From Rectangles to Reality: A Primer on Virtual Reality
Just as the fish donned skin to walk the earth, and man donned a space suit to walk in space, we’ll now don cyber suits to walk in Cyberia. In ten years most of our daily operations, occupational, education, and recreational, will transpire in Cyberia. Each of us will be linked in thrilling cyber exchanges with man others whom we may never meet in person. Face-to-face interactions will be reserved for special, intimate, precious, sacramentalized events.
This is a quote from Douglas Rushkoff taken from his book ‘Cyberia: Life in the Trenches of Hyperspace’ that was published in 1993. It was the first time I realized the life online, and plugged-in, could eventually be very different from the Internet at the time. We are now at an inflection point when many of the things Rushkoff discussed – the use of psychedelics in hard problem solving, user-friendly interfaces and virtual reality (VR), ‘The Global electronic Village’, and chaos theory have become real.
The trouble is that now we have lost our way from the early days of thinking like pioneers developing experiences and are now wallowing in a very average reality. Neatly-designed websites, single use apps, ‘content is king’ and the redefinition of connection and intimacy through social networks has left us as a society that is a little solipsistic and barren. Brands fight for attention harder than friends do these days and digital strategies are lazy, bloated and still rely on poor performing online ad units that we are told are ‘performing well’. We have become mundane, lazy and predictable.
In 2015, we have a real opportunity to switch things up and to get away from mediocrity. I feel that we’ve had to spend a long time convincing ourselves that this could work with our current reality. The developed world’s population is mostly tech-savvy and connected now with terminology and adept usage of devices commonplace in culture. 10 years ago people struggled to know what to do when then happened across a touch screen or web browser. Now it’s just like breathing air.
The future of our Internet-enables interaction in the world lies not with these rectangles on our desks and in our pockets but in the wide blue yonder where VR sets us free.
The Pioneers of Virtual Reality
From the early musings of Antonin Artaud – The Theatre and Its Double (1938) – to Damien Broderick – The Judas Mandala (1982) – to Howard Rheingold – Virtual Reality (1991) – and movies like Brainstorm and The Lawnmower Man we have seen some interesting views of what VR could, and can, be. It’s born in an imagination that is trying to escape the boundaries of reality.
The thoughts of sci-fi writers, scientists and dreamers have signposted the way to get VR to be a reality in the modern world. I think the spark of what modern VR can be comes from Jaron Lanier:
If there’s any object in human experience that’s a precedent for what a computer should be like, it’s a musical instrument: a device where you can explore a huge range of possibilities through an interface that connects your mind and your body, allowing you to be emotionally authentic and expressive.
What’s really interesting is that Lanier is still thinking that reality and VR will still feel like very different experiences and that ‘real’ reality is still very essential. In this interview from 1988, published in the Whole Earth Review we find Lanier mulling over both modalities – “physical reality is tragic in that it’s mandatory”.
We are starting to go behind that…
The New Pioneers of Virtual Reality
Google Glass made a pretty bold move into the consumer product world with its ‘Explorer’ program. It was/is more of an augmented reality (AR) play however it helped us understand the challenges that users, and the people around them, will face in the real world. Alongside this, LAYAR and other commercial AR apps have also been seeping into culture via augmented print and digital experiences as well. It’s a hot area for publishing right now
Facebook got into the game with the acquisition of Oculus Rift, the VR darlings of Kickstarter. The people believed in VR, as did the Oculus CEO Palmer Luckey, and the product is impressive. I’d actually now say that this feels entry level and immersive and platforms like Google Cardboard have democratized access to VR stereogram experiences over the past 18 months or so. Now things have to go beyond just VR in our eyes and into a touchable world.
2 platforms that are rising are Microsoft’s Hololens and Meta’s Spaceglasses. They are also the next step in the AR/VR journey and allow us to have interactive fields of vision. The truth of the matter is that there is still a long way to go for both of these platforms beyond the promise of their polished promo videos.
Then we have the Magic Leap. Super secret VR technology startup out of Dania, Florida that is working on a headset and belt mounted processing unit that will change everything. It’ll be Virtual Reality in the real world via Augmented Reality (AR) mixed to create a continual electronic psychedelic. There is little fanfare and marketing fodder. Some cryptic images have been released that kind of make no sense however the ideas presented in its 180-page patent application alone is blowing minds. Then we also saw this sneaked out image of a shark floating above a desk in hi-res from their HQ:
All of this, along with $595 million to-date, and even hiring Neal Stephenson, author of ‘Snow Crash’ where he defined the ‘Metaverse’ – where humans, as avatars, interact with each other and software agents, in a three-dimensional space that uses the metaphor of the real world. He will be ‘Chief Futurist’ and will help work out what the hell we are going to do with this technology when it arrives.
