Yeah, that looks comfortable.
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.
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.
It's also hard to explain how special that wait made it all seem. The anticipation was part of the experience.
Kirby predicts VR in 1974
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.
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)
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."
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.
Their deaths are an affront to the imposed order of things, an event that must be avoided at all costs.
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.
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