Refocusing the Virtual Reality discussion

The successful crowdfunding campaign for the Oculus Rift, which led to Oculus VR’s acquisition by Facebook in March (which I have covered here), brought virtual reality back to the media’s spotlight. Suddenly, everybody discovered the immense potential offered by VR, but the discussion has been focused mostly on the devices and not on VR itself. This can easily lead to confusion. In fact, it already has.

The Oculus Rift. Image: Paste Magazine

The Oculus Rift. Is it a device for VR applications or is it VR itself? Image: Paste Magazine

Wikipedia to the rescue once again…

Virtual reality (VR), sometimes referred to as immersive multimedia, is a computer-simulated environment that can simulate physical presence in places in the real world or imagined worlds. Virtual reality can recreate sensory experiences, including virtual taste, sight, smell, sound, touch, etc.

So, to focus on the important bits: VR is defined as a computer-simulated environment, in which one’s physical presence in real or imagined worlds is simulated. In other worlds, virtual reality is a place; a setting. The Wikipedia article also adds (emphases mine):

Most current virtual reality environments are primarily visual experiences, displayed either on a computer screen or through special stereoscopic displays, but some simulations include additional sensory information, such as sound through speakers or headphones. Some advanced, haptic systems now include tactile information, generally known as force feedback in medical, gaming and military applications.

The overhyping of VR-related input (Leap Motion, Razer Hydra, Thalmic Myo) and output (Oculus Rift, etc) devices has given rise to a misconception in the VR-related discourse, which has become all too common. The misconception is that virtual worlds (like Active Worlds, Second Life, World of Warcraft, Everquest, Elder Scrolls, OpenSim grids, etc) are not VR, and that VR is something else, which will become available only to the lucky owners of VR headsets like the Rift and gesture controllers like the Razer Hydra. Another, less common, variant of this misconception says that it’s the devices that are VR, and not the simulated environments, or that simulated environments are not VR unless these heavily-promoted devices are required for their use.

Bine Rodenberger's lovely Biminist region (back in September 2013).

Bine Rodenberger’s lovely Biminist (back in September 2013; now it has been renamed Binemist at Mystical Falls). A wonderful computer-simulated environment, where a visitor’s physical presence is simulated. According to some recent pundits, though, it’s not VR; neither is the technological platform (Second Life) that enables its creation.

No. Virtual worlds are virtual reality. They are computer-simulated environments where one’s physical presence in a world (real or imagined) is simulated. They are textbook examples of VR applications. The fact that the typical input devices for them are the humble keyboard and mouse, with the “traditional” display monitor being the typical output device, means nothing at all. What matters is what these worlds do: They simulate one’s physical presence in a real or imagined world. And, as far as I’m concerned, many of these virtual worlds are quite successful at what they’re supposed to do. On the other hand, the devices mentioned above are just that: input and output devices. Their use will be beneficial or even crucial for many VR applications, but they are not the definition of VR.

On a closing note, I’d like to offer a question. What the Oculus Rift (which is still not on the market, unless I’m mistaken) might be in five years from now valued Oculus VR at $2 billion. Leaving mega-franchises like WoW and Everquest aside, I want to turn our attention to Second Life and other such free-form virtual worlds, with their wild diversity, the creative freedom they give their users, and their in-world economies. They’re already here, and they’re actually doing quite well, despite the doomsaying. Shouldn’t they be worth a lot more than a company that’s yet to put its product on the market?

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6 thoughts on “Refocusing the Virtual Reality discussion

  1. Well, Facebook took the new technology seriously and as a potential thread to their network. It was worth 2 billion for them to jump on the train rather than being rolled over by it. While it is clear that VR is much broader than the new tech, the experience of people within the simulated worlds is something entirely new and making up once mind about the possible impact before having tried it personally is premature. Let’s make a comparison: It’s like people writing 100 years ago that it’s a bad ideas to build cinemas before watching their first movie.

