The idea of a fully computer-generated virtual reality (VR) hit the mainstream two decades ago when William Gibson introduced to the world to the cyber-cowboys of data-decks of Neuromancer. But even as crude prototypes were developed, and the concepts were discussed late into the night, we were without the computing power to actually make it happen. We could talk a lot about how cool it would be, we just couldn’t actually go there.
Since then there have been a number of attempts to create virtual worlds, but our intellectual understanding of what that might mean has remained far ahead of our ability to actual create it. Second Life, a more recent example, was able to generate far more press than it was activity, because in the end the ability to “do anything” still means that someone has to do all the work that it takes to make something happen.
The disconnect comes from the fact that the endgame of VR isn’t really about breaking the laws of physics, it’s about fulfilling desires. What we’re really looking for is a magical genie where the products of our imaginations can be realized instantly, without the painstaking work that it usually takes to go from fantasy to reality, and without the inherent language process errors that come from Monkey Paws or genies in old Twilight Zone episodes. But even as our digital tools get better and better the interfaces for turning thought into action still remain crude, filtered through complicated devices that still only allow for the simplest approximations of interaction. Or, as a friend pointed out to me the other day, when someone knocks all the crap over in your house in Fallout 3, you suddenly realize that you don’t actually have the hands you need in order to pick it up.
But the idea of VR is compelling enough that it seems to constantly trick people into giving it another go. To that end Sony has clearly decided it’s worthwhile to pour millions of dollars into trying to create a virtual front-end for the Playstation 3. Unfortunately they seem to be running headlong into not only into the classic roadblocks of VR creation, but also the modern problems that come when what people want is to screw around with ideas and characters that other people “own”. As the creators of Spore recently discovered when their users decided that making thousands of living penises was a great idea, giving people the tools to be able to easily do whatever they want comes with the added responsibility of having to police what they actually do.
There are solutions to those problems, but they can be expensive, and once they’re applied you may find that what you have isn’t really a virtual reality anymore. Instead you’ve got a game where the only rules are defined by your limitations, both real and artificial, which isn’t really much fun at all.