Ten insights into today's most impressively, terrifyingly, stupidly cutting-edge virtual reality
Facebook’s recent acquisition of Oculus VR has split tech enthusiasts into two main camps: pro-Facebookers who view a major takeover as good news for VR’s mainstream adoption, and indignant breast-beaters who feel that Facebook is the worst thing to happen to a distinctly personal brand of technology. The latter is exacerbated by the fact that Oculus is one of Kickstarter’s greatest success stories, and its initial backers – regular people who paid out of pocket to make Oculus possible in the first place – won’t receive a cent of Facebook’s US$2 billion bounty. From a financial standpoint, there’s an ongoing debate over whether Oculus even warrants such an astronomical price tag, and how Facebook’s purchase has affected shares in unrelated companies also named “Oculus.” But as every open-source pundit, garage inventor and vaguely principled futurist digs their editorial teeth into Our Zuck Among Equals’ expensive new toy, the real problems here are far more subtle than IP acquisition; Facebook’s purchase shines a light on complex questions of intellectual, financial, and social ethics in an increasingly centralized industry. One big problem is that the Facebook mindset completely misses the basic essence of what Oculus is designed to do as a weird open-source tool. While the former is often used as a social forum and outlet for personal ruminations (and more recently, the insidious specter of targeted advertising), traditional depictions of virtual reality portray a deeply personal, individual experience that casts off real-world anchors.
On one hand, a textbook understanding of virtual reality defines it as a computer-powered, artificial world on which we can project the neurotic fruit of our overwrought imaginations. However, science fiction, which many still view as a thematic dowsing rod for practical technology, portrays VR as a distinctly individual immersive experience that doesn’t jive with Facebook’s passive linkbait lifestyle. Tethering a pioneering piece of work like Oculus to the world’s primary social masturbatorium – one with a long history of elitist indifference to the plight of its willing users – is a death knell for any incarnations of leftfield innovation that the Great Helmeted Hope could give us. Dazed clocks ten trends we’ll see with the rise (or fall) of virtual reality.
Danah Boyd cast some critical illumination on a possible gender bias in virtual reality tech, which indicates that women have a harder time adapting to the technology than men. She first experienced intense nausea in 1997 while testing a 3D immersion tech called CAVE (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment). Prompted by a friend’s tip, Boyd began looking into the higher rate of women getting sick in virtual environments than men. Since then, Boyd discovered that testosterone-like hormones actually improve spatial rotation skills, that “there are more sex hormones on the retina than in anywhere else in the body except for the gonads,” and that there is sexual dimorphism in the way we interpret depth. If virtual reality technology is better suited to men, how will this affect (and most certainly exacerbate) an industry already dominated by male leadership and innovation? More importantly, how will VR developers address this critical flaw, if they even choose to absorb the significance of Boyd’s research? On a rather amusing note, Boyd’s research comes hot off the heels of BeAnotherLab’s sensational gender-swap project, which used Oculus tech to allow men and women to experience each other’s bodies.
The old man in me says that the most immediate practical use for virtual reality is mapping our physical environs in the name of convenience. Cartography and transport logistics are two things that benefit greatly from crowdsourced virtual projections, so it makes sense that there are a ton of hybrid augmented/virtual reality experiments that offer what amounts to a personalized HUD based on real-world features. One of the more beautiful experiments in mapping is Point Cloud City by Patricio Gonzalez Vivo, which uses depth data from Google Street View to create a point-cloud interface of the world around us. There is no real functional point except to invite an otherworldly sci-fi aesthetic into the real world, adding another open-source layer of existence to daily life. For instance, future politics might dictate that in a world with A.I.-controlled buildings and amenities, all code must be transparent and readable in the vein of Point Cloud City, so that every citizen has a responsibility to recognize the technology that governs their day-to-day lives. But for now, what we have is art, and art is, of course, a great petri dish for cosmetic social experiments.
This weird little internet plaything evokes long-dormant feelings for ’80s Max Headroom. It’s a 3D rendition of a face (belonging to one Lukáš Hajka) by AlteredQualia that can be manipulated by your cursor, and like many of these neat experiments, exists both as a fascinating novelty and a conceptual starting point for practical applications of in-browser virtual tech (including but not limited to future methods of crowdsourced science, forensic work, education technology, and so on).
THERE DOESN'T HAVE TO ONLY BE ONE
Thankfully, Oculus isn’t the only rig on the scene – Sony’s Project Morpheus is poised to make waves, along with game-centric rig Omni (which is, coincidentally, kicking ass on Kickstarter. On the non-gaming front, there are also powerful non-commercial rigs being developed in labs, like this (pictured) one at Stanford described by one researcher as “one of the most intense, immersive virtual reality experiences on the planet.” In some ways, Oculus might have preemptively screwed themselves in future gaming endeavors, since Facebook doesn’t have any major game experience and seems to be missing the finer points of a magical escapist helmet; Morpheus and Omni are developing under the watchful eye of gaming industry veterans and have been well-received by the gaming community despite the former’s lack of open-source features. Omni, however, has a real chance to shine as a pioneer in virtual movement and meet the needs of the maker zeitgeist that don’t jive with Facebook’s corporate paradigm.
