Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Virtual Reality: The Scam that Keeps Scamming

Yeah, that looks comfortable.

Note: Oculus Rift is having a press conference today 6/11 @ 1 PM EST. (see update)

We're living in a strange moment, one which we haven't quite come to acknowledge. It's a moment when the utopian IOUs the technocrats have been writing are being called in. "Just around the corner" isn't good enough anymore. Lazy recitations of Moore's Law aren't going to cut it.

We're not quite looking at a backlash yet but the preconditions for one are beginning to congeal. People my age have been fed technohype for most of our lives, yet nothing has really been improved. You can make a compelling argument that technology has been a net negative for many millions of people when you look at its impact on income and job security. The furniture has been rearranged, at best.

This DARPA robot challenge is especially revealing, since we're fed such breathless nonsense about the imminent "robot revolution." But the fact is that autonomous robots require terabytes of code to perform the simplest tasks, and even then the fractal nature of mundane daily life --say, a rock is in its path-- confounds their programming. 

Certainly the kind of remote control robotics you see on assembly lines have come a long way, but that's simply a honing process, an incremental upgrading of technology that's been with us for a very long time.

The entertainment industry is struggling against technology's headwinds, seeing as how consumers now expect everything they want to be available around the clock and extremely cheap, if not actually free. It's hard to explain to young people how strange and new this is, how you wait for months to watch The Wizard of Oz or Planet of the Apes the one time a year they were shown on broadcast television. 

It's also hard to explain how special that wait made it all seem. The anticipation was part of the experience.

And now the convenience of streaming services like Netflix makes broadcast television look more and more like a dinosaur, playing to audiences a fraction the size it commanded just a decade before.

Which brings us to Jurassic World, an example of the tentpole CGI blockbuster that Hollywood relies on to keep the multiplexes open. Advance buzz is mixed and that's a dangerous situation for a movie whose production and advertising budgets run in the hundreds of millions of dollars. CGI has come a long way but it still has a feeling of unreality to it, which is why most of the big budget movies you see today make no pretensions to reality.

Jurassic World is also nostalgia trip, a return to the 90s when we still believed in Techno-Utopia. We're seeing a lot of that lately. Hillary Clinton is trying to capitalize on memories of those good times, but without much pep.  There's a new documentary of Kurt Cobain and of course The X-Files revival started shooting this week, yet another attempt to recapture that 90s magic.

Kirby predicts VR in 1974

And now we're seeing Virtual Reality dragged out of the 90s storage unit. But is there a need for it? Or is this a response to the economics of entertainment technology, the need to create a new platform that can offer content at a premium by virtue of the medium itself?  

The assumption behind VR has always been based in a linear understanding of technology, which is to say that more is more. A more complex, more immersive, more invasive experience is inevitably going to be preferable to a simpler delivery of content. But the persistence of printed books, the vinyl revival and the retrogaming movement- three very important trends in youth culture at this moment- are all telling the culture creators they think less is more.

Earlier experiments with VR have been problematic, with viewers complaining about the discomfort of the gear and side effects such as nausea and vertigo. The Oculus Rift rollout keeps getting pushed back (first to 2015, then 2016, now to 2017, a eternity for its young audience) and we're hearing a lot of "just around the corner" talk with the other VR projects. 

I'm getting the feeling that this technology is nowhere near consumer-readiness and that the 2017 rollout date is a pure Hail Mary. (see update)

We are seeing 360ยบ cameras being developed to create virtual environments. But there's a faint medicinal odor to all of this, similar to what we saw with IMAX before they finally started using it for feature films. I'm not sure how indispensible IMAX has made itself to Hollywood, if the costs and logistical problems of creating content for the format are justified by the higher ticket prices.

VR will be even more problematic. A format is only as good as the content it carries and no one can argue that there's not a content crisis in the entertainment industry. There's plenty of content, the question is how much of it is any good. Most films and TV shows fail and the industry is kept afloat by a small slate of blockbusters.

Blockbuster movies are one thing but the intimate nature of VR is going to be quite another- who are you going to want to let inside your head? We have quasi-virtual environments in some games, but there's a layer of distance and the player controls the action. What about the somewhat more passive nature of VR? You'd be a fool not to wonder at the potential for abuse here. VR pioneer Jaron Lanier: 
"A few researchers started to do experiments that I would have been terrified to do myself. I’m thinking of a person who has been a research partner, a collaborator for many years — Jeremy Bailenson at Stanford. He started to just sort of see how he could screw with people in VR. I was always like, "Can we give them better math abilities by changing how their bodies work?" — that was the kind of thing I was interested in. 
"[Bailenson] was like, "Hey, I want to see if I can screw with their self-esteem by making them gradually shorter during an interaction, or turn gradually more black during an interaction." And he can. This notion that you could see VR as a way to screw with people without their awareness, crossed with our current business model where everything is about advertising and manipulation and spying — we [will] have a surveillance economy in the online world. It’s been very painful to see that potential unfolding."
Chilling. But more likely the material is likely to be bland, travelogue snoozers and inoffensive pabulum meant to reach the widest possible audience. VR is a platform without a constituency, other than moguls gambling on it and the techies developing it. 

