I like to call this the Lawnmower Man effect. Or, the period at which home computers had gotten to a point where science fiction writers (especially for movies) could begin imagining a world where the immersion of intellect into a virtual world was possible. No. This is not the singularity. That idea has been around a lot longer (see Asimov’s The Last Question) with people believing that at some point in the technological future we, humanity, will become one with computers. A form of self-directed evolution, if you won’t.
Instead of the singularity, VR is more along the lines of the reality behind The Matrix. You know, other than Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, the only good movie Keanu Reaves ever did. And yes, I count A Walk in the Clouds among his less-than-stellar work (and I enjoyed A Walk in the Clouds).
Within the construct that is The Matrix, humanity has effectively lost (and re-lost) a war against technology. In this context, technology is computers, hardware, programs, and etc. While a single individual is flawed and will create flawed programs, the more people and more eyes on a project means fewer flaws. Individually we can only produce flawed results; collectively we will produce superior and perfect or near perfect results.
Remember, more eyes means better and more perfect results.
In academia, what we are now seeing is that a single author on an article or book is less likely to be successful than a group of authors who are sharing credit. The outcome is markedly improved literature in academia. The same is true in software, which is why (outside of styling) a lot of open source software is built around this principle. The software is also amazingly secure and robust and bug and virus free because many eyes are looking at it.
Unlike the Terminator movies (and here I have to stop at Terminator 2 or T2, which is when I stopped watching them) one man cannot and will not create the entire mechanism that is responsible for Skynet. It isn’t and won’t happen. That would be like saying that Mark Zuckerberg is solely responsible for Facebook or Steve Jobs is solely responsible for Apple, the Mac, OS X, the iPhone, iPad, or iTunes, or that Bill Gates is solely responsible for any iteration of Microsoft or any of its software. None of that is true. All of these things require teams, and lots of them, to create a useable product.
It is closer to true to state that Larry Page and Sergey Brin are solely responsible for Google, but only if you qualify that as the first iteration of Google. After the first, academic iteration Larry and Sergey had a lot of help. Today, the totality of help they employ is far more than their ability to keep much of it in check and requires a data center the size of a Google datacenter to keep straight.
Success, ideas, programs, even the eventual singularity cannot and does not exist in absentia of assistance and help. And neither does the eventual development and growth of virtual reality.
What this begs is an idea of what Virtual Reality is. While The Matrix or Lawnmower Man are good examples of the concept idealized via Hollywood (one early CGI, the other early modern to modern CGI), the reality is probably more along the lines of how Christopher Nolan chose to portray the dream world in Inception. More accurately, how Nolan chose to incorporate many people into a single dream and to have the individuals both create and influence the way a dream went.
Much of VR will be our minds filling in the vast blanks that exist between what is actually in front of us and what we perceive to be in front of us. If you remember the older monitors, before high density pixels and HD-LCD, you will remember that you could easily and quickly see individual pixels on your screen. Why? Because it required a lot of effort and advances in technology to improve the pixel density in a monitor. CRT or cathode ray tube, was designed for a low density, fast changing picture that wasn’t meant to be closely scrutinized. While the technology did advance over time, the reality of poor pixelization didn’t matter as a 480 screen (about the max of a CRT) was good enough.
However, add in millions of colors and the need for pixels to be thousandths of an inch small and you’ve got a problem. The very nature of the ray in CRT had to be more precise and more accurate and, in some cases, had to not only project left to right, it also had to project top to bottom. Interlacing is amazing. This is also why, when you had experience with the older monitors, burn in was such a big deal and why screen savers (almost totally unnecessary today except where Plasma is still in use) were such a big deal. In order to save your screen and not have your desktop indelibly frozen in time, you wanted the ray to keep writing. Either that or turn off the monitor.
Turning off was too hard. Trust me. It was. And this was before smart VGA technology where the computer actually sensed the CRT was off and stopped sending signals. Try it on your HD LCD with a VGA input. See what happens when you unplug the cable.
If VR is about tricking our minds, then Ford’s virtual driving simulator (Virttex) says something about the ease AND complexity of tricking the mind. Want to experience driving a Ford F650 as an anemic 5’ blonde woman? Ford can make that happen. Why? Because in order to build cars that are suitable for a wide range of heights and physical sizes Ford has to do a lot of market research. That research ends up somewhere. That somewhere is (dun-dun-dun-da) computers and databases. How best to use that data? Building cars and fashioning VR or Virttex simulations around the data.
What we also know from other research is that it’s easy to trick the mind into thinking something else is going on. For example, VR can be used to allow men and women to virtually switch bodies. What happens when they do? Well, men start acting like women. Slap a pair of boobs, lower orientation and view and a man’s mind will trick him into acting like a woman. The inverse is true as well, though I’d be a little disturbed to find out they’d virtually placed a package between our VR girl’s legs. \
The degree to which this is effective extends out to how much additional stimulation is needed to convince someone they really are in an alternate or virtual world. In Lawnmower Man they used a full body suit. Nope. In the Matrix, the inserted a long probe into the back of Neo’s head. Nope. In real life it requires a couple of sensory feedback strips, maybe a pair of gloves, and goggles. In truth, you don’t even need full axis of movement to make this work.
