February 22, 2016

Science fiction authors are helping shape our bleak, dystopian virtual reality future


readyplayeroneOver the last few years, billions of dollars have been invested into virtual reality technology, and 2016 will finally be the year when VR goes mainstream.

So now more than ever, developers, venture capitalists, and tech reporters all want to find out how virtual reality will become essential—as irreplaceable as your Fitbit and your Apple Watch.

But unlike fitness monitors, which are powered by existential angst, and smart watches, which are powered by social anxiety, virtual reality requires ideas and inspiration and a vision of the future. Without those things, it’s just . . . a blurry, less dramatic vision of reality, with occasional dinosaur incursions.

And VR developers may not be best equipped to deliver that vision: as Palmer Luckey, the twenty-three-year-old cofounder of Oculus, told the New York Times’s Nick Wingfield, “Like many other people working in the tech space, I’m not a creative person.”

But as Wingfield reports, there’s a solution to virtual reality’s creative aridity, and that solution is . . . science fiction writers:

Science fiction is shaping the language companies are using to market the technology, influencing the types of experiences made for the headsets and even defining long-term goals for developers.

“Science fiction, in simplest terms, sets you free,” said Ralph Osterhout, chief executive of the Osterhout Design Group, which builds augmented reality glasses.

Wingfield writes that Ernest Cline’s mega-popular, soon-to-be-Spielberged novel Ready Player One has had a particularly strong impact on the virtual reality community (“Oculus gave out 3,000 copies of the book to attendees of an Oculus developer conference”) and reports that Neal Stephenson is working as a “chief futurist” at Magic Leap, an augmented reality company that has recruited other sci-fi writers, as well.

And what about the alienation, disconnection, and anomie that often accompany stories about the retreat from the real world? “Entrepreneurs,” said Stephenson, “[have] an admirable ability to completely ignore the more dystopian elements you’re talking about and see the cool stuff and positive potential of where it might go.”

That’s certainly one way of looking at it! (Curtis White’s brilliant and essential We, Robots offers a slightly more skeptical view: “our new stories,” White writes, “have a strong tendency to stabilize a world arranged according to the needs of techno-capitalism.”)

One thing Wingfield’s article doesn’t address, though, is whether the relationship between virtual reality and science fiction writers will prove to be bidirectional. Once these companies mine sci-fi for content, will they turn to their collaborators’ actual lived experience for inspiration?

Indeed, perhaps as soon as next year, we’ll strap on our headsets, sit down on the couch, and spend the evening experiencing the extraordinarily lifelike sensation of staring at a Microsoft Word document, writing and rewriting the same sentence, googling ourselves, shutting our laptop in frustration, pouring ourselves too much whiskey—another chance for creativity come and gone, another day closer to death.

Now that’s augmented reality.



Mark Krotov was a senior editor at Melville House.