The problem with the VR Metaverse of ‘Ready Player One’
The advent of science fiction has shown us that virtual reality is a realm of infinite possibility. Snow Crash’s Metaverse, Star Trek’s Holodeck, and Yu-Gi-Oh! ‘s Virtual World are powerful experience generators and can accommodate any character’s desire. Novelist Ernest Cline sharpened this vision in his 2011 debut, Ready Player One. Courtesy to Steven Spielberg, it hits theaters in Match. The story is set in the strife-torn metaspace of 2045. The action unfolds in a network of artificial worlds called the OASIS. VR developers, aiming for reality to catch up to sci-fi, are actively trying to replicate the promise of OASIS. They are indeed making progress but are they doing it right?
The OASIS is a terrible acronym that stands for “Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation” – something we hope Spielberg never lets one of his characters say. However, OASIS offers something attractive: breadth. Some of the environments included in the OASIS are created by users and others by government agencies. They range from educational to recreational and from nonprofit to commercial.
By contrast, today’s real-life multiuser VR experience is less OASIS and more PUDDLE (Provisionally Usable Demonstration of Dazzling Lucid Environments). Some of the constraints are aesthetic. In AltspaceVR, for example, users are limited to a narrow range of expressionless human and robot avatars, and Against Gravity’s Rec Room comes with a goofy charm that leads you to not caring that avatars lack noses. Other constraints are experiential. Facebook’s Spaces only lets you hang out with people that you are already friends with. Several other issues hamper startups with ambitions like that of OASIS. For instance, Sansar is a noob-unfriendly world-building system, and VRchat has the vibe of a dark side of Reddit that invites trollery.
However, the main problem is not these metaphorical boundaries; it is literal ones. None of these come with PUDDLE. With OASIS, you cannot hop from Rec Room to VRchat and remain stuck where you started. This makes it challenging to feel truly immersed. To reach Cline’s 2045, developers need to begin laying the foundation now for an infrastructure that links each of these worlds. If that sounds idealistic or dangerous, it is not. In the days before the internet, when various institutions ran their walled-off networks, the idea of a single network became possible only when computer scientists came together to standardize protocols. Now imagine applying that notion to VR—a metaverse in which users can flit between domains without losing their identity or their bearings as they travel.
The OASIS works since it feels like it has no owners and no urgent needs. It is a utility or a toolkit available for both artisans and corporations. Suppose we want to realize the potential of universal freedom and possibility. In that case, we have to start thinking about virtual reality the way Cline does: not as a first-to-market commodity, but as the internet.