Hard game criticism
Will VR have the same impact as the telephone, asks Ian Bogost
As Dave Their writes in Forbes, “The ability for two people on opposite sides of the planet to feel like they are physically in the same room could represent one of the biggest changes in communications technology in years, maybe decades.” He’s talking about consumer VR in general, and the Facebook-owned Oculus Rift CV1 in particular. Perhaps VR’s time has finally come, after three decades of waiting.
In games, consumer VR mostly offers a new kind of solitary experience. It builds on the realism of 3D-rendered environments, making them seem truly volumetric; you are inside the world rather than staring at it. And while some may still have trouble with simulation sickness, improvements in refresh rate, resolution and visor weight have made VR better than it’s ever been.
Even still, VR works best with relatively stationary experiences. Looking around with your head movements is magical, but piloting a character through 3D space in the usual manner can feel like a mixed metaphor. The natural mapping of head to neck runs counter to the manipulation of a character with analogue controls.
This is what makes Their’s prediction so interesting: it’s not the head that delights him, but the hands. Oculus Rift’s hand controllers offer a means to signal your presence in virtual space through the body language we’re used to using in our ordinary, embodied meatspace. That’s how we often signal our intentions, impatience, and so on.
Presence has always been a goal of virtual reality. While VR games promise to insert us into other environments, since the beginning VR has also promised virtual connection – that is, to put more than one person together in such an environment. This is also why Facebook took such an interest in Oculus. Even though the social network was ostensibly a gaming platform a few years ago, today it’s all but abandoned games as a central part of its business. Instead, it deals in interpersonal connections and exchanges, of which games are an occasional instance. If VR even has a good chance of offering a new way to socialise, then you can understand why Facebook wants to be in on it.
But as far as the biggest changes in communications technology are concerned, well, we’ve been here before. Co-presence has been around for decades, and technologies that increase presence compared to earlier ones haven’t necessarily thrived.
A hundred years ago, the telephone was already fully installed and integrated into public and private life. Thomas Edison had said that the device “annihilated time and space”, and since then every other person-to-person device has only built on the idea of reduced space and time allowed by telephony. But precious few technologies have even come close to reaching its universality. The TV and radio don’t count – they’re broadcast media, even in the Internet age. The videophone in all its varieties, from early experiments in the 1970s and ’80s to Skype and FaceTime today, offer a useful addition to the telephone, but hardly a universal one.
Virtual 3D environments as meeting places also have come and gone without taking root. It’s perhaps no accident that Cory Ondrejka, the former architect of Second Life, was the Facebook executive who helped bring Oculus into the fold. Second Life also offered a version of the embodied virtual presence, even if via the avatar instead of the VR head. And via hands, too: Second Life avatars famously acted out the gesture of typing when their puppeteers were pecking away at their keyboards.
But the most successful social tech since the telephone doesn’t simulate presence, and it isn’t videoconferencing or Second Life or Sony Home. It’s text messaging.
Billions of people send texts, and most send them from devices that are capable of more virtualised forms of communication, including telephony and video calling. More than a century later, the only real challenge to the person-to-person voice communication system that Alexander Graham Bell patented in 1876 is short text messages on phones and services such as GChat and WhatsApp.
Gaming might not be enough to sustain VR. Dave Their might be right that it will be reliant on a broader adoption of virtual reality for social encounters. And in that case, the biggest threat to VR play isn’t gimmick or gadgetry, but that great typhoon that amplifies text messaging far beyond the capacity of the telephone a century ago. For VR to win, must emoji also lose?
The most successful social technology since the telephone isn’t Second Life or Sony Home. It’s text messaging