Why Virtual Reality Is Probably Not Ever Actually Going To Happen

If you were around in the 1980s and early 1990s, you might remember that people used to think ‘virtual reality’ was a really big deal, or was going to become a big deal in the future. This was represented via a lot of 3D shit, overuse of computer-generated imagery [rad ‘3D’ skateboarding animation characters, overuse of internet terms like ‘byte’ and dudes with ‘flat top’ hair styles] and those portrait backgrounds you could request on middle school portrait day that were, like, some kind of sparkling neon grid. In worst-case scenarios the grids formed some kind of ‘vortex’ behind the head of the obliquely-smiling child sitting for the portrait. Who would choose portraiture of their child that caused the child to appear as if the child were being sucked into a vortex, I just don’t know.

Even prior to the 1980s, and prior to the point wherein every single crime show began to incorporate a shitty token ‘this criminal was addicted to an online game’ episode, or a ‘this criminal played a violent video game and then killed people in the real world’ episode, or a ‘this criminal used behavior within a virtual computer world to simulate and/or warn of his real crimes something something hackers etc’, modern societies have been fascinated with the idea of ‘virtual reality’, even if that means ‘you sit in a dark room wearing giant sunglasses and then stuff materializes and you think it’s real’ [see also Star Trek holodeck, laser tag, Blade Runner, William Gibson, every derivative sci-fi book ever, probably Kurt Vonnegut because somebody always brings up Kurt Vonnegut and makes you listen to their screed about him].

Anyway, the ‘VR’ fantasy has persisted ever since it became possible to conceive of ‘man’s relationship with technology’ as a ‘thing that will never go away’. The idea that people will someday be able to completely escape into some simulated universe is enormously seductive for two reasons: one, because it just seems fun, like dreaming while awake, promising a lifelike multidimensional ‘universe’ that is like this one but better and where consequences don’t exist.

The second and more salient reason that the idea of ‘virtual reality’ has always appealed to people is because it seems so logical. The escapist nature of the human nature is well understood, and no matter what degree of technology man has had available to him thus far, he has always been able to create some kind of theory of the fake-real therewith, some kind of ‘alternate reality’, even if that is a network of rooms described in blinky green text or a crude robot toy that plays cassette tapes.

The kind of mind that likes to dream about how ‘science’ will advance needs only the skeleton-frame of the plausible to create a vision of the future. Because people have always wanted a ‘flying car’ someone will one day make one just because, and will show it off while smiling on the morning news and people will watch it and go ‘oh, the future is almost here.’ But the idea that that one flying car will immediately portend the mass production of a fleet of flying cars of varying models disregards the fact that the world is sewn crucially together via a network of roads made for not-flying cars, that there is a massive and complex transportation industry globally that has been built over a century for numerous machines excluding cars flying or otherwise, that it would be extremely difficult to adapt the existing system legally, economically, structurally and socially to accommodate flying cars when the extant infrastructure is so strongly at odds with them.

Similarly, numerous ideas about ‘virtual reality’ – specifically, the concept where an individual interacts in a 3D environment through an ‘avatar’ that represents themselves – neglect basic principles of efficiency as well as of demand. Time and time again consumers of interactive entertainment have demonstrated they don’t want to simulate life; if something can be done ‘IRL’ an individual will generally realize that the most direct way of doing it is the most preferable and they will turn off the machine and just go do it.

In other words, sci-fi dudes who are really into the ‘future possibility space’ envisioned a world where everyone has an alternate self existing in a virtual environment, they can log into the virtual environment and navigate the alternate self over to a virtual clothing store and buy some virtual clothing and not only will their avatar get a new virtual outfit but the tangible physical clothing item will be delivered via normal shipping routes to the tangible physical individual’s real-world home.

However, the manifestation of ‘virtual shopping’ is that someone just goes to Amazon and clicks like 2 buttons and purchases what they want to have delivered to their home. The act of logging into a virtual environment, electing to ‘inhabit’ a digital avatar, navigating a lifelike ‘virtual space’ and shopping at a ‘virtual store’ is an excessive protraction that, once its novelty wears off, merely inhibits the basic task the individual wants to perform. Human beings gravitate toward the most abstracted interfaces possible. No one will want to simulate gesture and movement when one button-touch suffices.

