Human recorded history is a few thousand years old, and we still haven’t really figured out things like sex and death. We can do both, but we don’t really understand their full power over us — and it’s all about to get a lot more complicated thanks to virtual reality.
The Oculus Rift virtual-reality headset is coming. Well, it’s already here if you’ve dropped the cash for the developer version, and Oculus VR — which is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Facebook — is working on a consumer version. That device should debut later this year or early in 2015, and it will enable people to enter digital landscapes visually. The head-mounted display tracks the wearer’s movement and position and adjusts the 3D screen so that it always feels like you are really looking around the virtual environment. The applications for this are obvious. We’ll use it for gaming. Architects will use it to show their models to clients. Professionals will use it to make remote meetings feel more intimate.
Oh, and we’ll use it to simulate murder, sex, and talking to the dead.
“You can experience anything that’s possible and anything that’s impossible,” Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey told GamesBeat. “It puts you into a difference space where there’s almost no rules.”
Already, developers are working on adding Oculus support to their games so that people can experience immersive space battles and abandoned islands filled with puzzles. One game, Disunion, simulates decapitating you in a guillotine from a first-person perspective.
While Oculus Rift will have plenty of traditional action-adventure games, it’s magic-like capability to put you into a situation is, of course, drawing the attention of the adult-film industry. Porn is always one of the first things to go big on new technology platforms, and virtual reality is no different. In May, we reported that SugarDVD, the self-styled Netflix of porn, is already working with a motion-capture studio to build an interactive adult experience.
Porn is coming, extreme violence is coming, and so are things that we can’t even imagine. The question is, if virtual reality really takes off as the next major computing platform in parallel to PCs and mobile, what will it mean for humanity if we can easily simulate anything that we want and have trouble telling that it’s not real.
In the Tom Cruise sci-fi action movie Minority Report, his character gets to a point where he needs technical help. Naturally, he ends up tracking down a shady hacker that runs a virtual-reality parlor. In this guy’s VR dungeon, we see a digital school girl straddling an elderly businessman and another man getting praise from his computer-generated peers. The camera then pans to a nervous guy asking the hacker if he could get a program to kill his boss. The deal is about to go down when Cruise shows up and the hacker runs the guy off. That kind of virtual reality is illegal in Spielberg’s dystopian future.
People wanting to simulate murder and sex is probably going to happen soon. We won’t necessarily see the public VR café or the laws against certain kinds of simulation — but people will want to try socially unacceptable things in simulation. Someone will make a real murder simulator, and — for once — that frightening descriptor will actually fit.
These are the kinds of things that will draw negative publicity and fear mongering local-news reports to Oculus’s cutting-edge technology, but it’s also unavoidable.
“It’s impossible to control those kinds of things. You just have to accept it,” said Luckey. “If you’re an open platform that lets people build anything — then people are going to build anything. And you can’t be surprised when people make a thing that you didn’t make or maybe you prefer didn’t exist.”
Oculus Rift is essentially just a PC peripheral. It plugs into a computer and runs software that you download from the Internet. Unlike the gaming consoles or the iOS App Store, Luckey and his team won’t even try to vet the games the get released for Oculus. Anyone can make anything.
While Oculus is open, Luckey isn’t sure that he would know how to determine what is acceptable for people.
“We’re not willing to define what ‘bad’ is,” he said.
At the same time, Oculus does plan to reach out to developers to act as a publisher, and it will of course have control over who it partners with.
“We’re not going to publish everything,” said Luckey. “We’re not going to invest in everything. We’re not going to give a stamp of approval to everything, but there’s always going to be people doing things that we don’t necessarily agree with, and I think that the good of virtual reality far outweighs the potential bad.”
That’s not how everyone sees it.
Above: Bailenson with his VR headset in Standford’s VHIL.
Image Credit: Standford
“Think about virtual reality like uranium,” Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab professor Jeremy Bailenson told GamesBeat. “It can heat homes, and it can destroy nations.”
Bailenson is a research scientist looking into the effects of virtual reality on people. He’s found that the virtual experiences, like those in the physical world, can have a profound impact on a person.
“The brain treats virtual experience as if it’s real,” he said. “The same as if you saw another person in a room — the brain reacts the same way to a virtual person. However, anything is possible, and my lab has spent years investigating all the social phenomenon that is uniquely possible in VR.”
