
Hurdles do remain—one important problem that developers (and users) are grappling with is a kind of motion sickness. Hardware improvements, new user interfaces and game genres are emerging to overcome this challenge.
Assuming this happens, what are the implications of the arrival of “real VR” heralded by the Oculus Rift? In the short term, it will have a huge impact on the games industry, bringing with it a multitude of creative opportunities. Eagerly awaited video games like Star Citizen and Elite: Dangerous—space trading and combat games that are being developed for PC and Mac—will support it. Leading games companies Valve Software, Epic and Unity are throwing their weight behind it. At the same time, we will see growing concerns about user addiction and alienation “from the real world”: should games developers be allowed to create environments which are so alluring that their users aren’t able to leave them, or so frightening that they traumatise?
But further down the line, the impact of VR will extend far beyond gaming. It will start being integrated with other digital services such as social networking, teleconferencing and digital marketplaces, bringing the technology into the mainstream. Our social network profile will become a virtual place that can be visited by others. We will also see a growing market for 3D artefacts to decorate our virtual abodes and avatars, possibly purchased in virtual stores themselves rendered in 3D.
Does this sound crazy? Consider that the worldwide market for “virtual goods” was already estimated to be worth $14.8bn in 2012. Valve Software’s video game Team Fortress 2 currently supports an economy of users who design—and in some cases make a living from selling—virtual hats for the games’ avatars. Perhaps, as the science fiction writer William Gibson is often quoted as saying, the “future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.”
Many users who start being able to earn a living in virtual worlds by creating and selling such artefacts, and providing other services (architecture, gardening, advertising and event organisation) might decide to migrate there, with substantial impacts in many areas (US economist Edward Castronova examined some of these issues in depth in his book Synthetic Worlds). This may bring a further strengthening of virtual communities connecting global networks of users, perhaps at the expense of geographically bounded communities. Digital currencies used to transact virtual goods will gain importance, and there will be concerns about the economic (and increasingly political) power of those virtual worlds that become most popular.
Politically, we will see users protesting against absolutism by platform owners (read Cory Doctorow’s For the Win for a fictional account of this). There will be institutional innovations to increase the legitimacy of virtual-world policymakers. Some might opt for allowing users to set their own rules (as Minecraft does); others will develop forums to involve them in decision-making, such as the “Council of Stellar Management” in the sci-fi game EVE Online, where users, under their real names, are democratically elected to governing roles.
Like other media that came before it—the printed page, television and social networks—VR will change our perception and understanding of the world in ways that are hard to predict. VR applications could be used therapeutically, for example. There is already an Oculus Rift project under development that, it is argued, can be used to treat strabismus (otherwise known as “squint”) and amblyopia (commonly referred to as “lazy eye”).
It is sobering to think that VR projects with such potentially significant impacts have already started to emerge, less than a year after the first experimental Oculus Rift kits were made available to developers. I dare to predict that we will look back on 2014, from whichever virtual worlds we inhabit in the future, as the year when virtual reality became truly real.