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The VR Metaverse of 'Ready Player One' Is Just Beyond Our Grasp

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Virtual reality, as it’s been promised to us by science fiction, is a singular realm of infinite possibility. Star Trek’s Holodeck, Yu-Gi-Oh!’s Virtual World, Snow Crash’s Metaverse: Each is the all-powerful experience generator of its world, able to accommodate a character’s any desire. Novelist Ernest Cline sharpened this vision in his 2011 debut, Ready Player One[1], which hits theaters in March courtesy of Steven Spielberg[2]. While the story is set in the strife-torn meatspace of 2045, most of its action unfolds in a vast network of artificial worlds called the OASIS. And in the tradition of reality playing catch-up to sci-fi, the OASIS has become the endgame for real-world VR developers, many of whom are actively trying to replicate its promise. Are they making progress? Absolutely. Are they doing it right? Absolutely not.

The OASIS is saddled with a terrible acronym—hopefully Spielberg never lets one of his characters say “Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation”—but it offers something attractive: breadth. Some of the environments contained in the OASIS are created by users, others by government agencies; they range from educational to recreational (reconstructions of ’80s fantasy novels are popular), nonprofit to commercial.

Today’s real-life multiuser VR experiences[3], by contrast, are less OASIS and more ­PUDDLE (Provisionally Usable Demonstration of Dazz­ling Lucid Environments). Some of the constraints are aesthetic: In AltspaceVR, users are limited to a narrow range of expressionless human and robot avatars, while the goofy up-with-people charm of Against Gravity’s Rec Room hinges on you not caring that avatars lack noses. Other constraints are experiential: Facebook’s Spaces lets you hang out only with people you’re already Friends with. Startups with OASIS-size ambitions are hampered by still other issues, whether that’s a noob-unfriendly world-building system (Sansar) or

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