The Exploitation of Virtual Reality
Any new tech becomes the prevue of the ad agencies. Already we are seeing a deluge of articles on VR experiences and AR this-and-that. I used to work in this world. I left because the clients couldn’t think outside of rectangles and social graphs. They are caught in a paid media cycle. I pushed LAYAR onto print ads and 3D printers into retail stores in my last ad job but there was no scope for escaping pithy websites, average apps that no-one used (or wanted) or rectangles.
This is the world Keiishi Matsuda (and I do for that fact) thinks will be created by an over-zealous entry into VR and AR by ad agencies:
…and that is a very sad place to get to. Where the majority of agencies will get it wrong is that they will not hire the real dreamers and challengers to current approaches. Expect ad agencies to have a rough ride over the next few years with digital and design agencies that have invested time and money to understand where we are to reap the rewards.
The New Rules of Virtual Reality
We’re lucky, up here in the Pacific North West, to have some real thought leaders in this space. Down in Bellevue, WA, we have Microsoft and they have made huge waves with the release of their Hololens, we have some incredible Denny Unger’s Cloudhead Games on Vancouver Island, and a brand new agency in Vancouver, BC, called HUMAN. The things I have seen in the the past few months has completely redefined how I see the world and where we are heading. We’ve even had agencies like DARE take the first steps of taking brands, and their advocates into the VR world – albeit in a simplistic way in VR terms.
I think that Ryan Betts, one of the founders of HUMAN, summarized the step change in how we need to see digital experience going forward on Twitter on January, 8th this year:
“Above the Fold” is now “Before the Horizon”
“Scrolling” is now “Strolling”
“Resolution” is now “Rate”
“Styrofoam” is now “Cloud computing”
The eye, the body, the environment, and even the cloud can be seen as the interface. I’d actually go as far as to say that ‘interface’ no longer adequately describes it. It’s the realization of the ‘Metaverse’. If anyone is likely to take advantage and ‘get it’ quickly then it will be engineers, experience designers, architects, 3D modellers, and the VFX and games industries. They will also need to work out how to build in these worlds as well as being real artists and user experience people.
The End Game?
There is no end, VR will be everywhere and the met averse will keep growing. Even beyond the physical boundaries that we see today. The headset and glasses will become standard, just as smartphones and bluetooth earphones. We won’t even have smartphones, as they currently operate, any more. The ‘little rectangles’ will not be good enough for VR and will become processing for our experiences vs. being the experiences. Web developers won’t develop in a frame and they will need to become more akin to experience ‘builders’ and, as users and participants, we will help them build everything as well. The Internet of Things will create a global infrastructure and will provide cues for experiences to kick in and ‘opting in’ will be about walking towards certain experiences/objects and ‘opting out’ will be about running away from them.
Once we start dropping into VR more and more then we will likely need to be trained to decompress from the experiences themselves. When you go into a hi-res VR experience then the boundaries between reality and VR become blurred.
I also talked to Kharis O’Connell, CEO of HUMAN, when researching this articleto get his thoughts on this:
It’s not going to be long until *artificial reality* becomes our *everyday reality*. And when that happens, it’s unknown what toll may be levelled on the human psyche
If you think about it, a traumatic experience in VR, maybe through gaming, could result in PTSD for the traveler and an app that acts as a virtual therapist could administer EMDR to counteract that. People are already working on this:
Well, it’s unlikely (for now) that we’ll jack in and completely disappear from real life but maybe there is something in a reality where we our thoughts, actions, virtual ghosts and physiological markers get uploaded (in some form) and are accessible by ourselves and to our ancestors down in years to come. Imagine hanging out with the best versions of your grandparents or your favourite aunt. It’ll be the modern version of saving those voicemails, or Skype screenshots, from your deceased relatives.
The one thing that is for sure is that the world is about to get very interesting and very strange.
End note: The Verge published an essential post about VR, called ‘The Fall and Rise of Virtual Reality’ which will act as a great reference point after reading this article.
Nikolas Badminton is a world-respected futurist speaker that researches, speaks, and writes about the future of work, how technology is affecting the workplace, how workers are adapting, the sharing economy, and how the world is evolving. He appears at conferences in Canada, USA, UK, and Europe. Email him to book him for your radio, TV show, or conference.