The Future of Virtual Reality: A Roadmap to Losing Yourself

“Yesterday’s Future Today” – a biweekly column exploring the various predictions of classic science fiction and how they’ve stood the test of time.

Earlier this year, Lucasfilm announced its decision to scrap the slated 2013 release dates for the 3D conversions of Star Wars: Attack of the Clones and Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. As a lifelong Star Wars fan who has devoted a ponderous amount of time and money over the years to the series’ films, books, toys, games, apparel, and collectibles, I greeted this news with a resounding “Meh.” Leaving aside the fact that these films were from the prequel trilogy (which I happened to enjoy, despite its numerous shortcomings), I simply had no interest in the tedious and migraine-inducing “technical marvel” of 3D motion pictures. I have had the misfortune of sitting through two 3D films thus far, and while the repeated waves of nausea I felt seem to have obscured the experiences somewhat in my memory, the words blurry, disorienting, and gimmicky come to mind.

The 3D movie craze may well turn out to be a red herring, but it is merely a symptom of a very real and enduring phenomenon of our technological age: the quest for greater immersion. Through surround-sound speaker systems and high definition televisions, motion-controlled game consoles and microphone headsets, the denizens of the twenty-first century have sought repeatedly to heighten the illusions of their sporadic breaks from reality. On the extreme end, role playing games like Blizzard’s World of Warcraft or Bioware’s Mass Effect series enable players to reincarnate themselves in rich and luscious environments which are realistically shaped by the consequences of their decisions, but even non-gamers find ways to occasionally lose themselves in the drama of their favorite television series. Not surprisingly, the future of escapism litters the pages of escapist futurism. Wait, is that right? Well, whatever, we’re just going to look at some science fiction.

virtual_reality-t2The concept of virtual reality appears in countless works of science fiction both new and old, but one of the most stirring portrayals of all time was in the 1999 film The Matrix by the Wachowski brothers. By feeding electrical impulses directly into the brain, the titular Matrix bypassed the need for helmets or bodysuits entirely, creating a virtual environment of perfect realism for its captive users. Such direct cerebral stimulation may be much closer to our world than you might think. A team led by Dr. Theodore Berger at the University of Southern California has managed to successfully install a computerized hippocampus into the brain of a rat which is capable of generating and transmitting artificial memories to the animal. Thankfully such technology has not yet fallen into the hands of any self-aware machine overlords!

Author Philip K. Dick provided a far different glimpse of mankind’s future fix for escaping reality in his novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1964). In Dick’s rendering of the early twenty-first century, Earth’s citizens are press-ganged into service as colonists for the small settlements throughout the solar system. Isolated from human civilization in tiny hovels and beset from all sides by the inhospitable elements of an alien planet, the reluctant colonists turn to the psychotropic wonder-drug Can-D to briefly escape the reality of their wretched lives. Coupled with a customizable layout, the drug enables the colonists to embody a personal avatar safely ensconced in an earthly paradise for a precious thirty minutes or so. Unlike more familiar narcotics or hallucinogens, Can-D provides users with a crystal-clear experience scarcely distinguishable from reality and leaves them clear-headed and fully capable of enjoying their brief snatch of nirvana.

Whether the ultimate means are biological or digital, there can be little doubt in my mind that man’s quest for a virtual reality, for a precious escape from the soul-crushing drudgery of [insert day job], will continue well into the future. Oh, and this is just a personal shout out to another science fiction connoisseur (you know who you are): Philip K. Dick is a credit to his profession, to be sure, but he couldn’t lay a finger on the Big Three (Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein), and we all know that there is only one writer who could lay any reasonable claim to being appended to that list (*cough* Ray Bradbury *cough* *cough*).

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