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The modern virtual reality market is new, but the idea of virtual worlds has existed in fiction for decades.
Austin Grossman is a sci-fi author who has written books such as the techno-thriller You: A Novel. He also helped write games like PC classics Deus Ex and System Shock as well as the more recent Dishonored series. At the GamesBeat Summit today in Berkley, California, Grossman discussed in an on-stage interview with Kim Pallister, VR expert at Intel, how sci-fi stories from our past can tell us about the future of virtual reality — and how we’re struggling how to deal with it.
Grossman brought up novels like Snow Crash and Ready Player One, which both featured VR social spaces. These ideas used to be science fiction, but modern virtual reality devices and online games are maker them closer to reality. But Grossman says that we’re like the dog who catches a car but doesn’t know what to do with it.
VR isn’t just an entertainment experience that people use for 10 minutes at a time, Grossman said, in novels. It is an integral part of society that people use for work as much as play. It’s also a tool used to escape from dystopian nightmares. In Ready Player One, many people are living in ghettos of skyscrapers made of trailer park homes. Its protagonist spends as much time in virtual reality as possible, using it to have access to things he doesn’t have in the real world: friends, education, and adventures.
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This could present a danger to our VR future. What if people use the coming virtual worlds to escape the real one? Could we potentially forsake the planet and our ties to it in favor of a more palpable digital illusion?
So, the future of VR presented in fiction could be an unsettling one. But fiction hasn’t gotten everything right. In The Matrix, people need to be in pods or other constrictive devices to be connected to virtual worlds (and that’s besides the fact that most humans were imprisoned and having their energy sucked out by evil robots). But we aren’t using neural interfaces.
“It’s a wonderful thing that we got wrong,” Grossman said. Actual VR has players moving around. He says that this makes VR more exciting and less of a terrifying dystopia.
Grossman noted that world-building is the key skill needed for making enjoyable VR experiences. To make a world for a novel, that takes him two or three years of planning. But for modern virtual reality games, more work goes into designing and programming the experience. Less attention is given to narrative, characters, and history. These are the things that make people fall in love with and to live in a fictional world.
Licensing IP is kind of a cheat, Grossman says. It gives you an immediate world that audiences love. VR designers need to make new worlds of its own. The recent Star Trek: Bridge Crew is a good example of this. Beyond the gameplay, people enjoy the game just because it lets them be in Star Trek.
Virtual reality has the potential to change people and how they relate to each other. Forcing us to interact with others in unique ways. But Grossman noted that he also looks forward to having VR teach him. He anticipates full-body-tracking, since a VR program could then teach him how to dance. That certainly sounds more pleasant than having machine overlords plugging us into a placating VR world while they suck energy from our imprisoned bodies.