    All I can say is this: My female friends that visit me at home have always wrinkeled their nose about my high tech gaming style PC. I have never told them and will never tell them that I “play” Second Life, because my RL me doesn’t want to be related with this horrible reputation brand. But when these women see the Oculus Headset they all want to test it, they all are totally enthusiastic and they all ask me, if there are already eroctic demos available. So this peace of technology will be a game changer. There will still be other forms of virtual reality. After all the raise of the cinema hasn’t been the end of the letterpress, but you can’t really compare the two.

    1. I’m glad you mentioned cinema and other art forms, because it gives me an opportunity to give you an example about it.

      In the cinematic world, we’ve evolved from silent movies to talkies, from black & white film to Technicolor, we have all sorts of different aspect ratios, we’ve gone from mono sound to stereo and from there to all manner of multi-channel sound, and now we even have 3D.

      The thing is… We don’t say that 3D cinema is cinema and black & white or silent movies are not. No cinephile, of course, would take such a claim seriously; anyone who’d dare say that would be summarily ridiculed and no one would take them seriously in the future. In several VR-related talks, however, we see various pundits (who present themselves as super-knowledgeable) pushing the idea that virtual worlds are not VR.

  2. I agree with you that VR is not defined by the interface. It is often frustrating to see existing virtual worlds dismissed as somehow not VR. The Rift though does present a marvelous extra level of immersion. Hardware and software that enables real-time body and face tracking for avatar control are as equal if not more significance in the long run than HMDs alone. Over hyped? Maybe, Second Life was over hyped too at one time. It does look amazing on the Rift.

    As for your question. Oculus isn’t worth the investment because of the hardware, they will be selling it at cost. It’s because of the people involved in the company and the future virtual worlds they are building in the long run.

    I think Second Life isn’t worth billions to investors because it cannot really scale beyond its current size. Anyone wanting to make a significant investment in the obvious future potential of virtual worlds may have come to the conclusion that it is better off to start from scratch using modern tech than to take on a flawed system with a sullied brand name, requiring a large and costly overhaul to become viable for mainstream levels of growth and profitability.

    On the other side of this, the SL community may be better off in the long run without large outside investment. A much larger corporately owned virtual world may be a lot less likely to provide the same levels of resident freedom that you mentioned. A profit model more tempting to large outside investors could involve the tracking and selling of user data, and the annoyances and intrusions of targeted cross-platform advertisement. Not to mention the “app store”-ification of user created content. Second Life can continue to exist at its current scale without selling out its user base. I doubt this could hold true if big investors entered the picture.

    1. Yes, SL was overhyped too, and it paid a very heavy price when the corporate pipe dream pushed by Philip Rosedale came to nought. Now, as for whether the Oculus will be sold at cost, remember that we live in the Age of Globalisation and, with things like TTIP/TPP being pushed out, labour cost (salaries) can be effectively annihilated, along with any workforce that demands to be paid for its work.

      Another thing now, regarding the virtual worlds that Facebook might develop… One huge attraction with virtual worlds (from MMORPGs to free-form shared creative spaces like SL) is escapism through an avatar identity that is kept at a safe distance from our RL identities. This is anathema to Facebook, and because of this I would personally never join a virtual world where I’d be obliged to go by my RL name. It’d be very creepy.

      Re: SL being worthless to gamblersinvestors, I agree with you. It doesn’t scale well, its codebase is old, and it’s a bitch to maintain and upgrade. Better to start from scratch. But, if one’s to start from scratch, I think LL’s next-gen virtual world would be in an advantageous position, because it already has the user base, and because at least the most advanced content will be possible to be transferred there.

      I also agree with you regarding whether SL and its user base would be better off without outside investors butting in. Remember what Leica (the German prestige camera maker) went through when it went public. The investors (who wanted to make a quick Deutsche Mark or USD or what have you) nearly drove it to bankruptcy. Only when Kaufmann acquired a controlling interest in it and managed to kick the gamblers out of the decision-making process did its fortunes improve. And, of course, Leica is not “mainstream” at all. It’s a household name, yes, but it’s not “mainstream”. Few people can afford Leica cameras, and they’re tremendously dedicated to the brand. As both yours truly and Inara Pey have pointed out numerous times in the past, SL and similar virtual worlds don’t need to be “mainstream” at all. They can positively thrive as niche products, catering to a dedicated market.

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