As someone who writes about virtual reality, or VR, I thought it only fair to experience it for myself. I bought a Google Cardboard headset for $10, which would use my phone to run free VR apps, like Google Cardboard and Sites. With the headset and my phone, I jimmy-rigged a system where I could travel to the canals of Venice or the planet Jupiter if I so desired. Not only did the VR experience allow me to fulfill my wanderlust, but actually helped relieve periods of anxiety or stress. I could clear my head in a virtual “room” of sorts, and then readdress whatever was bothering me, feeling recharged.
I’m not the only one who has found benefits in VR technology. In fact, this industry is predicted to swell to $75 billion at least with venture capital. There are some big names thriving within the industry, like Facebook’s Oculus and Microsoft’s Hololens. And with the acceptance of social distancing, VR technology seems to be a natural step towards evolving human interactions, learning, and socialization. Already VR is being used in some classrooms (like Stanford’s Business School) and may find great success in other sectors. As VR technology becomes more accessible and affordable, it’s only a matter of time before it becomes more mainstream.
Movies like the new Matrix film are helping to make VR more of a trending topic within popular culture due to its heavy presence within science fiction. Fans of the original film franchise are once again looking forward to the classical simulated reality that The Matrix provides. Thanks to books and shows like Snow Crasher, Ready Player One, and Upload, VR is still synonymous with science fiction technology. In fact, many VR companies have played into this association, like Microsoft’s Hololens being a reference to the holodeck of the U.S.S. Enterprise in Star Trek, or Facebook’s Oculus handing out copies of Ready Player One to new employees (and having the author Ernest Cline speak at events). One VR company, Magic Leap, even went so far as to hire three science fiction and fantasy writers, including the great Neal Stephenson, writer of Snow Crasher, which discusses the implications of VR. Stephenson’s job title at Magic Leap? Chief Futurist.
Even companies like Ready Player Me, and their parent company Wolf3D, who create digital avatars for VR apps and other metaverse places, have found inspiration from science fiction.
“The name is a tribute to Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One book,” said Timmu Tõke, CEO and Co-Founder of Wolf3D in an interview with The Debrief. “We picked it because we wanted to express that we are all about the metaverse. At that time, the book and the movie that followed it really helped us explain to people what we are trying to build, minus the gigantic company trying to get control over all of it.”
While science fiction nerds like me can relish these easter eggs and references, science fiction may also be harming VR sales. VR has a reputation of being used mainly by nerds or video gamers, which alienates many individuals. VR also tends to be a feature of mainly dystopian worlds, leading to negative aspects like addiction, alienation from the environment, and a disconnection from others. For those marketing the technology, these details need to be taken into account to put the technology in a more positive light.
Many VR companies, like Wolf3D, use science fiction as more inspiration than a deterrent.
“Ready Player One and Snow Crasher set foundations of what we expect the metaverse to be like in the near future,” Tõke added. “At Wolf3D, we don’t think it will be focused just on virtual reality, but it will play an important role, and it’s much closer to reality than to sci-fi. There are so many things that we can do in VR today, like collaborating with a colleague from another side of the globe in Immersed or attending a concert in Somnium Space. Science-fiction books and movies keep inspiring developers and companies like us and pushing the whole industry forward.”
Wolf3D has been able to use the popularity of VR to grow their business and make the VR experience more customizable. According to Tõke: “At this stage, we learned that people didn’t want an avatar that looked exactly like them – they wanted a more abstract version of themselves that they could customize. Learning this, we set Wolf3D on its current tracks, and in the middle of 2020, we made a simpler avatar creator based on a single selfie – Ready Player Me. It allows anyone with a camera and access to the Internet to create an idealized, 3D version of themselves.” Ready Player Me allows individuals to translate their personalities and explore new modes of self-identity in a safe virtual space, encouraging creativity and uniqueness for anyone.
As the VR industry continues to grow, it is being applied successfully to other sectors. A 2018 study by MIT found VR helped those in assisted living feel more connected, while there have been various studies published over the past few years showing VR being helpful for therapy and mental health. However, there are some challenges to making VR headsets more widely used, mainly cost and design.
“We need a VR experience that’s as simple to use as gaming consoles,” Tõke explained. “You don’t need to be tech-savvy to launch Halo on Xbox or watch Netflix on PlayStation. Unfortunately, that’s not the case with current VR headsets, where the user experience still needs to be polished. Once we solve it, virtual reality will become accessible to anyone.”
This will be especially beneficial for using VR in other industries, like health care or therapy. As VR begins to become more accepted, the bottom line is clear: you don’t have to be a science fiction fan to enjoy it.
Kenna Castleberry is the Science Communicator at JILA and a staff writer at The Quantum Daily and The Deep Tech Insider. She has written various pieces on diversity in deep tech, covering stories from underrepresented communities, as well as discussing how science fiction contributes to the reputations of deep technologies. Follow her on Twitter @kennaculture