On the Net

The Tech That SF Made

by James Patrick Kelly


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For as long as I can remember, if you recommended a story about space to a science fiction reader—or writer, for that matter—the assumption would be that you were referring to outer space. Stars, planets, and the vehicles that might transport us to them have been the most common settings of our genre from its earliest days. Jules Verne set the agenda in 1865 when he shot adventurers out of a cannon in From the Earth to the Moon http://gutenberg.org/ebooks/83, and H. G. Wells confirmed it in 1898 when his Martians paid us an unfriendly visit in The War of the Worlds http://gutenberg.org/ebooks/36. And our fascination with outer space continues to this day. Consider that three of the six novels nominated for the Hugo award http://www.thehugoawards.org/hugo-history/2020-hugo-awards/ last year take place on other worlds.

In recent years, however, despite the amazing successes of robotic space exploration https://www.digitaltrends.com/cool-tech/robots-everywhere-episode-8/, the future of human space exploration has increasingly been called into question. Humanity’s last visit to the Moon https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/apollo/missions/apollo17.html was almost fifty years ago, and the colonization of the solar system http://sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/colonization_of_other_worlds hasn’t at all happened as my SF forebearers so confidently predicted. We lack the resources, or at least the will to expend them, to build the glittering orbiting cities of Golden Age SF, and recent research into the radiation environment https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Health_threat_from_cosmic_rays in space suggests that living in one of them would be hazardous to our health. Elon Musk says he is going to Mars https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2018/11/26/elon-musk-says-he-will-probably-move-mars/ and that may be, but the fact is that you, dear reader, aren’t. Neither are your children, or your grandchildren. There will be no mass emigration to space any time soon, despite what the enthusiasts claim. As environmentalists like our own Kim Stanley Robinson point out, There Is No Planet B https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/2019-1-january-february/feature/there-no-planet-b-kim-stanley-robinson to flee to if we wreck our homeworld.

But even as prospects of adventure in outer space dim, another space frontier has opened for colonization. And this is uncharted territory that you can visit right now. Moreover, it’s likely that your kids will spend a significant fraction of their lives exploring its strange and amazing worlds. Where is this fabulous real estate? In cyberspace.

Welcome to virtual reality!

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almost real

But wait, you say. For years proponents of virtual reality have been overpromising as recklessly as the con artists behind the Mars One hoax https://www.forbes.com/sites/jonathanocallaghan/2019/02/11/goodbye-mars-one-the-fake-mission-to-mars-that-fooled-the-world/?sh=1963bd332af5. The naysayers point out that VR for the masses hasn’t happened so far and may never happen. They claim that the technology is clunky and the headsets are too bulky and they make you throw up. Arguments like these remind me of the pundits who claimed in 2000 that the dotcom bubble https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dot-com_bubble meant the online market was an illusion, and who groused in 2009 that ebooks were too hard to read https://www.wired.com/2009/05/e-book-design/, and who smirked in 2012 when Facebook’s IPO tanked https://marketrealist.com/2014/01/facebook-ipo/. Clunky technology? Click over to Decades before the iPad, Apple’s Newton tablet system was deemed a massive failure https://www.cnn.com/2020/09/14/tech/apple-original-tablet-newton/index.html. Sure, Apple killed this gadget when it didn’t sell, but reworked the technology into sleek iPhones and iPads.

So how close is VR to a cultural and economic breakout? Before we strap on headsets and grab controllers, we should survey the varieties of virtual experience. There are a lot of acronyms floating around describing this technology and, while the nomenclature is not yet settled, let’s say for now that Virtual Reality (VR) is a computer-generated immersive simulation of an artificial, but often very realistic, world. Augmented Reality (AR)—sometimes called Mixed Reality—overlays computer-generated data or sensory impressions onto the real world. Examples? In the movies, there is, of course, The Matrix https://matrix.fandom.com/wiki/The_Matrix for VR and Iron Man’s Heads Up Display https://vfxblog.com/ironman/ for AR. But there are real world products as well, like the AR phone apps Pokemon Go https://pokemongolive.com/en and Zombies, Run! https://zombiesrungame.com/. And VR? Leaving aside entertainment for a moment—we’ll get to it another time!—just click over to VR Applications: 21 Industries already using Virtual Reality https://virtualspeech.com/blog/vr-applications to discover cutting edge VR implementations in automobile design, medical training, tourism, real estate, education, law enforcement, and military applications already in daily use.

