March 29, 2014

From Lascaux to Las Vegas: A Short History of Virtual Reality

So, Facebook is taking a major plunge into virtual reality, paying $2 billion to acquire Oculus VR, which makes a headset that itself is something of a virtual reality, given that ordinary consumers can’t yet buy one.

Mark Zuckerberg is clearly giddy about the virtual reality future. Announcing the deal on (where else?) Facebook, he asked readers to imagine the possibilities. You’ll be able to enjoy a court side seat at a game, he said, or study in a classroom with students and teachers from around the world, or consult with a doctor “face to face,” simply by putting on a pair of goggles in your home. “People will build a model of a place far away and you’ll go see it,” he added in a conference call with reporters. “It’s like teleporting.” 

Experts quoted by Nick Wingfield and Vindu Goel in the New York Times weren’t so sure. One said he couldn’t see any compelling applications for virtual reality beyond gaming. Another said that he’s heard virtual reality being hyped as the next big thing for more than twenty years, and there’s no reason to believe Facebook’s partnership with Oculus portends anything different.

In my view neither Zuckerberg’s excitement nor the experts’ skepticism seem entirely justified. 

Zuckerberg presumably spends so much time looking at computer screens that he sees no significant difference between talking to a facsimile of a doctor through a virtual reality headset and talking to a flesh-and-blood doctor in person. He’s mistaken, of course, but the fact that the distinction blurs so seamlessly for him suggests why it’s probably a bad idea to bet against virtual reality being the wave of the future. 

Another reason for not making that bet is that virtual reality already has a solid track record, one that extends back as far as we do. Early practitioners include the tale spinners whose narratives ended up in Homer’s Odyssey and the artists whose haunting images of stags, bears and other beasts decorate the cave walls of Lascaux. 

It’s often said we tell stories to remind ourselves who we are, and to define who we are. The virtual realities of the sort Oculus is developing will be the latest manifestations of that basic human impulse, and not necessarily the most spectacular ones. 

It would be hard to beat the great cathedrals of Europe, for example, when it comes to teleporting one’s self to heavenly realms. Ralph Lauren has created some impressive virtual realities for more secular purposes. In the history of all-encompassing virtual environments, Disneyland was a landmark; Las Vegas may be the apotheosis. 

The best reason not to bet against the future of virtual reality is the difficulty we have confronting the reality we face in the mirror each morning. For millennia we've sought relief in various forms of ecstatic and narcotic experience. The reasons seem simple enough: Life is difficult, and death awaits. So it is that those seeking to create virtual realities have the deck stacked in their favor. We want to believe what they're selling.

This post adapted from my book, Not So Fast: Thinking Twice About Technology.

©Doug Hill, 2014

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