The professor knows this because he runs experiments where people wear a head-mounted display that shows them a plank of wood with a pit underneath it. And as much as people know they’re standing in a room with a completely solid floor, their brain is perceiving the virtual space and responding to that instead.
That feeling of existing inside a virtual world has a name. It’s called presence, and it is what Oculus VR is aiming for with the Rift. But when VR actually is fooling the brain, could simulating murder and sex hurt someone?
Luckey says he isn’t a psychologist and that he isn’t willing to make any claims about the positive or negative effects of virtual reality on the brain. Bailenson, who is a psychologist, says he doesn’t know if exposure to virtual violence could hurt someone’s psyche … although his experiments have shown that putting people into certain virtual situations can have a stronger influence on something like empathy than reading about a problem or watching a film.
“For example, you put someone in an avatar that is handicapped, and that generates empathy more than reading about someone who has a handicap,” said Bailenson. “There’s something special about occupying someone else’s body. We’ve done other studies where we put young people in old avatars, and it reduces their prejudice against the old compared to control conditions where they read about the old.”
Stanford’s VHIL also did a study that put people into older versions of themselves. They could walk up to a mirror and see a wrinkled, gray person that looks like them staring back, and Bailenson says that this study helped young people better consider the long-term impact of their current-day decisions. People who went into the simulation actually went on to save more money compared to a control group.
“We had a call from one company that’s researching how they use virtual reality and the Omni for Alzheimer’s research,” Virtuix chief executive officer Jan Goetgeluk told GamesBeat. The Omni is a treadmill-like device that tracks a players’ walking motion in 360 degrees. “That’s something I’d never thought of.”
Above: A Virtuix 360-degree treadmill plus an Oculus Rift headset makes for a terrifyingly immersive video game experience at GamesBeat 2013.
Image Credit: Michael O'Donnell/VentureBeat
That’s the heating homes in Bailenson’s comparison of VR and uranium. If the technology is capable of that, it’s easy to see how the other half of the comparison is also true.
But we know that video games don’t hurt people, right? Hell, the Supreme Court just ruled that first-person shooters like Call of Duty and open-world crime games like Grand Theft Auto are protected speech. Certainly we can expect the same for Oculus Rift, right?
Well, not quite.
How the Supreme Court left itself a window to regulate virtual reality
In 2011, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled on Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, and it found that video games are protected speech under the First Amendment to the Constitution. This struck down a California law that would have limited the sale of violent and sexual games to minors.
Justice Antonin Scalia authored the majority opinion.
“Like the protected books, plays, and movies that preceded them, video games communicate ideas — and even social messages — through many familiar literary devices (such as characters, dialogue, plot, and music) and through features distinctive to the medium (such as the player’s interaction with the world). That suffices to confer First Amendment protection.”
Above: A gamer using the Omni and an Oculus Rift to play a virtual version of Pokémon.
Image Credit: Virtuix
That ruling made immediate sense to many people who see games as just the latest scapegoat for a society that had previously blamed comic books and rock music for its woes. This decision would also seem to close the door on any debate regarding gaming’s relation to the First Amendment, but it actually doesn’t thanks to Justice Samuel Alito’s concurring opinion.
Alito, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, wrote that he agreed the California law was too broad, but he wanted to leave open the possibility that the law should judge games on a double standard.
“This is Justice Alito saying that games are protected by free speech but virtual reality is so immersive and so qualitatively different that he wants to flag for precedent that this might be extremely different moving forward,” said Bailenson.
The Stanford professor is especially qualified to speak on this as Alito referenced Bailenson’s book Infinite Reality in his opinion.
The question is whether virtual reality is so much more than reading a book that it goes beyond mere expression and affects a person in a way that is more like a drug or controlled substance.
Luckey says that he already sees people calling for government-imposed regulation on virtual reality, and he expects that group will get larger and louder as Oculus Rift gets closer to release.
“But that’s what happens with every new technology and every new medium,” said Luckey. “People come out of the woodwork. First the crazies, then the mainstream, and then everyone realizes that it’s all OK. There are going to be people that make all kinds of arguments against freedom of speech. But freedom of speech isn’t about optimal outcome for the most people. It’s about having the freedom to keep the public informed and not to be oppressed in what you say. If you accept that, then there’s no way that VR should be controlled any more than another medium.”