SEX, LIES & VIDEOFEEDS
One thing we all know is that Facebook totally hates adult sexy stuff. And since there are so many weird, wonderful virtual sex projects that come (sorry) with the open-source culture so beloved among the Oculus community, we’re especially excited to see how Facebook deals with the fact that one big, sexy draw of virtual reality is virtual sex. There are voyeur environments in which you can spy on a girl in the bath, or more ambitious projects like Veiveiv, that basically sound like virtual skinjob prostitution. We’re more in favor of the Veiveiv line of development just because it sounds like a viable precursor to science fiction networks in literature, (see Stanislaw Lem), particularly massive gamified societies (see: Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One) and various types of interactive cinematics (see Gibson, Stephenson, and PKD).
It’s all fun to watch celebrities live forever on Futurama (albeit in glass jars as disembodied heads), and it’s even more fun to watch horribly-murdered celebrities spring back to life as holograms at giant cultural festivals, but thanks to technology, what started as a fad might turn into a legitimate form of preserving cultural capital. TL;DR – it’s FUN to imagine the impossible and defy the cruel gnaw of age. However, what virtual reality tech can do is flatten history altogether and create a completely anachronistic, senseless environment in which several historical eras can exist simultaneously. See, for example, this virtual reality project in which Mickey Hart from the Grateful Dead lent his percussive skill to a new form of technology. In the future, kids could learn to play from virtual representations of their musical heroes, as long as science can create a self-learning system sophisticated enough to replicate the intangible qualities of human musicianship.
Entertainment aside, virtual reality has fascinating potential to finally help us understand the way our brains work. Qualcomm is currently in the middle of building a digital brain that could rival Zuck’s far lesscontroversial investment in Vicarious FPC, a small artificial intelligence firm that wants to build a humanized computer with a fancy humanized brain. There’s also Grok (previously known as Numenta), a new company co-founded by Jeff Hawkins (that’s the father of the PalmPilot to you). Hawkins intends to replicate our neocortex in a specific manner, arguing that "[Neural networks] may be the right thing to do, but it's not the way brains work and it's not the principles of intelligence, and it's not going to lead to a system that can explore the world or systems that can have behavior." Needless to say, we don’t need to explain the significance of being able to virtually explore a fully functional human brain in real time.
ALL THE BETTER TO CROWDSOURCE WITH, MY DEAR
Researchers are developing a new deep learning tech for smartphones to recognize objects in the camera’s field of view. This is probably the closest thing to a research scientist’s wet dream, because the tedium of gathering data can now be even more efficiently outsourced to, say, roving bands of iPhone-wielding teenagers and armchair scientists; mapping our own environment for virtual reality tech (here, synonymous with some kind of self-avowed “greater good”) will reach a point where Jeremy Bentham might have to be resurrected for a good solid last laugh. Furthermore, as the new programming language “R” becomes the top choice for open-source science enthusiasts, a more efficient method of data-harvesting will inevitably lead to new research.
Jaunt is a new startup that wants to use virtual reality tech for a fully immersive cinematic experience. of course, it stands to benefit from all the great stuff happening in game-focused VR, but cinema is arguably an entirely different creature, with different experiential nuances than a gaming experience. Jaunt’s system aims to be compatible with several VR rigs, which is probably best for the future of VR-enhanced cinema, although the bulk of their work has been done with the Oculus. We’re keen on seeing what they’ll be able to do with other rigs, especially ones that maintain a commitment to maintaining an open-source community.
As living off-planet becomes more of a Big Deal, it seems obvious that trips in the vomit comet and acquiring a taste for freeze-dried ice-cream isn’t going to adequately prepare the average human for living on a completely different world. Sure, there are simulation environments and ‘space farming’ communities that work to replicate the conditions of living on Mars, but virtual reality could be a game-changer for the future of space living. Researchers’ latest attempt to test out Martian life takes a psychological bent, as six people in Hawaii live in a 1000 square-foot space dome and practice doing space-stuff in space suits while pretending they’re in space. This will clearly be stressful as hell, probably even more so if virtual reality stepped in so that test subjects could “experience” dynamic, carefully-designed terrestrial emergencies that we couldn’t possibly replicate here on earth. Physics is a bitch. Virtual reality could also offer space tourists a way to “preview” new methods of civilian/commercial space travel, and become a mainstream method of marketing real estate to earthbound investors. Either way, the actual reality of living comfortably on another planet is far beyond our lifetimes, so why not go nuts with it now?