This week sees the release on Blu-ray and DVD of Steven Spielberg’s recent VR-themed blockbuster, and it’s well worth a watch if you missed it in theatres. I should admit that when I first viewed the trailer for Ready Player One I was not entirely convinced. Loaded with pop culture references to the 1980s, I worried: would this movie simply see Spielberg nostalgically riding the wave of former glories, with no real substance and nothing new to offer?
But, aside from all the crowd-pleasing references to iconic past movies (Back to the Future’s DeLorean, King Kong, and the Jurassic Park T-Rex to name but a few), what we actually get is something refreshingly new: an entertaining and very plausible speculation on the future of VR. In the past, movies have tended to tackle the subject of VR from a far more negative angle. Thanks to a host of Sci-Fi movies from Tron and Logan’s Run to The Matrix: audiences are by now familiar with the concept of the dystopian near-future, where humanity is kept under control through constructed realities.
Personally, I always preferred the idea of Star Trek’s ‘holodeck’ to The Matrix. Although learning Kung Fu in a nanosecond did seem pretty cool! But the holodeck explored the recreational and communal possibilities of VR, and offered us a future where technology could transport us to any environment the human imagination could conjure.
This is the central premise of Spielberg’s movie. In Ready Player One we see a future where VR technology has allowed users to escape from the troubles of the real world and commune in a vast alternate online universe known as the OASIS. Within this limitless digital playground, users can act out any fantasy – from recreating classic movie scenes to competing in virtual vehicle races and interstellar battles. And in one interesting scene, avatars float around weightless dance floors where users socialise in virtual nightclubs. The point to all these scenarios is the sense of community and shared experience which the OASIS brings.
But how much of this is simply Sci-Fi, and how far are we from actually achieving, with real world VR tech, the degree of immersion as seen in Ready Player One?
Well the answer is: not that far! Already the high-end Oculus Rift and HTC Vive headsets deliver remarkable levels of graphic fidelity within fully 360° immersive environments. And with additional audio and haptic feedback features available, VR has never felt more real. Several manufacturers are exploring how to simulate the full physical experience via haptic gloves and suits. While the multi-directional treadmill technologies as seen in the movie are already being developed, which will allow users to freely run and jump around VR environments.
As the technology continues to improve, it’s easy to envisage a time soon where headsets will be able support the necessary computing power, free from the constraints of connection cables and desktop machines; where the technology will become more readily accessible to the average user; and where the VR environment will become as commonplace as the Facebook news feed as the new way of connecting with our peers.
All this is way over my head! I’m still in the stone age in terms of my technical knowledge. But I took the chance to skive away from work to check out some of the projects being developed by the VR team here at Burrows, and was stunned by what they were able to show me.
Imagine dealerships allowing you to configure and personalise your future car while you are sat inside it, months before a physical vehicle is even available to test drive. Or imagine being able to fully explore architectural designs, or customise the interior of your new home, long before the first foundations are poured. These are the types of capabilities we are developing for our clients right now.
And it won’t be long before the ability to share these product choices with our friends will not seem all that far removed from the VR world depicted in Ready Player One. Think of the potential: you’ll be able to show your kids around a virtual representation of their new home, or take friends living in different time zones out for a spin in your new car. The virtual shared experience will be the new social media.