VR Nostalgia, look at the future!

Back in the 90s there was a lot of hype about Virtual Reality, but the technology didn’t live up to the expectations. I found this video of one of the most famous movie about VR, Johnny Mnemonic (1995) :


There was also The Lawnmower Man (in french, Le Cobaye); watch the trailer, and the ending where Jobbe is trying to escape his VR prison.

This gives you a good idea of what people fantasized about VR. Fifteen years later we can at last have the visual immersion people expected at that time (but work still has to be done for 3DUIs (user interfaces) 😉

This article by R.U. Sirius talks about Whatever happened to Virtual Reality. Here’s a summary of this long article (I only kept the VR part, there are also interesting thoughts about human evolution) :

If you weren’t there, you probably wouldn’t believe it. But way back at the start of the 90s, people at the edge of the emerging digital culture talked about Virtual Reality (VR) — the idea that we would soon interact in shared 3D worlds – as much as, if not more than, they talked about the internet. (…)
Virtual Reality developer Jaron Lanier was generally accepted as the public face of VR during this heady period that lasted from about 1989-91. (…)

In the late 1980s Lanier’s team at VPL (Virtual Programming Language) developed the first implementation of multi-person virtual worlds using head mounted displays. The work was applied to surgery and television production, among other things. He also led the team that developed the first widely used software platform architecture for immersive virtual reality applications. During the late 90s, Lanier served as the Lead Scientist of the National Tele-immersion Initiative, a coalition of research universities studying advanced applications for Internet 2. The Initiative demonstrated the first prototypes of tele-immersion in 2000 after a three year development period. (…)

JARON LANIER : (…) what were people looking for? I still believe that what people really want from VR is to be able to touch upon the feeling of being able to share a dream with someone else . (…) You can divide the requirements of the technology that will give you that into two pieces. You can call one piece the production quality or production standards — how detailed is the resolution? How realistic do surfaces look? That boils down to fast computers, high quality sensors and displays: the tech underpinnings of it all.

But then there’s this other side; the software side, which involves how you can get a virtual world to do things. My feeling is that even a low-res virtual world can get people the kind of experience that I was just describing. And I think we did have some great moments and great experiences in the ‘80s, even with very low-res systems that were available then. I think that the failure since then is that the software that’s been developed is very rigid. (…)

(…) VR really needs a different attitude. Even today, you see people starting up a VR program and after some months they’ll have a cube rotating or maybe a videogame where you’re moving through a space and shooting at things. It’s been done for decades! Do these people not know the meaning of boredom? How can people bear that? (…)

my belief — is that even a really low-res system that’s sort of manageable by a small group of people could be done that would be much more exciting and bring out more of this feeling of transcendence than what we’re seeing now. (…)

RU: In your opinion, have there been fundamental changes in computer hardware that could make VR software more optimal in the intervening years?

JL: Not much. Just speed. More polygons.

RU The slowness in moving towards more creative forms of VR is a commercial problem also. If there was an obvious immediate market for it, a company with money would be working on it. You’d be working on it.

JL: Capitalism has proven really wonderful and optimal in encouraging certain kinds of improvements in technology but it seems to have these blind spots (…) But if it’s for something new and the market doesn’t already exist, you get caught up in a sort of chicken-and-egg situation even though one can see that if all the pieces were in place there would be an incredible market. (…)

RU: Well, it seems that the contravening force to capitalism in the digital world is the gift economies of open source enthusiasts, which has the added charm of being non-coercive.

JL: Yeah. Well if I can find the personal focus for it I might try to start an open source movement for making VR tools. I should probably do that. It would be courageous. (…)
I like to think of VR as an alternative way of thinking about a ramp of technological progress in the future where instead of making bigger and faster things, you make more intense experiences and more interesting forms of human connection. And if you think of that ramp, which is more of a McLuhanesque ramp than an Edward Teller ramp, that alternative ramp is the one that we can survive with. So in that sense, all this business about aesthetics and communications is a survival strategy. I really think it’s the only imaginable future.

I can only agree that software is the weak point. Even if the hardware is still expensive, solutions exist to have a good immersion. But the applications are still very simple. Tools exist to create virtual world, but it’s still a bit more complex that creating a 3d game. We need more high level tools. Stop reinventing the wheel! Build upon the existing, do things that have never been done before! Do proof of concepts rather than low level programming, show the world that the VR community is alive!
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