This is also why ‘mobile social games’ and things like that don’t work. Things like FourSquare that are designed to make people ‘be more social’ are inefficient – you could ‘check in’ someplace and then check your Twitter to see who else has checked in there and wait for your friends to reply via social networking. Or you could just, like. Text them.

Or better yet, you could actually go to the place with your friend in person and not need to ‘social network’ in any way. The most ‘social’ thing to do is the simplest and most direct, with the ‘interface’ as minimal as is reasonable, and absent whenever possible.

Of course, the explosion of ‘motion control interfaces’ onto the video game scene strongly challenges the notion that an abstracted interface is preferable to a literal or simulated one. On the back of its ‘Wii Remote’, Nintendo’s Wii has sold more units than pretty much any console ever. Newly-launched interfaces for the Xbox 360 [gesture-based, controller-less, with body-tracking] and for the PlayStation 3 [a motion wand like the Wii’s except more precise and with a ‘depth’ axis] are also showing strong ‘momentum’ among those consumers who enjoy dance, exercise, sport and other so-called ‘casual’ and/or mass-market titles.

As the act of ‘swinging an object to simulate a tennis racket’ or ‘punching the air literally so that a game character will punch some nonthreatening boxing opponent on the screen’ or stuff like that is quite literal and not in any way abstract, the popularity of these new devices doesn’t make initial sense in the context of this argument, until you look at the ‘big picture’ and notice that these industry trends represent only like a minor portion of the video game industry’s revenues, the vast majority of which come from traditional games and other extremely accessible, single-touch titles [e.g. ‘Angry Birds’ etc].

Also probably most people bought a Wii because they thought it was an exercise machine and they played Super Mario Galaxy a lot and now they no longer use it/have possibly sold it to someone, based on things people tell me when they realize my job is to write about video games and they don’t know what else to say.

While the novelty of literal and simulation technology excites people initially, developments on this ‘scene’ are destined to be relegated to fad status and people will assign permanence to stuff that actually makes sense to use regularly and efficiently in daily life.

The only things people want to ‘simulate’ are things they have a fixation on enjoying that are impossible or unacceptable in real life, which is why Second Life remains a thriving home for ‘furries’ ‘babyfurs’ stuff like that… I guess it makes sense, because when most science fiction fans really think about ‘what would I do with a holodeck’ they think of like… ‘sex with like Deanna Troi or something’. God, bringing sexuality into the world of science fiction is always so weird. But you might be able to do that in virtual reality someday, someone will probably make that I bet. TC mark

image – Wikimedia


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  • itstrue

    You bet? You KNOW.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1473030364 facebook-1473030364

    I think “Caprica” had VR right. If you could escape to a VR world in which drugs & violence & ridiculous sex didn't come with consequences, wouldn't you? There wouldn't be any need for designed pornographic VR… if it were sufficiently 'real' in sensory respects, people would gravitate toward it to guiltlessly enjoy their less responsible urges.

  • http://twitter.com/CBuoninc Chris Buonincontri

    This article is well put, and makes sense according to one string of logic… however, it adheres to only that one string of logic and ignores other information out there which may be even more relevant to the argument. For instance, the rate at which burgeoning virtual reality mentions and platforms have come to inhabit not only the comp nerd blogosphere, but pop culture as a whole. The Matrix, for example. And the roots that form the philosophical base for these works, Descartes' Evil Genius, Plato's cave, etc. Virtual reality, or the malleability of reality as a concept, has long preoccupied human thought. The fact that both the salience and technological availability of this concept has been growing exponentially in recent years seems to indicate a trend in the direction of virtual reality, even if a selective view narrowed to the last few months seems to indicate some sort of stagnation.

