More than a few bloggers have been making much of a piece by Emma Green that appeared in The Atlantic on 27 December, 2013. The short article, “Making Virtual Reality Less Virtual” argues that both the new virtual reality headset Oculus Rift, and the focus of Second Life founder Philip Rosedale’s company High Fidelity upon “incorporating virtual reality seamlessly into everyday life,” may lead to a resurgence in interest in virtual reality in general and, for some (such as New World Notes’ Hamlet Au) in Second Life in particular. It will do this, as Green’s title intimates, by “making virtual reality less virtual” – by making it, in other words, more “real.”
At one time, the focus was upon bringing the “real” into Second Life. This approach reached its inglorious climax under the stewardship of Mark Kingdon, who focused Linden Lab’s business, on one hand, upon its “Enterprise” version that was supposed to make Second Life more functional for real life corporations, and, on the other, upon what some SL residents perceived as the “Facebookization” of Second Life. The former failed miserably in the end; the primary lasting legacy of the latter was the creation of Display Names, which permitted (in theory) residents to employ their real life names in-world.
For the most part, then, this attempt to bring the “real” world into the virtual one failed, and so there has seemingly been a change in direction. This is what Philip Rosedale has to say in Green’s piece about the the purpose of High Fidelity:
“Virtual reality is not any different than reality once you close the communication gap,” he said. “Most of the progress has to come in this face-to-face interaction.” To improve people’s perceptions of avatars, “the thing that’s going to be really demanding is your face and your eyes and the sound of your voice and the nuance of your body movement. When everybody says ‘real,’ oh, we’re going to lose the real—that’s what they mean.”
Where Second Life represented an attempt, in theory at least, to create a new space where “our imagination” might overrule the tyranny of the mundane and the “real,” High Fidelity, it seems, is about making the virtual “more real” (and hence, presumably, more acceptable to the corporate clients that Rosedale is clearly targeting). And Oculus Rift, or something like it, is what is going to help bring the virtual into the real world.
This is not a subtle shift in emphasis; it’s a radical re-envisioning of what is meant by “virtual reality,” at least as it was apparently first imagined by Rosedale and the engineers of Second Life at its inception. The man who once spoke of Second Life as “a platform on top of which people could develop whatever they wanted. A total blank canvas on top of which the only limitation was their imagination” seems now to worry that maybe we’ve been asking too much of the imagination. What he seems to think we want now is less of the capacious stuff of which dreams are made, and more of the “real.”
But then this has always been a contradiction inherent within Second Life, for even as it provided a “blank canvas” upon which to create anything, its engineers were busily at work making our experience of what we might create there as believable, as “real” as possible. The vast majority of improvements that have been made to the platform over the years – ranging from the introduction of flexiprims all the way to the more recent introduction of mesh – have been about making the experience more realistic. In some regards, they have been astonishingly successful: Second Life has never been more visually convincing than it has become in late years.
Which brings us, of course, to Oculus Rift, and the promise of a truly immersive and realistic visual experience of the virtual. The Oculus Rift is stereoscopic, functioning in “the same way your eyes perceive images in the real world, creating a much more natural and comfortable experience.” With a 110° field of view, our view of “the game” is “no longer boxed in on a screen and is only limited by what your eyes can see. The combination of the wide field of view with head-tracking and stereoscopic 3D creates an immersive virtual reality experience.” A world that is “no longer boxed in on a screen” is one that has escaped the artificial and seeped into the “real,” into the “more natural.” It is as though Botticelli’s Venus had stepped off her shell, and out of the frame that keeps her suspended upon the wall. Compare this to the experience of visiting Second Life’s Bamboo Grove sim, where one can walk into a three dimensional rendering of pen and ink drawings.
There is no question, I think, that Oculus Rift, should it prove feasible (and not leave too many residents heaving into their waste baskets), will make Second Life more engaging and visually exciting. It will undoubtedly make it more “immersive.” But at what cost?
When our virtual world is experienced in almost exactly the same way as the real world, is it really “virtual” anymore? This kind of seamless interpenetration of the real and the virtual is precisely what Rosedale’s High Fidelity is aiming for; consider the very name of the company. He may well achieve it, but if he does, he will, arguably, have succeeded at betraying the promise that Second Life once held out: a world that was open to an unbounded imagination precisely because it was not so realistic as to elbow out fantasy, and creativeness, and dream-like imaginings
On reflection, maybe Second Life has always demarcated the limits of our imagination. Given the opportunity to create something entirely different from the real, what has all of the ingenuity behind Second Life produced? An environment that looks convincingly, and more and more so with each passing year, exactly like the terrestrial world that we inhabit in physical space.
And I can’t really blame anyone for that, because I’m not sure that I can imagine a virtual world that doesn’t have ground, and sky, and gravity, and light and dark, and physically embodied avatars. What might a truly non-real virtual world look like? How would we interact and communicate? What would we do here, if we couldn’t build houses, and cars, and spaceports, or go shopping and dancing?
Can we imagine a world more virtual than real?