The National Coalition Against Censorship agrees with him. GamesBeat spoke with the organization, and it echoed Luckey’s position that even if VR does have a negative effect on some people, that doesn’t matter because it’s unclear who should get to decide what is and isn’t permitted.
Bailenson, however, is conflicted.
“Immersive VR is different in many ways from watching a movie or reading a book,” he said. “And yeah, it’s free speech. But man, we really have to think about this.
“It’s nuanced. Sure, you can feel high presence when you’re reading a book — the same way when you are highly immersed in VR. What makes this technology different is that virtual reality completely tricks the brain on a perceptual level. Your eyes and ears and skin — they react to the simulation as if it is fundamentally real.”
While Bailenson is advising caution, Oculus VR is charging ahead, and the device is very likely going to come head-to-head with public outcry from people who see virtual reality as the culmination of all their worst fears about video games. And with Alito’s opinion on the record, Brown v. EMA‘s precedent won’t cover VR, which means society will probably once again have to determine whether an interactive medium is protected expression … only this time the evidence may suggest it really is something more.
Sex, death, and identity
Virtual reality will enable you to have sex with the person of your dreams. You could combine the best features of the world’s most attractive people, and then you could enter a simulation to get down to business with your Weird Science creation.
Here’s the other side of that equation: Virtual reality will enable anyone to have sex with you.
Virtual reality isn’t just about getting the next big triple-A release from a gaming publisher. It is about wish-fulfillment. For a lot of people, that might mean re-creating someone they know from their physical life and doing things to them that they normally wouldn’t get to. It won’t take much to build these avatar representations of ourselves and others, either. We have near-endless pictures of ourselves that software can analyze and transpose onto a three-dimensional frame. Similar software could even look at our social media profiles and our videos to generate our voices and personalities. It sounds fantastical, but it is also probably inevitable.
Above: The avatars in Second Life are rudimentary compared to what is coming.
Image Credit: Second Life
And the worst part is that you won’t have any control over your identity anymore.
“Somebody can build an avatar of you, and once that avatar is built, it can be copied 10 million times and then 10 million more,” said Bailenson. “People can take it and animate it, make it do things that you’ve never done.”
It’ll look and sound like you. The video recording will look like a real video recording. Most people will just assume it actually is you. But it isn’t.
“Think about what virtual songs did to the music industry,” said Bailenson. “It was as disruptive as you can imagine. It changed the way bands form. Avatars are going to do the same thing for the notion of self. Meaning, ‘myself’ used to be contained to my body, pictures, and video. Once avatars become mature — where they’re these amazingly realistic things — the nature of what it means to be a person and to have an identity might change in a way that is similar to the way the music industry changed when it met digital songs.”
Prototypes of those kinds of avatars exist today. Wicked Entertainment, an adult-film company, already has a demo of one of its porn stars that Oculus Rift users can interact with in limited ways.
If you’re wondering where we’re at now in terms of realistic-looking digital characters, check out this NSFW video of avatars built in the popular Unity graphics engine.
Of course, not every use of avatars will involved sex. Futurist and Google engineer Ray Kurzweil is working on a project to bring back a digital representation of his dead father, Fredrick Kurzweil.
“I have all of his correspondence and letters he wrote to my mother — videos and pictures and so on,” Kurzweil told documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock in an interview. “We can access his DNA from his grave site, and a future artificial intelligence could take all this information and create an avatar that would be indistinguishable from the original Fredrick Kurzweil to people who knew him.”
If you die, but the world never loses you, then what is death? And what does this mean for grief? Maybe nothing … or maybe something worse than that.
A world without humans
Demolition Man, another dystopian sci-fi film, has a scene where the future-dwelling Sandra Bullock invites man-from-the-past Sylvester Stallone to make love. He thinks they’re gonna do it the old-fashioned way when she breaks out a pair of virtual-reality headsets that enable them to simulate the good parts of the act without the messy fluids and touching.
The reality is probably even more lonely than that. You don’t need Stallone or Bullock in the room. With VR, you can call up their avatar whenever you want.
That leads to a slippery question. What happens when humans can simulate anything that they want?
Why would you ever suffer through a blind date or setting up an OK Cupid profile when you can get exactly what you want whenever you want it without any effort with the help of your Oculus Rift?
For that matter, why go and do anything? Why would you travel the world? Why would you buy a big-screen television? Why would you explore space? You can do all of that from the comfort of your own home while possibly avoiding anything unpleasant or unpredictable.