    Look, I guess my point is that virtual reality as defined here is just one portion of a general movement, of theuse of technology to interact through a virtual interface. The internet, in many ways, is virtual reality. It's a connection and interaction between people without their actually physically meeting. Sure, maybe the fact that Second Life and World of Warcraft, although very popular, haven't broken through into ubiquity might be explained by your claims. But within 10 or 20 years, at most, we will be living in a much more virtual environment, with heads up displays, voice and motion controlled interfaces, and holographic images as common as cell phones and laptops are today. The K'Nect may be a bit esoteric now. So was the internet 25 years ago. So were laptops and PDAs 12 years ago.

    The integration of humanity and technology, and the resultant virtual interfaces between people, is a movement that isn't likely to stop any time soon. Regardless of whether you choose to accept/adopt it or not.

    • http://twitter.com/godworm Nicholas Cox

      You speak of 10 or 20 years ago like it's already happened. Don't forget that it hasn't, and that no one can ever say for sure what the future will hold.

      I hope you are wrong. The sort of virtual reality you envision amounts to an externalization of the human mind. Experience has always had two components: that which comes to us via our senses and that which we supply ourselves. We are not cameras. Our minds do not just passively receive reality; they process it. They act upon it to give it structure and life. And it is next to meaningless to speak of reality independently of the contribution our minds make to our experience of it.

      We always imagined VR on the sensory end of experience. We thought it would just replace the data coming to us through our senses with other, more pleasing data. But as it turns out the exact opposite is happening: VR is simulating our contribution to experience. It is processing reality for us so we don't have to do it ourselves. The path you envision for the future is the path of the progressive extinguishing of human thought.

  • http://twitter.com/godworm Nicholas Cox

    Great article!


    (This might be the purest specimen of 90s VR kitsch out there.)

  • BobTheCat

    Whenever I think of VR I never apply it to something like retailing but it could work well enough. Imagine a huge private shop all to yourself, matrix style rows of clothes you can try on and have a look at and desirable and expensive clothes and jewellery available to try at anytime. I'm sure women who spend hours shopping would love it.

    As you said it's something humanity dreams of, I see this as something that will happen, the only question for me is when.

  • http://twitter.com/Erikhaspresence Erik Stinson

    a legion of nerds angrily reach for their keyboards

  • http://disrespectfultone.blogspot.com/ Daniel Schealler

    When I was around 15 I stumbed on a temporary setup at a mall in Queensland. The guy had set up a system where two people could put on a headset that presented a fixed screen to the eyes. We also both got a physical gun controller that represented a real gun in the game.

    The headset did a passable job of keeping up with my head motions and presenting me with a 'view' of the virtual space. The gun also did an okay job of tracking in the game, although long-range accuracy was a bitch.

    The gun had a trigger (obviously) and another 3-state switch on the side next to my thumb. Pressing the witch forward would run forwards, holding it back would run backwards. Letting it go would let it snap back to the middle section.

    It was a bit cumbersome, but it was still good fun.

    What I don't understand is why Sony, Nintendo or Microsoft haven't started trying to sell people overpriced bluetooth VR headsets yet.

    You can make the argument that the technology is still a bit cumbersome after ten years – but, c'mon. I've used the Move. It's cumbersome as all hell *anyway*. So why stop there?

    • http://gearshack.blogspot.com Naked&Famous

      Ha I think I played the same game at a state fair about 10ish years ago… It was, like you said, big and cumbersome, but still a hell of a lot of fun. The 3D scene which was displayed to the player reminded me of a Tron movie from the late 80's which was pretty distracting and unattractive. Wii heads on 'Tank Wars' graphics. Still though, it was a hell of lot of fun battling my friend for 10 minutes (for $10). Flash forward to 2011 and replace those big, clunky headsets with something half the weight and a quarter the size and you have something with potential. Set it in front of a Call of Duty (or better) map, and you have a viable game that already has a MASSIVE following. Swap out the big, goofy gun they gave you in place a real-to-size, though bright orange, MP5 in your hands with a scope that interacts with your headset and you've got a means to make an auxiliary profit off of accessories.

