by Sarah Firisen
Science fiction has always run the gamut from extreme prescience on one end to paranoid fantastical delusions at the other, and everything in between. But it has always done more than merely try to predict future technologies, it has played its part in our imagining of the future. From the imaginations of writers and filmmakers spring fantastical creations that generations of science and tech geeks dedicate themselves to making a reality – there may be no better example of this than the fervor around creating Marty McFly’s hoverboard from Back to the Future. And while there is a very long list of fictional universes that have clearly inspired generations of scientists, maybe none has had quite such a direct and sustained impact as Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash has had on the envisioning, creation and even lexicon of virtual and augmented reality. The impact is so clear that Stephenson was stalked by the founders of the extremely hyped but uber secretive augmented reality firm Magic Leap and was eventually persuaded to join them as their Chief Futurist. Stephenson even coined the terms avatar and metaverse in his rather dark tale of a pretty dystopian early 21st century.
Actual virtual reality technology has been around maybe 20 years or more in one form or another. But it’s really only in the last few years that a perfect storm of cheap and plentiful data storage, extreme advances in computing power, and perhaps most opportunely, the rise in quality and drop in cost of tiny hi-res screens thanks to the proliferation of smartphones, has meant that finally, despite many false starts, we may be on the cusp of realizing a level of virtual and augmented reality that may come close to Stephenson’s vision.
The line between technology evangelist and someone who drones on and on about the fad du jour may be one I have to balance almost daily, but I do find that one of the problems with trying to get work colleagues as excited about these technologies as I am is that they really have to be experienced. As I mentioned in an earlier piece, my first experience of wearing an Oculus Rift and playing a game that involved me increasingly isolated on an asteroid brought on such an extreme manifestation of my real world fear of heights, that I had to take the headset off before the game was done. It was really at that moment that I realized more fully what the potential of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) really could be.
Over the last year of so, I’ve had the opportunity to experience many of the different headsets and technologies that are currently on the market: Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR, Microsoft HoloLens, Google Cardboard and a host of smartphone based AR apps. While the quality of the experience in the higher end options is pretty impressive, playing with a HoloLens really is just super geeky cool, at this point there is very clearly a tradeoff between cost, functionality and portability. Most of the higher end (functionality and price) options involve a clunky headset that is tethered to a processor. The Hololens is an untethered headset, but at this point its at the highest price point of all of them. But watch this video of Microsoft’s experiments with holoportation, the remote projection of real-time, high quality 3D representations of people and things in a way that allows interaction between people not physically located in the same space . There’s no doubt that the video does a good production job of making the holographic avatar seem of a higher quality that it is. And Microsoft doesn’t even try to pretend that the creation of their experience is anything less than clunky at the moment. None of this is even vaguely ready for primetime, yet. But I do have it on good authority that this video wasn’t just total smoke and mirrors, they did manage to create holoportation. I’m not sure when I was last as excited about the potential of a technology as I was watching that video.
There are all sorts of significant technological hurdles to overcome before these headsets are something that can easily be integrated into our everyday lives. If and when Magic Leap finally releases its technology, we’ll see just how much undeserved hype the industry has been playing into for the last year or so. But regardless, all the major players know that the race goes to the company who can make a lightweight, untethered, fully functional wearable and sell it at a reasonable price point. Part of the Magic Leap hype is that it will do away with the need for screens. Computer screens, smartphone screens, all of them. Why do you need a TV? Just have your family put their AR gear on and everyone on your sofa can watch as many screens and shows as they want. In fact, forget watching, you can have an immersive experience of the shows. There are already companies offering live VR experience of concerts and sporting events.
One of the more pressing VR challenges is a shortage of content. And just as in the early days of smartphones, this is about lack of standards, distribution channels and insufficient market to compensate for development costs. But this will change. An android-like platform for VR will inevitably come along. As will an app store. At the moment, the hardware is outpacing the platforms and so outpacing the content, but they will begin to align as the hardware becomes cheaper and the potential market grows.
One of the other challenges I have when talking to colleagues about these technologies is the incorrect perception that this is just about gaming. Like so much about technology, the initial frontiers may be gaming and pornography, but they are the very tip of the iceberg. It’s hard to think of an industry that couldn’t be impacted and potentially disrupted by AR and VR: retail, engineering, healthcare, entertainment, travel, transportation, real estate. Case Western Reserve University has piloted using the HoloLens to transform medical education. The popularity of streaming services and the growth of mobile platforms has caused the entertainment and communications industries to rethink what it means to consume and pay for content. In a world of unlimited virtual screens, will there be yet another paradigm shift in this area? I could really keep going and going with potential use cases.
And these technologies will impact how we interact with each other; there have already been reported cases of VR sexual harassment. Much as we’ve had to do with the growth and pervasiveness of the internet, we’re going to have to rethink and extend our definitions of various crimes and unpleasant human interactions. The concept of cyber-bullying is recognized as a very real, common and destructive activity. How much will we have to extend our understanding of it and response once all of our teens spend a significant amount of their time in virtual or augmented reality?
I met my ex-husband in 1995 when I joined a local NYC Internet Service Provider and we “bumped” into each other using UNIX mail and YTalk. I was a very early adopter of the HTML-based internet browsing. I remember trying to explain how amazing all this technology was to people and the look they all gave me. The idea that you might go on a date with someone you met using a computer and a phone line was insane. Incredulous people would make me repeat our digital cute-meet story over and over. I remember being told by my then employer, a boutique investment bank, to stop playing with the internet because they wouldn’t be interested in it anytime soon!
My point, there is precedent for my pronouncements on the huge future impact of technology to be discounted. There are a lot of significant, likely hugely impactful technologies that are already disrupting business and society today: blockchain, machine learning and artificial intelligence, robotics to name just a few. But I do think that VR and AR will be fundamentally disruptive to our lives as humans in much the same way as the internet has ended up being, maybe even more so.
I think that there will come a time, in the not so distant future, where for someone in the developed world, imagining a life that is only real-world based, that isn’t in someway digitally augmented or that has no virtual experiential components will be as incredible as a disconnected life seems to most of us now. I’m writing this piece using Google Docs, that I will then post on a blog, using links to a variety of sources, video and text-based. At the same time, I’m occasionally, checking my email, Facebook and looking at the headlines on NYTimes.com (I stopped getting an actual paper about 15 years ago). Soon I’m going to make dinner using some online recipes I’ve stored and using food that I ordered online and cooked in pans I bought on Amazon. All these activities are utterly mundane for most of us. There is nothing that I’m doing at the moment that in any way is noteworthy. And my prediction is that in 5-10 years, maybe sooner, much of the technology depicted in Snow Crash will be equally mundane.