No one is out there screaming for virtual reality, aside from a few hardcore gamers. Actually, I don't see much interest in the technology one way or the other out there. There's talk about games being developed for VR platforms but it's all moot until the platforms are actually on the streets. Which is still "just around the corner."

At best the new platforms could be a promising gateway to future developments. At worst it might be the entertainment equivalent of a CPAP unit. 

Consumers are usually excited by content not technology. My suspicion that non-gaming VR content won't exactly be electrifying given the enormous cost of production is somewhat verified by this New York Times article, "Virtual Reality Fails its Way to Success" (even its boosters can't avoid VR's unimpressive track record):
Marketers, educators, scientists and, of course, gamers are already imagining an internal ecosystem for virtual reality. Armchair travel. Risk-free sky diving and ziplining. Gender-bending with virtual bodies. Classrooms of avatars convened with people all over the world. Surgical demos. Virtual hikes in the Andes and sprints on Fiji beaches. But whatever its “use” might be, V.R. is not fundamentally a pragmatic technology, which is why it begins with gamers. If it works, if it catches on, it must first give pleasure — and be fun. 
It’s curious that James Cameron himself, a director known for his embrace of technology in the name of cinematic spectacles, recently dismissed Oculus as “a yawn.” 
It's a strange situation where the producers and consumers are now moving in opposite directions. Programmers and engineers are thrilled by their accomplishments but consumers only want an experience. An old time roller coaster or a book picked up at a free table at the library can provide that? Fine. With the economic race to the bottom we're all subjected to, gee-whiz technology isn't going to be enough.  

But given the top-down nature of this movement, is there another agenda at play? The VR sequences in William Gibson's Sprawl novels were usually the least memorable, but there was one interesting storyline in Count Zero, where a terminally ill mogul was kept alive in a virtual environment while his physical body mouldered in a vat in some industrial park. He was able to continue his machinations in an idealized Madrid park into which his underlings entered via VR.

There's a new religion at work among the new cognoscenti, and its demon is an overwhelming fear of death. This new elite buy into the most reductionist, most mechanistic interpretation of Darwinist fundamentalism imaginable, and see their position of masters of the universe as a cosmic quirk, a random accident that arose in a dead, mechanistic cosmos on a world overfilled with  semi-sentient meat robots. 

Their deaths are an affront to the imposed order of things, an event that must be avoided at all costs. 

Most of them are still relatively young, but you wonder how heavy the shadow of the Grim Reaper looms over their heads, how much of a race they are in to extend their lives by any means necessary, either medically (the current favorite) or via upload (the more controversial choice, but still in the running).

I wonder if Steve Jobs, an experienced psychonaut, took a more holistic view as he faced his own mortality. Today, doctors are petitioning to have terminal patients treated with entheogens, given their power to ease the anxiety of death by opening the patient's consciousness to the greater universal consciousness we are all a part of. 

I remember seeing Timothy Leary a couple times when he was campaigning for virtual reality and I remember losing a great deal of respect for him when he put on a pair of goggles and blurted out "oh yeah, I've been here before" as some rudimentary computer graphics were simulcast on a projection screen. He knew better. 

I wonder how much of our collective neurosis would be ameliorated if more people came to realize that reality itself is a virtual simulation, a kind of hologram atop a much deeper reality we utilize just to keep our biological imperatives satisfied. We have the technology to break through the illusion, we've had it for a very long time. What worries me is how we seem to be moving now in the opposite direction.

UPDATE: Oculus is now shooting for "Q1 2016" for delivery. We'll see how that goes. I've been monitoring the r/oculus subreddit and I'm not blown away by the traffic. Whether that's a reflection on OP or Reddit is an open question.

Same old FPS on a headset instead of a screen...

UPDATE: Look for the Oculus backlash to start today (in some cases it already has- scroll through some of the comments on the Oculus subreddit). A few geewhiz moments but a lot of the same-old/same-old (third person games for VR? WTF?) and a lot of telling instead of showing. I'm still getting the very strong feeling this stuff is still not market ready based on the nervous dispositions of a lot of the presenters and what we're seeing for the most part is standard issue video gaming projected onto a headset instead of a screen. 

The problem with VR is the amount of imagery you need to create and there's still no getting around that. Technology has expedited the process but we're still nowhere near the kind of holography you see in sci-fi VR.

UPDATE: Oculus skepticism from IGN commenters, especially given the rumored $1500 price point. Comparisons to 3DTV are rife...

UPDATE: "Meh" is the word of the day. Kotaku commenters.

UPDATE: As of 1735 EST Friday, nothing about Oculus Rift on Kotaku. No mention of it on io9 either. That press conference is not generating any perceivable buzz.