Will You Be Ready for the Virtual Reality Future?
I recently finished reading Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. Admittedly, I am a little late to the party. The book, published in 2011, is already a classic, soon to be a movie directed by Steven Spielberg.
The book has made a profound effect on me, as it unlocked in my mind a believable path to fully immersive virtual reality (VR). Perhaps for the first time in my life, it became clear what it will be like when a digital copy of me goes through the "gate."
Here is the summary of my takeaways, without any plot spoilers.
1. Multiple personalities
Our digital copies will not be copies at all. Rather, they will be our digital fantasies.
Even today, with the limited amount of digital expression given to us by chats and texts and Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat posts, we can see this trend. Our online identities aren't the same as our real life ones. We don't want them to be. Whatever shortcomings or insecurities we have, we tend to overcompensate for them online.
Once fully immersive VR is here, each person is going to be able to create a much more developed, realistic digital persona in the online world. The characters in Ready Player One when online aren't anything like they are in real life. They are better looking, stronger and more free because they aren't bounded by the laws of physics.
What does it mean to live in the world where each one of us will have several, fully fleshed out selfs?
It is hard to grasp from our current vantage point. But just like kids have become full digital natives, future generations will naturally exist in both the physical and digital worlds.
2. Mind over matter
As human beings evolved, so did our minds. Since the dawn of civilization, strength and muscles were the traits that ensured survival. But more and more, this has stopped being the case. Intelligence has been defining the future and dominating the genome. These days, if you are smart you can make more money and have a better living than if you are just strong.
Virtual reality takes this perhaps to the ultimate extreme because strength and our physical bodies become less and less relevant. Motion and speed in VR depend more on our minds and intelligence and not so much on our physical bodies.
It is mind blowing and odd to think that mind overtakes matter. After all, how can the mind exist and be healthy if there is no actual body to support it? The hero of Ready Player One still has to exercise in the physical world every day to stay in shape, but this is just about the only activity he does that is not inside VR. There is no doubt that if he he had a choice of fully moving into VR he would do it in a heartbeat (pun intended).
3. Physics becomes economics
The digital world is frictionless. Scrolling on your phone requires much less effort than flipping a page of a book. We can easily move objects in the digital world, because the rules of physics do not apply. Yet, physics is not entirely gone in VR. Instead, it is replaced by economics.
Our digital equivalents will rule the world with unlocks, level ups and digital currency. To jump higher, run faster and teleport to distant worlds one will need currency and skill. There will still be barriers, but they will economical rather than physical.
We will be able to rewire and rebuild ourselves and our worlds through in-app purchases. New looks, new clothing, new weapons, new houses and new powers will be available much in the same way they are available today in apps and games -- via points and digital currency.
4. Full immersion
Today's VR experiences are still not fully immersive. You can tell you are wearing a headset. You can feel the outside world through your skin. You know you aren't really moving around when you are in VR. In the world described in Ready Player One, the characters experience fully immersive VR, and it is mind blowing.
Imagine putting on a full body suit and a visor and going somewhere else. Remember when Apple introduced retina displays with more pixels that our eyes can really appreciate? Imagine VR going the same way.
Fully immersive VR will bring you to strange new worlds that will feel every bit (pun intended) as real as our world today. You will not be able to tell a difference between walking through the Grand Canyon and walking through a landscape on Mars.
5. When do we get there?
What is the horizon for all this magic? Likely within 10 to 15 years. The public release of major headsets expected soon will be the beginning, but to be clear, it will be many years before what is described in Ready Player One to become our reality.
For starters, the resolution and the motion is still in the beta stages. You can tell you are inside a video game. Navigation presents an even bigger challenge. You don't have a great way to navigate in VR today. And we are very far away from full immersion using a body suit.
Yet, we can already see a lot of progress made in all of these directions. Even looking at the VR companies applying this year to Techstars, we are able to see paths to that fully immersive future.
6. Philosophical implications
If your head is spinning from all of this -- I don't blame you, so is mine. The philosophical and societal implications of VR are huge. The shift to mobile with the invention of the iPhone will blend into the rest of history as not that interesting once we have fully immersive VR.
What happens to society at large once individuals choose to either live in the virtual world? How can people sustain themselves? Do we figure out a way to be fully digitized, and make a leap like Jake from Avatar? What does it mean, and how is it even possible??
I don't have a clue. But I deeply believe that people will figure it out.
Whatever it is, the new, fully immersive VR world will be truly amazing and mind blowing.
Alex Iskold is the managing director of Techstars in New York City. Previously Iskold was founder/CEO of GetGlue (acquired by i.tv), founder/CEO of Information Laboratory (acquired by IBM) and chief architect at DataSynapse (acquired by TIBCO). An engineer by training, Iskold has deep passion and appreciation for startups, digital products and elegant code. He likes running, yoga, complex systems, Murakami books and red wine -- not necessarily in that order and not necessarily all together. He actively blogs about startups and venture capital at http://alexiskold.net.