Global Village? Today It Would Be Torpedoed By A PlayStation Geek

RB2 ideal takes the back seat
It has almost been like a bad dream come true so far for visionaries and theorists who have been longing for virtual reality to swoop down like a superhero and make a huge “positive” mark. Meanwhile, both online and offline, in arcades and in the comfort of living rooms, and from behind glowing television sets and computer screens, people are blowing stuff up, shooting-’em-up, role playing, engaging in physical combat, embarking on outlandish adventures, taking part in sporting activities and participating in strategy games, among other pastimes.

Basically, users have been immersing themselves in synthetic surroundings, graphical displays and state-of-the-art audio for the sheer entertainment value, versus delving into such media for any meaningful interaction with one another, as was envisioned some 20 years ago by Jaron Lanier, the very man who coined the term “virtual reality.”

Eating cyberdust
As far as this fledgling blogzine can detect, Lanier’s lofty notion that virtual reality can one day become a new global communications medium is nowhere to be spotted in terms of having any pronounced readings on the popular scale. Lanier and others who think similarly have been pulling for multi-user artificial environments to help counteract the increasing isolation of the individual as well as address the dissolution of real-life community in the digital age, ironically aided by the Internet’s very existence.

Instead, we have the growing popularity of single- and multi-user virtual reality technology for entertainment purposes, namely in the form of video and computer games. As a chiefly anecdotal side note, single-user VR has proliferated in gaming, and the systems being used today remain primarily under the category of information technology, versus communication technology that would mediate person-to-person interaction via a “reality-built-for-two,” or “RB2,” a phrase Lanier coined in 1987. On the flip side, it also is interesting to note the huge popularity of e-mail as a form of asynchronous networked communication, as well as text-messaging, versus the increasingly old-fashioned telephone call or face-to-face, real-life encounter.

At any rate, if we wanted to have some fun with numbers, telltale industry dollar figures and merchandising transaction tallies in the consumer electronics market offer at least one solid indication that the Lanier vision of interpersonal communication is eating dust.

Sales of entertainment games as well as the volume of units that they are played on have taken off quite dramatically over the past 10 years. In fact, dollar sales for computer and video games in the United States nearly doubled since 1996, when cash registers rang to the tune of $3.7 billion. The sum then steadily climbed to $7.3 billion in 2004, according to the Entertainment Software Association. The group’s year 2005 consumer survey findings also state that 248 million computer and video game units were sold in the U.S. in 2004, compared with 105 million in 1996.

Speaking generally, gaming’s growth capacity in terms of widespread use can be attributed at least in part to the relatively low cost of its chief components, according to VR nonfiction author Ralph Schroeder. Additionally, virtual reality as a technology that would enable Lanier’s vision to manifest itself on a “household” level is still on the drawing board, comparatively speaking. For instance, employing VR for the types of uses that Lanier had in mind would put relatively heavy demands on the consumer wallet, not to mention network bandwidth infrastructure. In addition, other technological strides also would probably have to be made via research and development, such as improvements in VR devices, which include the head-mounted display.

RB2 & Lanier’s vision
The employment of virtual reality today is more on track with Lanier’s vision somewhat only in regard to certain sectors of society — specifically those that have astronomical wads of cash to throw around. We’re talking the military and the medical fields, as well as the higher-end business world, to name a few primary examples.

Tinged with misguided utopianism, Lanier’s hope was that VR technology would be used on a much broader scale for the purposes of communication on a personal level, whereby people from different parts of the globe, for example, could share “dreams” and information and conceive ideas, as well as nurture a non-broadcast medium that also would boost the ideals of global community and mutual empathy. More specifically, under one scenario, his abstract-sounding overall concept envisions people communicating post-symbolically in artificial environments, such as by mutually improvising synthetic worlds, similar to how people currently converse with spoken language.

“The whole point of VR, according to Lanier, is to share imagination, to dwell in graphic and auditory worlds that are mutually expressive,” author Schroeder explains in his 1996 nonfiction work, Possible Worlds. “As an avant-garde jazz musician, Lanier wanted to provide tools for freely improvising realities that could express and communicate outside conventional language and symbols.”

Lanier himself expressed such thoughts in an interview with Lynn Hershman Leeson published in her 1996 nonfiction compilation titled, Clicking In: Hot Links to a Digital Culture. “Virtual reality is really the future of the telephone more than anything else,” Lanier said in the 11-page interview. “It’s not so much the future of computers or televisions or movies or video games.”

Still, VR theorists like Lanier acknowledged in the 1990s that the rise of the technology as a major communications medium may not occur for some time, perhaps 10 or 20 years, which translates to about the year 2010 or 2015. In the meantime, applications such as video and computer games may play a big role in exposing the general public to virtual reality in general. And once deeply immersive, multi-user technology becomes as common and accessible in the household as the television and the computer, its direction and purpose will become more defined, considering the huge sway that market demand holds over research and development. For now, research and development are focused primarily on entertainment uses as far as virtual reality applications for the general public, which is subsequently helping shape the direction of VR.

– Noche Kandora

Photo ID top: Screenshot from World of Warcraft computer game.
Photo ID bottom: Screenshot from Battlefield Vietnam computer game.
Photo sources: World of Warcraft, Battlefield Vietnam.

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