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The Reality Of Virtual Reality In 'Ready Player One'

This post was originally featured on Forbes.com on October 23, 2017

Ready Player One (2011) is a prescient novel by Ernest Cline about a dystopian near future where young people, “the missing millions”, spend most of their time in a metaverse called “The Oasis”, which also happens to be the most valuable company in the world. Imagine if Google-owned not only search but every site you visited. When the Oasis’ Steve Jobs-like creator, James Halliday, dies, he offers his metaverse to anyone who can solve a puzzle related to 1980s trivia. The upcoming highly-anticipated movie based on the book is being produced and directed by none other than Steven Spielberg.

The book (cover, on left above) was a best seller in 2011. Along with Neil Stephenson’s “Snowcrash”, which introduced the idea of a digital metaverse, “Ready Player One” is now a must-read for anyone interested in Virtual Reality. The highly anticipated movie has fans excited enough to make their own fan art. Movie poster on right is by Kyle Bailey.

Almost immediately after the announcement, an industry begins to emerge around the search for clues to help solve Halliday’s puzzle and produce the three keys that lead to his fortune. Those searching are called “Gunters” (a portmanteau of “egg hunter”). A massive ruthless corporation, IOI, bent on taking control of the OASIS and restricting access via a paywall, employs an army of its own Gunters to search for the keys as well.

When Wade Watts, the protagonist of RPO, discovers one of the keys, he vaults to the top the leaderboard, becoming instantly famous. He’s stalked by IOI, which attempts to recruit him, and then tries to kill him.

Wade Watts attends virtual class on a combat-free virtual planet full of virtual parks and schools. He logs in to attend a class taught by a virtual teacher, presumably the avatar of a real teacher, and his access to non-educational materials is limited while logged into the classroom.

This one is an interesting choice by the author, Ernest Cline, that reflects his predictions for the expansion of e-learning. I agree we’re going to continue to see enormous growth here. However, if you live in a crowded urban area as Wade does, in 25 years it’s likely in-person high schools will still persist. Advanced education and large parts of college will likely be conducted through e-learning, but it’s doubtful teenagers could self-motivate enough to enjoy the benefits of online classes, and the world, even this world, needs workers, so…

The coming purge of private universities will accelerate this trend. It may well be that college will consist of two virtual years, and two on-campus as almost no one will be able to afford $400,000 at a private university. For those around the world e-learning MOCs (massive online classrooms) are available, often for free. This democratizes education.

Players in the OASIS can purchase their own virtual goods, like mansions, spaceships, asteroids, weapons, shortcuts and magic spells.

You can already do this in Second Life, Sansar and on the world building platform Unity. Second Life has its own currency with real-world value. Users buy three-dimensional objects posted by creators in the Sarsar and Unity stores.

Next stop, the Metaverse. You can teleport, but there are other fun ways to get around.

The OASIS also allows for the purchase virtual goods that are interconnected with real goods, like a virtual pizza order that connects to a pizza delivery service that will bring one a slice in real life.

Amazon Fresh already does this. Seamless and Uber Eats give you access to food delivery 24/7.

Wade Watts travels through a metaverse of connected worlds that are partly restricted by real-life physics and partly restricted by a business model that relies on virtual credits. Avatars have a top speed at which they can run in the virtual world, for example. However, players can buy virtual teleports using credits that cost real money to move between worlds. They can also use technology, like virtual cars and spaceships, to move on and between different worlds in the metaverse.

The metaverse exists and is a real thing, depending on how you define it. VR enabled web browsers now make this much easier. In addition, social VR, as practiced by Sansar, AltSpace VR, Oculus Rooms, and apps like Rec Room also creates a metaverse of sorts, as players navigate from room to room. The creators of these worlds could introduce weightlessness if they wanted.

SAN DIEGO, CA — JULY 22: (L-R) Director Steven Spielberg, writer Ernest Cline and actor Tye Sheridan attend the Warner Bros. Pictures ‘Ready Player One’ Presentation during Comic-Con International 2017 at San Diego Convention Center on July 22, 2017 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Virtual credits exist today. Your credit card is already on file. You’ll authorize the charge, or have a virtual purse for microtransactions, just as you purchase apps today. And then there’s blockchain, which Philip Rosedale (founder of Second Life) told me in an interview in August that he is planning to integrate with his new social metaverse, High Fidelity.

Players in the OASIS have a basic headset and haptic gloves, but some higher end systems have entire immersion rigs with treadmills to mimic movement as well as full-body sensations.

These kind of full body immersion rigs are available today, however, they are not integrated into many apps. Hand tracking is here. Gloves, which add haptical feedback to virtual objects including keyboards (which I think will be important), are on their way and will allow us to eliminate both the screen and the CPU.

Full body immersion rig imagined by Axon VR of Seattle. Axon, as well as many others, are working on haptic gloves, which we may see commercially in 2018.

Users enter the OASIS by verbally stating a passphrase, recognized by the OASIS system, and are allowed to remain anonymous to other OASIS users. Avatars do not need to reflect the gender, race, or even humanoid features of the user.

If you think Internet trolls are bad today, what till you’re in the same room with them. Doubtless new forms of spam, ads and phishing will continue to follow us wherever we may go, in the real or virtual worlds.

Anonymity and identity are big issues that VR has yet to grapple with. Philip Rosedale, founder of Second Life and the new High Fidelity (now in open beta), thinks the solution is blockchain and is building it into his new platform. Rosedale is thinking about how your money — and digital objects — travel with you into digital worlds in a seamless and secure way.

Players can create private chat rooms, virtual spaces only accessible by invitation.

Facebook Spaces and Oculus Rooms are only open to your Facebook friends.

Oculus’ landing page is like your Facebook page. Note friends list. You can configure your home screen, or room, as you like, and control who can enter. On Sansar, you could even charge them to come in.

Avatars can die. Avatars have virtual healthiness quantified in “hit points.” Run out of health because of a fight with another avatar or doing something that damages one’s avatar and it’s game over. Any items in the possession of that avatar are lost and can be picked up by other players.

This is an interesting rule created to regulate and discourage reckless and violent behavior. In Second Life, some world builders can choose to make their virtual real estate a “weapon free zone”.

Avatars don’t go on “autopilot” when their real-life personas are logged out of OASIS. They remain visible to other avatars for a certain amount of time, then fade out of the system until the user logs in again and picks up from where the avatar was last located. Although against the rules of the system, headsets can be hacked to allow multiple real-life users to take over a single avatar, allowing multiple people to take turns operating one avatar.

Rules like this are created by the world builders. The hacking seems eminently possible.

I wonder how the rules will be replicated within HTC’s coming VR version of RPO, which aspires to re-create the Oasis.

After originally declining to support this thought piece with artwork because the movie isn’t coming out until March 2018, a Warner Bros. flack sent the official poster when this column blew up on social media. FWIW, I like the fan art better.

Written in collaboration with Samuel Steinberger.

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