This could lead to a generation of people who no longer strive for anything because they have everything they desire. Virtual reality, at its most dystopian, could stunt the growth of humanity. Maybe the reason we’ve never met an advanced alien species is because they all stop evolving the moment they create VR.
While Bailenson worries about VR, the idea of humans abandoning society to simulate everything doesn’t bother him.
“Kids in the United States between ages 8 and 18 already spend eight hours a day consuming media,” he said. “That’s outside of the classroom and not counting when they’re sleeping, so kids are already spending more time connected than they aren’t. The question is not whether they will spend time in simulation because they already are. The question is when that becomes more immersive, will that change the game? Will some of the content inspire them rather than just satiate them? The technology is coming like a freight train, and we’ll need a way to minimize the damage while maximizing its good uses.”
Facebook and the future
It’s tough to predict how VR will actually play out. The graveyard for companies that previously attempted VR thought they were on the cusp of a breakthrough with some sort of immersive headset doesn’t have many vacancies left. That’s why it’s easy to imagine any number of sci-fi-inspired eventualities when it comes to Oculus Rift, but the actual reality may turn out pretty tame compared to Demolition Man. At the same time, Facebook just bought Oculus VR for $2 billion in March, and it’s likely that founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg plans to see this through.
That’s good news for Luckey, but it may mean that we’ll need to come up with solutions for the problems VR will pose us as a species.
“When it comes to virtual entertainment and game developers — and they’re creating online gambling that feels like Vegas, social networking that feels like the best party you were ever at, and pornography that is indistinguishable from sex — how is that going to affect the human condition and the human experience,” asked Bailenson. “Well, I don’t have an answer to that. I know we have to think about it and be very careful about how we regulate it along the way.”
The Stanford professor does have some hope that Zuckerberg will focus Oculus on the positive implications of VR.
“Zuckerberg was the leading philanthropist last year,” said Bailenson. “It’s my hope that this question of what Facebook is going to do with VR is more about how we can use VR to leverage education to make it better — to reduce poverty, to help the environment. A lot of us fly and drive for work, but if I could make meetings compelling in a simulation then we can already start saving fossil fuels.”
With Facebook’s ownership, Oculus has now said it will have the capability to sell the Rift at a very low price point. The social network can afford to lose money on each unit — that’s especially true since it will likely use the platform to serve ads to players, just like it does on Facebook proper.
Above: Jimmy Fallon trying a prototype of the Oculus Rift.
Image Credit: NBC
As for Luckey, he’s focused on shipping a final product. You can suggest any number of potential uses for his invention, but it doesn’t really faze him.
“It’s easy to come up with contrived scenarios where the Rift badly impacts certain people in negative ways, but that’s true of anything — even the most innocent of things,” he said. “Everything in moderation, and like I said, the good is going to outweigh the bad.”
Goetgeluk feels the same way.
“Virtual reality could be an outlet for thoughts you have or frustrations you might experience,” he said. “That might be used as a way to escape reality and be in a different place. It could be very therapeutic.”
Bailenson thinks that people shouldn’t expect virtual reality to act as a catharsis. Instead, he would urge developers to think about how they can use the tech for good.
“I believe virtual experiences change people the same way any experiences change someone,” he said. “You learn from experience, and if we have the choice, then we should try to build content that inspires people to be helpful and conscientious. To be good people.”
As for the future of Oculus VR, Luckey isn’t going to stop once the company releases the consumer version. That’s not even close.
He says that he wants to “solve for everything” when it comes to VR. Yes, that means a head-mounted display, but it also means feedback that feels real when you touch it as well smell.
GamesBeat asked if that meant Oculus VR would eventually start trapping photons in a force field like the holodeck from Star Trek: The Next Generation, and he had a very definitive answer for that.
“Photons are a dead-end,” said Luckey.
But the company is just looking into anything that will make virtual reality better. For now, that primarily means the Rift helmet. In five years, that may take the form of a brain implant that makes you fee like you’re smelling fresh pie and flowers inside a simulation.
Finally, we asked Luckey to look into the future and tell us
“In 20 years — I hope it doesn’t take that long — I hope we have virtual reality that is indistinguishable from real life — at least on the visual side,” said Luckey. “Virtual reality is one of the most important technologies in a long time, and it will be that way for a long time. There’s nothing better we could be doing than waking up to do than VR.”