Does Occulus Mean That VR Is Finally Here?

Giff Constable virtual worlds

Occulus Rift and better immersion rigs have allowed the promise of virtual worlds to rear its head again. Raph wrote a great post the other night, and I feel compelled to weigh in as well.

Once upon a time, I was a near-expert in the space, obsessing about it from 2004 to 2008. I was also admittedly slightly bitter about it for a few years after the fall and Electric Sheep’s (our startup) drawn-out collapse. Because the third wave (there had been two runs at it before) of virtual worlds did fall, and while the games industry stayed strong, only Second Life (SL) remained standing, holding on to life as a creative/social MMO.

When I was bit by the bug, I was bit big, as you can tell from this video I wrote and shot in mid-2007:

I remember back to the Metaverse Roadmap session in 2007, which Raph alludes to in his post. My worry then was that VR would not become a reality until our immersion tools became near-invisible.

What I realized later is that it will require more than that:

  • great immersion capabilities (we seem to be getting closer)
  • natural-feeling “input/control” mechanisms (is fluid movement enough? or do we need facial expressions as well, which is what Neal Stephenson hypothesized?)
  • scalable environments (SL could never handle very many avatars together, or high levels of physics, without terrible lag)
  • more extensible environments, allowing for sophisticated 3rd party software development on top of a metaverse platform, necessary to create rich experiences (what we finally have on the Web with rich browser-based applications)

Social acceptance is also a tricky issue. During my years focused on this, I acquired a deep knowledge of why people fell in love with virtual worlds, and how they acted inside of virtual worlds. What I didn’t do was deeply study why people weren’t falling in love with virtual worlds. While I knew that virtual worlds would have an adoption-curve chasm crisis, I misjudged how long it would take to solve the technical and experiential problems. How about the social ones? Heck, in Ready Player One, Ernest Cline hypothesizes it taking a global energy crisis to drive people into the virtual world OASIS, and indeed OASIS is positioned as a crutch that distracts humanity from its real problems.

When we realized, at the end of 2007, that SL wasn’t going to be the metaverse platform we dreamed of, we turned to browser-based technologies, but that didn’t work either. I walked away thinking that it would take 15 to 20 years for the pieces to finally be in place. It has only been 7. While Occulus is exciting, I wonder how much progress has been made on those other issues.

When we all met in early 2007 for the Metaverse Roadmap, I remember Randy Farmer being the grizzled, cynical veteran in the room. He had created Habitat in the mid-80s, the first stab at a virtual world. At the time, we were the bright and shiny newcomers. We said, “this time it is really going to happen!” It didn’t. And so I became the grizzled, cynical veteran. But that doesn’t mean that it won’t happen.