I woke up one day earlier this week to a text from a friend of mine: “Do yourself a favor and go see Ready Player One in theaters. Don’t miss seeing it on the big screen. This movie is pure eye-candy.”
I started reading the book that night with hopes of overcoming my glacial-pace reading speed and finishing it before the film leaves theaters. My brother had been raving about the book to me for years, and I would have felt guilty pulling the classic “I’ll-wait-for-the-movie.” I’m glad I started reading, as it pulled me in right away. I can’t wait to finish it (and quickly) so I can properly follow my friend’s advice some time later this month.
(Warning: Mild spoilers follow for chapter 19 of the novel where a full VR rig is described in detail. No plot other than what can be discerned from chapter 1 of the book and the movie trailer will follow.)
People spend most of their time in a virtual world known as the OASIS. Despite not watching the film or finishing the book, the VR tech of the world in 2045 is laid out pretty well completely in the book by about halfway through and in the trailer for the movie. In summation, a state-of-the-art VR rig in Ernest Cline’s world includes the following: a computer with lightning-fast processing speeds and internet connection; a chair that moves with simulated motions of your environment; a “body haptic feedback suit” to simulate the sensation of touch throughout the body; gloves to simulate grabbing, touching, and holding items; a display visor; a crystal-clear surround-sound system; a “smell tower;” and an “omnidirectional treadmill.”
The OASIS is a far more massive a world than the real one. The world of the OASIS isn’t just a videogame like most people conjure up in their head when they hear the words “virtual reality.” The main character, Wade Watts, talks about his life as a child where his mother would leave him to be virtually babysat while she worked her virtual job, all without leaving their double-wide trailer. He describes the joy he felt when he was accepted into the OASIS Public Schooling program and finally got to leave his traditional school for a new, virtual one. To many, the world of the OASIS is more real than the one they were born in.
This imaginative future may sound completely foreign to the world of today to most people. The current world of VR is cost-prohibitive (for the most part) and not perfectly convincing. It is currently a community of hopeful companies all hoping to finally perfect the what is known as “sense of presence,” or the moment when VR can successfully convince the human brain that it is in another environment. With the hype surrounding this book and movie, I decided that this was the perfect time to briefly discuss the current state of VR and compare it with the world of tomorrow.
Among VR gear, perhaps the most essential piece to any rig is a headset that replaces the users view of the world with that of the virtual one. These headsets are referred to as head mounted displays, or HMDs. The headsets on the market attempt to show the user a new world in multiple ways. The most common method of display on the market including using LCD or OLED screens to display an image that fills the user’s entire field of view (including their peripheral vision). Another, newer technology consists of projecting the images directly onto the retina of the user’s eye. Though this is the method of display in Ready Player One, it still has limitations today with peripheral vision.
Some of today’s best options for headsets include: the Playstation VR, the HTC Vive, the Oculus Rift. These options all display an image on a screen for the wearer to interpret it when wearing the device. Options like the Avegant Glyph and the upcoming Magic Leap use the retinal display option, though, presumably due to the limitations of the tech, they focus more on providing a “mixed reality” experience where augmented reality (AR) objects are superimposed over the real world to enhance our everyday reality.
The next essential technology to an immersive VR experience, according to Ready Player One, is a haptic feedback glove. A haptic feedback glove essentially tracks you hand motions while in VR so that any time they come into contact with any virtual object, the glove will react. These gloves aim to simulate anything from grabbing a virtual ball and throwing it to feeling a small animal walk across your palm. The technology for these gloves is still in the works, though, there are plenty of people trying to be the first to release a convincing glove. Two such efforts include the VRgluv and the HaptX Gloves. Check out this two part video demonstration of what HaptX has to offer: part 1 and part 2.
TREADMILLS AND SUITS
Treadmills and suits have probably gained the least traction as far as widespread VR adoption, though the future seen in Ready Player One seems to be inching closer by the year. Once perfected, developers hope that players will be able to run and walk at whatever pace they’re capable of moving while their virtual avatars match their movements perfectly in the digital space. Body suits will accurately simulate sensations of touch all over the body. Once these allow for movement and sensation, I can only see the line between the real and virtual blurring even further. Treadmills in the work include the Virtuix Omni (demonstration) and the Infinadeck (demonstration). As for haptic feedback body suits, Teslasuit (interview) seems to be the company making the biggest push for this technology.
All of this VR tech is nothing without a world to explore. In Ready Player One the OASIS acts as a public VR utility. People are charged to travel, run businesses, upgrade their avatars, and various other virtual activities. Games in VR are hosted in the OASIS right alongside commerce and education.
In our own world, digital spaces are divided into many different, popular social media services and games. As far as games go, massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) have existed for a long time. Games like World of Warcraft, EVE Online, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and Runescape allow players to play in fantasy environments with players throughout the world. Games like Second Life allow players to run their own virtual second lives in a digital space. And, while these games traditionally use a computer screen with a mouse and keyboard to interact with the environment, newcomers like VR Chat are trying to bring the MMO experience to the virtual audience. While it is not clear how this space will develop, will the future OASIS look like VR Chat or an improvement on Second Life? This is yet to be seen.
While the future of VR is uncertain, and there are certainly those with doubts, the release of Ready Player One could signal a tide shift in public interest towards it that will bring it even closer to a widely adopted reality. This post barely scratched the surface of the work being done in VR. People are trying to incorporate even more senses into the experience than what I was able to cover. Aside from games, the world of VR could assist in healthcare, education, and more.
With healthcare and education, I find the possibilities particularly exciting. Scientists are trying to develop therapies for autistm, chronic pain, and brain injuries, among other things. With education, the prospects are even more exciting. Teachers and students are already showing a positive outlook for the future of VR in education. Some studies also suggest using VR in education improves comprehension and retention. Companies like EON Reality are also doing exciting things. This program of theirs uses augmented reality to train students about the inner-workings of engines, while other programs of theirs allow students to virtually tour the tomb of King Tut or the Magi Chapel in Italy. EON Reality even built a dedicated facility in partnership with Oral Roberts University called the Global Learning Center where they can employ state-of-the-art VR and AR teaching methods. Elsewhere, science teachers are also designing curriculum in VR programs like Lifeliqe VR Museum, where they are experiencing great results. And finally, in a tie-in to healthcare, some surgeons are streaming their surgeries in VR so that medical students can have broadly accessible, intimate virtual recordings to reference and learn from.
Though our efforts to educate through VR are in their infancy, the projects of today are already closely resembling the world of Ready Player One. VR lets students tour the stars, museums, the human body, cells, and more. The only difference from the world of today and the world of fiction is that entire schools do not yet exist in the virtual space. Only time will tell how close we come to this future.
Are you excited about this future and what it could mean for society? Or are you nervous that ever-increasing immersion in the digital realm will drive us to becoming socially isolated and physically weak? I feel a little bit of both, to be honest. That said, I still would love to try out all of these technologies I described above. While I don’t hope that humanity becomes completely sucked into the virtual world as they do in Ready Player One, I can’t help but get excited about where VR has to grow from where it’s at.
Please, feel free to share any thoughts or feelings you have below!
Written By: Jacob Monash