      I think the issue here is that people were so disillusioned by the VR of the 80's and 90's that no one takes it seriously… For the time being. Seriously though, I don't even own a console and I'd consider buying one of these things. Where the hell are you, Sony?

  • floppycrow

    I think you're right, except for the Vonnegut part (a Philip K. Dick screed would be appropriate here), and for the part where we're all reading this on the internet. I know you're defining VR more as the Matrix or the Holodeck, but all this broadband points to a pretty big commotion in a shared reality that doesn't really exist.

    On the other hand, it is pretty funny to think about a bunch of people's avatars eating virtual hamburgers until their flesh bodies die of starvation–HA!

  • NewNeverSleeps

    I think the fact that virtual reality is appealing means that it will happen, and will probably take off, as soon as someone does it well.

  • http://twitter.com/izarrabr martin i izarra

    In fact, virtual reality is under a big competition… its like que oil versus new technologies of energy.
    Virtual reality represent a extreme transformation of consumer habits.

  • Randomdude33

    There is nothing at all wrong with you thoughts and conclusions based on today's science, and I especially agree with your separation of what is 'possible' with what our society is capable of making available at a reasonable price to the masses. However, it does not take a big leap of faith to see how future technologies may make virtual reality likely in less than a decade. A few ideas off the top of my head:

    1. As electronics (i.e. processors, displays) continue to shrink into the nanoscale, it will become possible to embed them into contact lenses. At first it may be similar to the experience of a “terminator-style” overlay onto what you see but these devices, if developed, will likely be refined to the point where they can completely determine what you see.

    2. If that is never feasible, there is still the possibility that glasses which are worn like any pair of glasses today will be integrated with lasers and very small dlp chips (used at movie theaters, these are composed of millions of microscopically-movable mirrors) which will be able to project an image directly onto the retina.

    3. Once the visual system can be fully immersed, we are left with only one remaining sense to be replicated: touch. This will be considerably more difficult. I do not pretend to know how humanity might accomplish this but I assume it will make use of nano-sized objects which will be manipulated against the skin using some currently-unforeseen method. (Possibly make them charged and surrounded with an impeccably precise electromagnetic field.

    4. Smell too will be hard to replicate. It will likely require a library of thousands, if not tens of thousands of small, organic molecules to be released on-demand. This is more of a technical challenge than a scientific one and can be accomplished easily through extensive use of automation.

    5. Finally, if none of these possibilities remain feasible into mid-century, there is always the matrix. By this, I mean a brain-computer interface. I would assume early iterations of this technology would interface just below the brain stem, where the sensory and motor impulses are coded in a far-simpler manner than those which mediate our consciousness. Such a machine could conceivably create profound experiences, integrating with the vestibular system, for example, to replicate the sensation of weightlessness or the experience of flying.

    So, while I respect your analysis, I have to disagree with your conclusion. There are no indications that we are even close to the physical limits of this world; I am sure human ingenuity will continue to surprise our best minds for years.


  • http://twitter.com/friskymojito annie

    my goodness it took a while for her to get to the fucking point.

  • Bitch_in_heat


  • Neil

    Well If you follow the exponential growth curve that has been happening even back into the 19th century, then sometime in the 2020’s we will have whole computers that are less than 100 nano-meters which will first be used for medical purposes (we already have cpu’s that are 22nm today now in 2012 and are still getting smaller). Quick and easy fully detailed brain scans will become possible with tiny computers that are injected into us that will enhance us and give us even more ability for human thought and directly interface with all of our sensory receptors in our brains to create virtual reality worlds just as real as this one. My source of this is from Ray Kurzweil who is very credible in his predictions so far as he even predicted the internet would explode into everyones homes back in the early 80’s, predicted the year a computer would beat a world champion chess player, all because he learned how to read and put together all of the exponential growth curves of technology which he calls the law of accelerating returns. The President of the united states, Bill Gates and many others listen to Ray… so I think we should at least listen to some of what he has to say as we can all tell things are changing more rapidly with every passing year.

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