‘Ready Player One’: Good Movie, Bad VR Future-casting

Far be it from me to find fault with filmmaker-great Steven Spielberg or with author Ernest Cline. But as effective and entertaining as Ready Player One is, its depiction of what VR will be like 25 years hence is, conceptually, ridiculous.

<Spoilers ahead>

One major problem involved in forecasting VR’s future—other than any extrapolating of what any of today’s technology will evolve into 25 years from now being a fool’s errand—is understanding that all technology is generational. Most gadgets have a life span of approximately 20-25-years, which means, in 2045, VR likely will be barely recognizable from what it is now. Just consider how radically the forms, functions and capabilities of the cellphone, the personal computer and TV morphed between 1990 and now, the approximate time span between now and the events depicted in RPO.

What I do think Spielberg and Cline get nearly right is the VR technology in RPO, even considering the extensive dramatic license. For instance, 2045’s VR eye- and headwear—and there are several depicted—are far more svelte than today’s clumsy headsets, with built-in ear pieces and translucent screens to allow simultaneous views of both the real world and AR elements. Best of all, consumer headsets are depicted as wireless—the next big leap VR must make toward mass-market commercialization. Work is being done now to get wireless VR to market, such as efforts from  DisplayLink’s WiGig-based XR technology and in the just-announced TPCast Wireless VR accessory for the HTC Vive.

I loved the idea of the haptic X1 Boot Suit, but I doubt such dedicated outerwear will be necessary even five years from now. There is already a thriving wearable sensor industry, so it seems logical that plain clothes can and will be embedded with sensors that can deliver the same haptic feedback as a dedicated suit of haptic armor.

Some cinematic liberties have been taken in how real-world physical movement is translated to corresponding VR activity—mechanics challenging current VR developers. Most promising seem to be the omni-directional treadmills and the VR pods/stations in the IOI war room, which allow movement in OASIS while remaining relatively stationary in the real world. But I found it hard to accept the casual way users virtually sit in cars during the opening race, all that floating dancing, Diato flying while battling Sorento’s Mega-Godzilla, and varying tumbling and rolling—all while physically cabled or strapped in to a rig in the real world.

Finally, what’s missing is a neologism for those who engage in VR. Every new technology creates new terms, like “dialing,” which has persisted despite the fact that rotary phones went the way of the dodo decades ago, or “taping” as in video recording, a term which has persisted despite recording being done via solid state technology. But RPO doesn’t seem to have a term for VR activity or those who VR other than “Gunters” (short of Easter egg hunters), which seems a bit too specific for me since not all those who VR in 2045 will be gamers.

While Spielberg, Cline and company seem to have effectively envisioned 2045’s VR normalcy from today’s cutting-edge VR tech, the virtual world RPO postulates bears no relation to the direction VR is actually heading today.

Real or Unreal?

RPO presents a cleanly bifurcated VR world—you’re either in Oasis or you’re not, and VR is portrayed as virtual DIY bread-and-circuses, simultaneously an escape, an economic trap and a distraction perpetrated by cynical capitalistic corporations to keep the unwashed masses from rising up.

But gaming VR is mostly the porting of old content to a new platform. As the tech continuum continually demonstrates, this kind of old-content-to-new-platform serves merely as training wheels before the new platform’s ultimate applications are discovered/developed.

New platform VR technology, along with AR, is clearly trending toward mixing the real and the unreal. More specifically, as I outlined a few months back (“Are There Killer Apps for AR and VR?“), the future of VR is enabling folks to be virtually present at real-world events and locations. Both Intel with its True VR and NextVR, for instance, are powering the VR presentations from the major sports leagues as well as the recent Pyongyang Winter Olympics.

These live VR presentations are still relatively primitive; many aren’t even full 360-degree virtual presentations. NextVR, for instance, presents what it calls “front 180,” largely because of resolution issues. VR is mostly “just” 1080p, which must be unsatisfactorily spread to fill a 360-degree space. NextVR’s tech is 1440p, but several companies such as Kopin have already introduced 4K (or near 4K) headsets, and Pimax has raised $4.2 million to Kickstart 8K headsets.

And, of course, fatter pipes capable of delivering high-resolution/low latency live VR that could one day include virtually attending personal events and interacting with other attendees will be mandatory to realize the VR future.

So, obviously, the technological path to more immersive “live presence” VR is well lit, with 2045 being a perfectly reasonable deadline for achieving a truly mixed real/unreal reality—and hopefully avoid living in the Stacks.