Nolan got VR right in Inception not because he was trying to, but because he wasn’t trying. Instead, he was imagining a scenario in which dreams are accessible, understandable, and can be manipulated. Under that premise, having an architect of a dream is like having an architect of the end user experience on a computer game or website or at Apple. There are a lot of details that have to be taken into account. When they are, the dream world becomes immersive. What this doesn’t mean is that all aspects of that world have to be taken into account.
In Nolan’s vision, NPC or non-player characters (in gaming parlance) are created out of the dreamers mind. While not a perfect comparison, you can have NPC’s exist both as generic structures of the software as well as artificial constructs of social media, relationships, inputs of the user, and more. NPC’s, though, are not essential to the overall experience other than they exist. And they only have to be passable.
Next is the structure of the environment. This is where commonalities come into play. While you may be familiar with a lot of the world around you, chances are you are not familiar with everything. A red brick is a red brick is a red brick. The same red brick can be used hundreds or thousands of times. Like a good Photoshop artist, you don’t recreate each article you’re using, you repurpose and then only insofar as it’s necessary to reproduce the desired experience.
You also don’t need to create every aspect of every building. Most can be generic constructs offering little to nothing. Go into enough apartment complexes and buildings, enough banks and chain restaurants and stores and you’re going to find that similarities between these things aren’t coincidental, they are functional.
Finally, understanding that the illusion is what you’re trying to accomplish it becomes almost completely unnecessary to worry about rejection of that illusion primarily because the VR user wants the illusion to take place. I sign up to experience life as a woman via VR and guess what, I’ve predetermined my emotional and intellectual relationship with the material. I want the experience therefore, outside of a massive software or hardware malfunction, I’m going to experience what I expect to experience.
Which is where Nolan got it right for the subjects. It doesn’t matter whether or not the movie was contrived, it was. Nor does it matter whether or not accessing memories or even implanting memories is possible or plausible, yes and yes; though the process is no. Rather, it matters that the individual is willing to accept what is presented and not reject it. For dramatic and story purposes, Nolan added a condition where the subjects mind naturally rejects the foreign intellects.
Next consider Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG). As a teenager watching those shows for the first time, Wesley was my hero, the addition of a holodeck was an amazing and insightful addition to deep space travel. Why? Because confined spaceships are boring as a Zen mountaintop experience. Confined spaces, whether Manhattan, Alcatraz, or my mothers basement are confined spaces and people want freedom. The holodeck allowed freedom, though – in truth, it allowed for more creative storytelling and the ability to believably (where the audience accepts a holodeck) set the crew in any time and under any condition they want. A trope used later in the series’ run.
What TNG did right was the holodeck and the assumption that if you cannot see it, it don’t need to exist. What they got wrong was the need to make haptic feedback a reality in terms of holodeck experience as that form of feedback is only necessary insofar as you are actually interacting with something. By the way, this form of VR is the holy grail of research for a whole bunch of scientists with advancements in the area of tricking the mind into both seeing and feeling something not there makes it into big scientific news.
The feedback only has to exist if it is needed, which means the computers and servers, the realm of the holodeck that is being rendered has to both be smart enough to sense when someone is going to touch to offer feedback and ready to stop the feedback the moment the need is gone. Maybe someone thought this far into a holodeck or into VR and it never really made it into the show. What did make it into the show was the ability for individuals to be the architects of their own worlds. This, in turn, allowed Wharf to have a place he could battle. Data could explore human emotion. Pickard could experience life in a more genteel era. And so on.
What was not necessary, and here we can look at a more modern and interesting VR experience called Second Life. At one point, this was the future of the internet. People would want to create virtual worlds and live in them. Businesses dumped tons of money into owning virtual real estate and establishing stores and presences so the (expected) millions and billions of people had a place to go for, say, AT&T or Apple or Microsoft or HP support.
The idea behind Second Life is that you create an account, build an avatar (you can be nearly anything you want) and then begin living life. Exploring. Flying. Building. Whatever you can think of. What you don’t need to know or have a handle on, outside of the tools provided, is how all of the generic and interchangeable pieces of buildings, character design, and so on are required. All you have to do is put the pieces together. Minecraft is a great example of world building (though in 8-bit) where putting simple squares together can create massive and immersive experiences.
Second Life is a form of VR without the immersion. Now, imagine a better avatar experience, more real, more malleable and you begin to form the basis of what Facebook is planning with the overpriced purchase of Occulus Rift (which, by the way, isn’t the VR technology of the future). When you can enter the VR dream, have forms of haptic feedback, and finally see the world someone wants you to see, regardless of completeness, you are now fully immersed in that world.
Where it needs to go, though, is into the wireless world. There needs to be a way for the VR experience to sense your hands without being wired. To sense what you are feeling and doing without being connected directly to a box and a bunch of sensors. The technology is getting there and with the right direction and vision it will get there soon. Facebook, though, isn’t the right vision nor is it the right company.
Finally, VR is coming and it is an important technological step in the right direction. We will be able to share the virtual dream, though we won’t have to share it in a room or chamber wearing body suits. We will need to become architects or willing to accept what others create and we will need to begin looking for ways to make it immersive and environmentally (intellectually) worthwhile, but that is truisms for another day. Because, and this is an economic and technological truism most people hate to see, VR will come via the porn industry sooner than it will come through social media. Though, and this is an interesting and final aside, a Korean game company is coming out with a very beautiful and very immersive character generation system in an MMO called Black Desert. In truth, I couldn’t care less about the game, while the character creation software would be a dream to run.
Until next week, ciao.