View Full Version : Virtual Reality Vs. Avatars
April 22nd, 2006, 06:50 PM
I finished a couple of weeks ago Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World," which was written in the 1930's. The edition I was reading was a reprint done in the late 1940's. A line in the back cover copy of that edition struck me:
"His world of test tube babies and "feelies" is uncomfortably closer now than it was when the book was first published."
Now at first, this makes you giggle in a nervous way, because if Huxley's brave new world was closer in the late 1940's, it's way closer now. I mean, we have test tube babies. But, what I realized secondly was that we were supposed to have virtual reality (the "feelies") by now. Twenty years ago, that was suppose to be the next big thing that was coming -- it was one of the defining cannons of the sf cyberpunk movement back then. Soon, you see, all our teenagers would be in bodysuits playing VR games, having VR sex and ignoring the real world. It had been prophesized by writers like Huxley and taken up by a bevy of sf writers for decades. SF films were made from the idea. Eventually, it was proposed, we might even give up our bodies and go live in VR worlds.
There is of course some VR technology around and teenagers might have some access to it, but the VR parlors and the feelie movies never materialized. Instead, we have the Web, where people have little avatar pictures or even full avatar creatures that they can manipulate at websites. They use avatars in computer, video and Internet games. We use Usernames -- a constructed identity to talk to one another, and maybe as a disguise. Recently one gaming company is trying to get a Net interactive player software game off the ground where your avatars can date and have sex, a natural progression from all the Sims games.
These avatars aren't VR -- you can't feel it when your avatar has sex or goes waterskiing or blows the big alien monster away, though you can see your avatar do these things, like t.v. or an animated film. So, as sf and fantasy writers as well, why do people think VR never really got off the ground? Might it still become reality some day? Why have avatars -- representation disguises -- instead become the chosen idea?
April 22nd, 2006, 07:47 PM
Infant VR is starting to find its way into homes, most notably, the Eye-Toy (sp?). As for 'feely' VR, we aren't there ... yet.
Now, computers are prevelent at nearly every level of our society. Why go somewhere else when you can live vicariously in your own home? Besides, you can spend many hours with your lil avatar, cheaper than the cost of just one movie.
April 22nd, 2006, 08:02 PM
VR, like you mentioned katG got to a particular extent and i remember VR games around the mid 90s in malls and what not.
But i think that the idea of having VR lives and VR sex would make things worse for the socially challanged among us, right now there is a fair amount to distract them what with Massively multiplayer online roleplaying games, and a further progression into making VR life games could be more unhealthy for youth: making them ignore the real world, and that sort of thing already happens to a certain extent with drugs.
I think though that the internet has removed alot of the interest, because alot of the interest in the web is the ability to interact with anyone anywhere and be anyone you want. VR games/movies would be a greater advance on home video games, much like playing final fantasy on a PS2, it would be too much to make it work as an internetant idea.
In the future (far in the future) it may be more possible to make it work on the net but we'll probably have come up with something more interesting by then.
April 22nd, 2006, 08:19 PM
The technologies that would lead to an immersive VR created through brain stimulation, though not in so sophisticated a form compared to the image of this VR we might have seen in SF media, are already beginning to be explored. Investigation into brain activity, and using electronic devices to regulate brain function, I see as leading eventually to the ability to replicate sensation by stimulating the mind electronically. On the other side we have people working on the control of computers by thought - like moving a mouse pointer with your mind, which can currently be done. There is every possibility that at some point we will have the capability to replicate actual experience through a combination of stimuli and control technologies in a VR environment such as is seen in SF.
The problem with actually predicting the emergance of technologies is that we tend to see the possible and expect it will occur sooner than actually happens. The kind of technology I've mentioned is a long way off - but I think it is almost certain it will exist some day, providing a suitably precise/delicate method of control/stimulation is actually possible.
There is then the social and psychological aspects to consider - what if (or what about when) this technology existed (exists)? It's often brought up that if people could experience everything upto and including sexual pleasure virtually, would they still feel any need to interact with real people? Of course some have said similar things about telephones, the internet, etc - it's always been a concern of someone or other that dislocated communication would lead to noone meeting in person, but it never seems to turn out that way. This is a little different, admittedly - usually, no substitute for real interaction is as satisfying, but in the scenario here, it would be virtually indistinguishable from real interaction - what happens then?
April 22nd, 2006, 08:38 PM
Well, VR technology might have slowed in some quarters, but if this recent news article (http://www.news.com.au/story/0,10117,18848045-13762,00.html) is any indication, someone is still working on it, or at least hoping that they are! :)
April 22nd, 2006, 10:21 PM
The future is never exactly what its expected it to be. What happened to the one pill meals and the flying cars and the clothes of the future? Well, no one wants to eat just a pill. Flying cars have been done but never caught on, the air traffic would be a nightmare. Clothes of the future always looked more like long underwear, and we found better things to wear, even if what we chose is a little less functional and more aesthetic.
