When Virtual Reality (VR) Scales to Everyone
I attended the tech conference Collision’19 between May 20–23 in Toronto last week.
It was a thrilling experience to listen to Joseph Gordon-Levitt (actor of Inception), Tim Draper (VC behind Hotmail, Skype, and Tesla), Palmer Luckey (founder of Oculus), and Stephen Wolfram (inventor of Mathematica) and even be able to talk with some of them in person.
I’ve got a chance to briefly exchange with Palmer of Oculus fame, and it was a significant personal moment, as I’ve based my work since 2003 pretty much on the premise that VR will become big in the near future, and there was the man who was instrumental to make it happened.
I started to play computer games at age 7 around the 80’s, with Sierra’s “King Quest” “Space Quest” “Police Quest” series, and later Richard Garriott’s Ultima VII when I was a shy teenager who just moved to U.S. for junior high.
I wasn’t aware of why I was so attracted to computer games (and not Nintendo as most of my peers) until years later, when I realized those “virtual worlds”, where you control an avatar to explore unknown lands, provided all the freedom and imagination a kid could desire.
Compared with adults, kids don’t really have much resource or freedom in doing things they’d like, yet by diving into virtual worlds, one could instantly become a knight, a police officer, or a space adventurer. The games were gateways to both imagination and freedom.
So after I started game playing I no longer desired toys of any kind for my childhood.
It was also only natural, that I was aspired to become a game developer, started to learn programming at age 14. When I was choosing a field for my graduate study in 2003, I decided to investigate how to scale virtual worlds to millions of people and beyond.
My thesis then was simple: the last 20~30 years we’ve observed how much computers have advanced, yet Moore’s Laws still held. So what’s going to happen for another 20~30 years with our use of computers?
Likely it won’t be just watching movies or sending text messages, but something much more computational intensive, given that CPU, memory, bandwidth, and disk space will be orders of magnitude higher than what we had then.
Virtual Reality (VR) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) were the two fields I imagined would be big in the near future (I didn’t see Big Data and Blockchain coming). In fact that’s what we are seeing over a decade later, when Oculus, HTC, and Samsung all released VR headsets in 2016.
When VR becomes common, simply by wearing light glasses or switching on a wall-size display, we’ll be able to have realistic face-to-face conversations with anyone in the world. It also won’t just be a one-to-one experience, but with thousands to millions of people within the same space.
Think of Google Map/Earth, and when you zoom down to the ground level, you’ll start to explore and walk on pavements of virtual cities with millions to billions of other people. You can do pretty much anything supportable by visual or audio cues, in vast landscapes or cities.
It won’t be just a “game” for entertainment as most virtual worlds are today, but rather, it’ll be a place where people can meet, learn, work, socialize, and play, with almost any other human being on the planet, and with meaningful body gestures and interactions.
That vision, as described by Neal Stephenson’s Metaverse, or portrayed by Steven Spielberg’s 2018 film “Ready Player One”, are where we are moving towards, whether we like it or not. So I believe the appropriate response is to understand its implications as much as possible and be prepared.
There are two potential sides to VR becoming ubiquitous: in the Utopian version, we might finally be able to eliminate all the costly commutes and business trips, so that people can live locally close to family, friends, and loved ones, while consuming local produce with close ties to nature.
People will be able to learn and work with anyone globally, while living locally, so our environmental impacts and CO2 productions are minimized and even reversed. VR might finally offer a sensible and practical way to deal with our green house gas-related activities.
Many of our current material production and consumption, may also move into virtual worlds, taking no more than bits and electricity to fulfill our needs for status and prestige.
An example I’d like to give is that the city I live, Taichung, has many tall buildings with empty residents. The reason is that many wealthy Taiwanese see real estate as where their wealth could be safely stored, driving up housing prices but also many unused buildings.
In reality, the empty buildings are nothing more than a store of value (much like gold) and show of prestige. When these needs can be realized with virtual world estates and properties, we could potentially see a vibrant virtual economy that does not rely consuming natural resources.
People will also be able to learn in-depth with lasting impressions. Just imagine if children and adults can assume the life of a black family during the American civil war, or become the disciples of Plato or Confucius. We’ll be able to immerse in learning unimaginable to current curriculums.
Of course there’s also a dark side, as “Ready Player One” portrayed, where people become addicted and are distant and isolated from each other in the real world. Real affairs are no longer being cared, and life deteriorates. The company behind the VR platform becomes powerful and controlling.
Which version of the future VR world will happen isn’t something I can predict, though I know that the keys are in our hands, in the people who will use them. However, as technologists who’ll make them happen, I do feel that we’ve got a responsibility to fully consider the implications.
Just like AI may bring out various ethical debates, VR will also present new challenges. I’m optimistic though, that as long as the people creating and using the tech, are in constant dialog and reflections, we’ll create a future where technology will benefit humanity and help us become better.
That is of course, if we all want it to.