Dif­fi­culty Switch

Hard game crit­i­cism

EDGE - - SECTIONS - IAN BO­GOST

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

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