The dream of the Nineties is alive…

Picture me tapping this message out to you on my phone, hoping that the weak signal I’ve caught will hold for long enough. I’m out in the mountains this week for Newfangled’s annual retreat. Today there were lots of great conversations among the Newfangled gang, lots of great food, runs up and down impossibly steep paths, sing-alongs by the fire, a brooding, four-hour board game, and some fantastic star-gazing. We have all gathered from places near and far — our main office in Chapel Hill, our office in Providence, and our farthest outpost in San Francisco — to spend three days nurturing our deep bond and reconnecting away from the screens and the emails and the complexities of work. There’s no substitute for the IRL experience. On that note…

CB, August 21, 2015

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 anything about Oculus, which, in case you were also unaware, is owned by Facebook, you’d think it was at least in beta or something. That it was no longer a metaphysical oddity, but a technology you strap to your face. Some of what people have said over the last year about Oculus is just plain nutty. Here is a small sampling of things I’ve actually seen written, paraphrased.

  • With the Oculus, now anyone can travel to space! You can visit the International Space Station, the moon, heck, even Mars!
  • Or, you could take a tour of the Great Wall of China, without ever leaving your own home!
  • You and a distant friend could sit down next to one another and watch a movie in your own private theater, or, you know, just talk in a location of your choosing.
  • Now you can attend that wedding/funeral/celebration/meeting that just wasn’t feasible/affordable before.

None of that is possible with the Oculus. And depending upon how pedantic you’re willing to be about these kinds of descriptions, they may never be possible. Not really.

It’s worth recalling that the Oculus Rift was designed to be 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 famous roller coaster demo you’ve probably already seen, for example — is physically arresting. The kind of immersion that this device is capable of is by no means trivial or unimpressive. But my question is, how does this scale beyond gaming? Can it really? Not that it had to before Facebook spent $2 Billion on it. It could have just been an amazing gaming technology that perhaps eventually evolved into something more. But now that Facebook has acquired them, they have to scale. They’ve got to prove that they’re worth the investment. They’ve got to answer the demand of shareholders and the rest of us in the peanut gallery. We’re gonna fuss about it until the next big thing comes along that’s shinier and capable of propping up our hopes and dreams for a little while. 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 was — in the latest of Valley jargon — “pre-product” is worth twice what a social network with over 100 million users was just a few 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 have had their doubts, too.

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 an awful lot. First and foremost, how many people are going to be out there, building these 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.

Many years ago, 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, isn’t it? On how much I miss my first time around. 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 stitched together and expanded upon virtually, 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 — which would be neat and all — but you wouldn’t actually be able to 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 quite — but in that case, “virtual” was pretty darn generous. 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…

Heavy Rotation: While we’re dreaming of the nineties, my carload of Newfangleder’s listened to Weezer’s blue album on our drive out west, and man, is that still a great album. Practically perfect in every way. And I have to admit — knowing full-well that this is a controversial opinion — that the more time passes, the more I feel like Weezer’s blue album is Ric Ocasek’s greatest contribution to pop music, second to which are one or two of his hits with The Cars, but honestly, not nearly the number of incredible songs comprising this one debut album he helped produce in 1994. Bring on the rants. I suggest you address them, “DEAR IDIOT…

Recent Tabs: The simpler the gameplay, the better the game. As in, left/right to walk, up to ruminate, down to smoke. Ahh, the ennui of Ennuigi (h/t my off-the-grid buddy Adam). Racked with Nineties nostalgia as I am, I was just thinking recently, whatever happened to The Chemical Brothers? Well, they’re back and they went post-apocalyptic. Anyway, they have a new album. But if you’re looking to get your nineties-nostalgia electronica fix in 2015, I’d recommend The Prodigy’s new album, The Day is My Enemy. It’s better. This stuff should really be in the heavy rotation section. Anyway. Book storage in tiny houses. Frankensim, which I guarantee you’ll play with for longer than you should. Project Sunroof looks up your home in Google Maps and combines that information with other databases to create your personalized roof solar plan. 40% of Airbnb properties are now operated by hosts who own more than one property. The creator of Soylent unironically pontificating on the uncivilized savagery of things like grocery shopping and cooking and kitchens without realizing his own single white male privilege is peak dickheadery if not fundamentally solipsistic. Because it’s immoral to cook and drive and plug things in to that nasty, noisy grid, except, you know, when someone else does it for you. Don’t drink Soylent, people. It definitely tastes bad, but it might also turn you in to a colossal asshole.

Written by Christopher Butler on August 21, 2015,   In Essays

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