Just last week I had my students discuss in class Alex ‘↑Rex‘ ↑Golub‘s excellent ethnography-based article ‘↓Being in the World (of Warcraft)‘ (2010). One of the points Rex powerfully makes is that it isn’t ever more realistic (or: naturalistic) graphics and supposedly intuitive interfaces that guarantee deep immersion into computer games and so-called ‘virtual worlds,’ but social relationships (a point that I do second fully). Hence the vision of ↑VR pioneers/evangelists like ↑Jaron Lanier and the prospects fostered by cyberpunk were somewhat misleading:
No sooner had text only worlds blossomed before it appeared they would be replaced by immersive “virtual realities,” which would produce qualia as realistic as those experienced in the actual world. Envisioned first in science fiction classics such as True Names (Vinge 1981), Neuromancer (Gibson 1984), and Snowcrash (Stephenson 1992), the idea of sensorially realistic virtual worlds grew in popularity in the early nineties as authors such as Howard Rheingold popularized emergent technologies which seemed to promise the imminent feasibility of their construction (Rheingold 1992).
By the late nineties, however, the development of haptic interfaces and virtual reality goggles sputtered out, and it became increasingly clear that science fiction’s vision of a future world littered with virtual realities would not come to pass. At the same time, the rise of the Internet and the blogs, wikis, and social network sites it supported indicated that “cyberspace is necessarily a multiple-participant environment” and “the almost mystical euphoria” that surrounded “DataGloves, head-mounted displays, special-purpose rendering engines” was “both excessive and misplaced” (Morningstar and Farmer 1991). Relationships, not realism, seemed to be central to future technologies. Rheingold himself concurred. In his 2003 review of emerging technologies, he admitted that “the past ten years of VR have not been as exciting as the original idea was or as I had thought they would be” (Rheingold 2003:89). Rather, the “world of the twenty-first century” would be one in which “computers would be built into reality rather than the other way around” (Rheingold 2003:82) via technologies such as ubiquitous and tangible computing and mobile telephony. “Science fiction has disserved us,” wrote Philip Agre presciently. “Gibson famously defined cyberspace as a space apart from the corporeal world—a hallucination. But the Internet is not growing apart from the world, but to the contrary is increasingly embedded in it” (Agre 1999). Realistic, separated virtual worlds were off the menu. (Golub 2010: 20-21)
But now ↑John Carmack is making a virtual reality headset. If Engine John himself is at it, it might well be that the VR goggles, that archetypical cyberpunk gadget, makes a comeback. Here’s a snippet from PD102’s comment:
‘And here is Carmack basically building the start of his Iron Man suit. Virtual Reality though, if anyone can make it work. It’s Carmack.’ Followed by neros1x’s:
‘2000 years from now, atheists will be arguing that John Carmack didn’t REALLY ascend to heaven to sit at the right hand of god.’
Somehow I think it will go the same path almost every single one of these gagdets went in the past: straight to oblivion. There will be a certain hype about it, some ‘hardnerds’ most certainly are going to buy it, but in the end it will be too expensive (500 USD is about the same as a nice high-end graphics card, for example, and not many people are buying these) and not versatile enough, since it only seems to make sense for firstperson-gameplay. And finally, using the goggles, you can’t see your desk/keyboard/cup of coffee any longer, which is kind of a disadvantage as well…
Speaking of immersion, I would rather spend my money on some nice realtime headtracking device for stereo headphones instead