We've replaced feelies with surround sound, well placed sub woofers and CGI which shows us impossible things.
It's just as well. The world of Flash Gordon would have bored us to tears.
April 23rd, 2006, 03:11 AM
Well, one aspect I can think of is the "clothes-as-equipment" angle. First step, make the equipment work. Second step, make them comfortable to wear. Third step establish VR-bars (sub-sector of gaming arcades, perhaps). Then it might take over the home. Would take quite some time, though.
In computer gaming, gimmicks come up all the time (skiing games with pads to step on; dancing games with little cameras...). The problem is usually that the equipment's too expensive and the games are too limited. The tech-stuff doesn't really excite all that much; it's what you do with it - and there you need to strike a balance between economics and aesthetics. There are joysticks that provide tactile feedback (for some flight-simulators, I think).
Avatars on the other hand work much like clothes, or tatoos, or hair-do. A bit of self-expression (often made into a set with banner-like sigs, etc.). As a kid, I'd often draw cartoon characters (invented by a friend, and derived off Pacman's foes) onto postcards, print an "E" onto a shirt (my name's Edward) and put the message into a speech bulb. That was way before the internet existed in my world (mostly military/corporate uses, I'd suspect). I wouldn't sign those Postcards. The toon would be the signature. Similarly, drawing hearts into love-letters is pretty much proto-smiley behaviour.
Avatars/smileys are a lot more consistent with our everyday behaviour than VR equipment, I think.
As for SF, I've never thought of it as "prediction", more as "vision", or - occasionally - as a "distortion mirror".
Cyberpunk's VR concept always seemed to me a metaphor for reality as such. The reason VR works is because our reality is derived from our senses. Thus, all reality, in a sense, is virtual from the get go. All we vary is where the input comes from. (That's why I couldn't help but think of "The Matrix" as "cyberpunk for dummies", making a genre trope explicit [at a time, when most cyberpunk writers have moved on, I might add]).
SF writers/readers tend to get high on ideas, and neglect body-conduct-continuity; that's why a lot of SF city scapes look all technological. It's primarily a literary device to signify "future".
Cyberpunk is pretty much tech-philosophy; much of hard-SF is imaginative theoretical science (where faking data is of positive value). And so on.
In terms of cultural reception, the term "VR" (even the abbreviation) has stuck, whereas I hear precious few people talking about "cyberspace" anymore (which was a hip term in the late eighties/early nineties).
Generally, I'd argue that SF is more inspiring than predicting. I mean we have robots and we call them robots (after a term czech writer Čapek coined, I think). The VR project hasn't been abandoned yet, but even the proto-VR devices have problems getting established (unless you see video games and TV as proto-VR, already). What's missing, IMO, is the body-comfort zone. We may get there, we may not; but if we do cyberpunk didn't merely predict, it influenced.
April 23rd, 2006, 08:00 AM
The reason VR works is because our reality is derived from our senses.
Or, the reason VR has failed thus far is that our mind knows that our senses are being deceived.
Suppose, though, that instead of sensory deprivation, the super villain uses a VR the hero wakes up to with no way of knowing he's being manipulated as in the James Garner movie 36 Hours. There was virtual reality at it's most potent. If you could get that start-from-scratch VR, then perhaps it would be effective.
April 23rd, 2006, 09:46 AM
As far as VR goes, I still think its just a matter of time. Its obvious that people are willing to spend thier lives infront of a computer- just look how many hardcore World of Warcraft players there are. I mean people are willing to spend real dollars on stuff for thier players- and one Hong Kong player killed another player because they didn't deliver the online item they bought. So people would be more than happy to strap on some outfit and leave this world behind. As far as why it isn't here yet- they're working on it. The military uses a fair amount of VR for training now, and its only a matter of time before that spills into the commercial sector.
April 23rd, 2006, 01:25 PM
I think VR is still a long, long way off both in terms of technology but also as regards reducing costs to a mass production level where it will be cheap enough for significant numbers of people to buy. The tactile/feel issue is quite interesting in that it seems to be the next movement in gaming, the eyetoy and dance mats have already been mentioned but perhaps the most significant choice is Nintendo's to incorporate this technology into their newest console the Revolution via a handset/controller that directly affects games through your movements with the handset/controller. If the way mass market games are created changes in response to Nintendo's brave move (and that's a big if) and the Revolution is accepted by a fair portion of the market, bringing this type of experience much further into the public domain ie: the household, then we could see a re-priming of VR that may bring it closer quicker, than it is at present. We're still going to have a wait a while to do Tron in our living rooms though :D
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