In the 1970’s, physicists Russell Targ and Harold Puthoff were studying a variety of parapsychological phenomena at the Stanford Research Institute — one of which was remote viewing. The basic idea was that it was possible to see things that were too far away or inaccessible using some sort of ESP/mind-projection. In a session in 1973, remote viewer Ingo Swann reported to Targ and Puthoff that he was able to see Jupiter — its surface, its atmosphere, and even its rings. It wasn’t until 1979 — six years later — that the Voyager probe got close enough to see these rings for the first time. Spooky. Of course, Swann’s Jupiter report was controversial; plenty of it has been disputed or dismissed. But he did see those rings…
So is remote viewing possible? I don’t know. But if you’ve heard any of the chatter over Facebook’s purchase of Oculus VR last week, you’d think it was at least in private beta or something. Some of what people are saying about Oculus is just nutty. A small sampling:
But none of that is possible with the Oculus, and isn’t likely to be any time soon. And depending upon how you parse it — how pedantic you’re willing to be about these kinds of descriptions — these things may never be possible. Not really.
It’s worth recalling that until last week, the Oculus Rift was a gaming device. It was a screen you strapped on to your head that emulated peripheral vision and adapted to head and body movement enough to convince your brain that you were where the screen said you were. I don’t doubt for a second that the effect — as demonstrated by the roller coaster demo, for example — is physically arresting. The kind of immersion that this device is already capable of looks straight-up cool. But my question is, how does this scale beyond gaming? Can it? Not that it had to a week ago. It could have just been an amazing gaming technology that perhaps eventually evolved into something more. But now that Facebook bought them for serious money, they have to scale. They’ve got to prove that they’re worth $2 Billion. That’s what shareholders do — demand results, return on investment. That’s what the rest of us in the echo chamber do. We’re gonna fuss about it until the next big thing. That is, unless Zuckerberg doesn’t care about all that and is willing to buy something simply because it’s interesting. If that’s the case, more power to him. But I doubt it. It’s more likely that, at some point, Facebook people got with Oculus people just to chat and see what might be possible only to hear that, no, we can’t talk to you because we’re in the middle of purchase negotiations, which kicked into gear the usual reaction: Someone else wants it? We’d better buy this thing now! A little back and forth and all of the sudden this oddity that is — in the latest of Valley lexicon — “pre-product” is worth twice what a social network with over 100 million users was just a couple of years ago. I don’t know about that. I guess it’s not too surprising that Facebook’s stock price dropped after the Oculus announcement. Some people must agree with me.
But back to scaling beyond gaming…
It’s easy to say, wow Oculus, now anyone can go to the moon, anyone can visit the Great Wall of China! But that assumes a lot. First and foremost, how many people are going to be out there, building unprecedentedly convincing simulations on the Oculus platform? How long will building just one take? And how long will experiencing it take? The difference is just one aspect of the scale problem.
Back in my freshman dorm, GoldenEye 007 was everyone’s favorite video game. Now, I’m not a gaming expert — at all — but it must have been one of the most popular and long-lived games of all time. And it wasn’t because the environments were so detailed that they withstood repeated exploration. They were pretty minimal, actually. It was because you and and a bunch of other Mountain Dew fueled jabronies could run around in these places and blast each other’s virtual brains out. That never gets old. My point is, how many times am I going to want to go on a virtual tour of The Great Wall of China? That’s going to depend directly on how good its resolution is. How much will I miss my first time? How many times can I go back before I’ve seen it all? Remember, we’re talking about the Oculus scaling beyond gaming — into that altruistic dream of making the world a more connected (read: better) place. The simplest solution is to give me a virtual Walther PPK and let me shoot my friend in the face at the Jiayu Pass. But since plenty of people were content to do that over and over again in the most spartan of underground grey boxes, why bother spending buku bucks giving us more realistic places to kill our friends?
So the dream is strapping on an Oculus Rift and suddenly being in Paris, not Irvine, California. Or something like that. How, exactly, is this achieved? Is the Oculus’s “Paris” a snapshot of a piece of Paris, captured by some interns with a StreetView ripoff tooling around its winding streets, then painstakingly recreated by a team of engineers? I assume that’s what most people are also assuming. Well, no matter how good the Oculus engineers are at that sort of snapshotting, their “Paris” is never going to be anything more than an obvious sim. Like an old-west facade town built for a Morricone film or a theme park. How long would I need to wander around in there before I find the end of the world? And once I do, am I going to go back? How many times? This is the key. How does the Oculus’s sim-world enable discovery? Here we are — we don’t even really know how our own reality works — and we want to build little realities for a VR headset. We’ll never get to a 1:1 representation within the Oculus. Which is fine. It’s a gaming device (right?). But that means we need to scale back our this-changes-everything rhetoric. The Oculus is an eye that looks upon a sim world.
(And by the way, damn! You can’t get a better name than Oculus. If that doesn’t simultaneously conjure the mystery of a grand, timeless, Tolkien-esque fantasy world as well as a very distant future Earth — almost an alchemy-meets-technology sensibility — I don’t know what would. It’s perfect. Mysterious. Maybe sinister even. A la “he’s not a safe lion.”)
But what if what the Oculus shows is real? Instead of those interns in the camera-car gathering footage to be referred to, why not just have them capture the actual world? That might give us step-one toward the sort of trips the dreamers are hoping Oculus will provide. It might be something like a guided safari. Oculus would send its capture team out to record the safari with some kind of uber-panoptic lens. That footage would be massaged until it let you strap on the Oculus, and sit in a virtual safari jeep or something. You’d be along for the ride, and could look in whatever direction you wish, but you couldn’t go anywhere the original team didn’t go. Oculus plus a sufficiently advanced Street View could equal quite an incredible virtual travel experience, but does it scale to make $2b a good investment? You’d need a lot of headsets! In any case, that would be step-one. How you get from that to the next step — where the Oculus-wearer gets the freedom to wander off and actually explore — I don’t know. We’d need more than a fancy headset. We’d need avatars.
So the question is, when we imagine “traveling to space,” or “sitting beside a distant friend” wherever, what exactly are we seeing? Am I remote-viewing? Or, am I seeing a digital recreation of space? Or, am I seeing Space View footage? Am I seeing my actual friend? Or, am I seeing some animated sim-Panda because that’s, like, her favorite animal?
Oculus is cool. I won’t deny that. But so was the Virtuality Visette. Then we got The Lawnmower Man, which reminded us — even back then — that the the virtual reality of 1992 was pretty embarrassing. Don’t remember? Check it out. That was virtual reality, where the virtual was as we tend to mean it — almost, but not completely — but in that case, “virtual” was pretty darn generous. (If that clip wasn’t enough for you, it turns out that — for now — you can watch the entire thing in HD on YouTube.) A lot of money was spent on the dream of the nineties, and we didn’t get much further than distorted heads writhing around in Microsoft blue-screen worlds. I wonder how much better we’ll do now, with $2 Billion more. The dream of the nineties is alive…