Note that VR and AR, while sharing some characteristics, have different audiences and futures. Indeed, if you’re wondering about employment opportunities in this red hot sector of the global economy, you might want to consult Augmented Reality vs Virtual Reality: The Developer’s Dilemma https://circuitstream.com/blog/augmented-reality-vs-virtual-reality/ for a snapshot of its business prospects as of 2021. And those prospects are bright indeed! The size of the VR market was $10.3 billion in 2019, and, according to one analysis https://www.grandviewresearch.com/industry-analysis/virtual-reality-vr-market#:~:text=The%20global%20virtual%20reality%20market,visual%20experience%20to%20the%20users, it will swell to $62.1 billion in 2027. In my opinion, this is a conservative estimate. For comparison, the estimated size of the video gaming industry was $145.7 billion in 2019, while worldwide cinema revenue was $45.1 billion. Why make such a comparison? Because it says here that VR will converge with the gaming and movie industry in the coming years, or at least poach a significant fraction of their markets.

Follow the money to spot the coming VR revolution.

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SF reality

While VR isn’t just science fiction anymore, I think it’s fair to say that it started as science fiction, arguably as early as the turn of the twentieth century. E.M. Foster http://sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/forster_e_m wrote a VR precursor story  “The Machine Stops” http://self.gutenberg.org/wplbn0000627598-the-machine-stops-by-forster-e-m-.aspx in 1909 in which individuals live in isolation underground, their physical, intellectual, and emotional needs met by a worldwide machine that envelops them in a kind of Edwardian cyberspace. Later came Aldous Huxley’s feelies https://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/10/books/review/what-would-aldous-huxley-make-of-the-way-we-consume-media-and-popular-culture.html from 1932’s Brave New World http://self.gutenberg.org/eBooks/WPLBN0100000518-Brave-New-World-by-Huxley-Aldous.aspx?, and the immersive entertainments of the city of Diaspar in 1956’s The City and the Stars https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/250024.The_City_and_the_Stars, by Arthur C. Clarke https://www.clarkefoundation.org/. Daniel F. Galouye http://sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/galouye_daniel_f published Simulacron-3 http://galacticjourney.org/july-30-1964-are-you-for-real-simulacron-3-aka-counterfeit-world-by-daniel-f-galouye/ in 1964, which inspired such early VR films as World on a Wire https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/2152-world-on-a-wire-the-hall-of-mirrors and The Thirteenth Floor https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Thirteenth_Floor. And Philip K. Dick’s career-long interrogation of reality https://decryptedmatrix.com/did-philip-k-dick-disclose-the-real-matrix-in-1977/ includes VR-like extrapolations in Eye in the Sky (1957) https://philipkdickreview.wordpress.com/2014/11/14/eye-in-the-sky-1957/ and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1964) http://www.fantasyliterature.com/reviews/the-three-stigmata-of-palmer-eldritch/.

But it was with the arrival of cyberpunk that the wider culture beyond SF began to appreciate the promise of VR. Two of the iconic settings of vintage cyberpunk are “the street,” which runs through future urban landscapes and often detours into liminal and dystopic neighborhoods, and “cyberspace.” Here’s William Gibson introducing the concept in his classic novel Neuromancer https://williamgibson.fandom.com/wiki/Neuromancer: “Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts. . . . . A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding. . . .” Lustrous prose, but what does it mean? As Bill later pointed out, in the interview film, No Maps for These Territories https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AGDEUHoZzjs, “All I knew about the word ‘cyberspace’ when I coined it was that it seemed like an effective buzzword. It seemed evocative and essentially meaningless. It was suggestive of something, but had no real semantic meaning, even for me, as I saw it emerge on the page.” But the notion of cyberspace was so evocative that engineers and programmers and designers got busy finding ways to make it happen.

As they did, the meaning of the term cyberspace https://www.vice.com/en/article/78834d/why-william-gibson-invented-cyberspace changed. In Neuromancer, it was a flavor of virtual reality used for communication data storage and retrieval. However, because it was “suggestive of something, but had no real semantic meaning,” over time, as the technology developed, it became at once vaster and more amorphous. The New World Encyclopedia defines it https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Cyberspace as “a global domain within the information environment consisting of the interdependent network of information technology infrastructures (ITI) including the Internet, telecommunication networks, computer systems, and embedded processors and controllers.” Whew! Let’s just say that many people now conflate it with the Internet. Or maybe the World Wide Web. Or something. The street, as SF Grandmaster Gibson tells us, finds its own uses for things. Even cyberspace!

In any event, for a time VR was closely associated with the cyberpunk brand. Natalie Zutter traces the literary history of this in Ideal Spaces: Virtual Realities in Cyberpunk Fiction https://www.tor.com/2018/04/05/ideal-spaces-virtual-realities-in-cyberpunk-fiction/. She writes, “When a cyberpunk novel was published says a lot about the virtual reality it depicts; while VRs share certain key elements, what they mean to their characters and their particular world is very dependent on the larger context.” In addition to some of the original cyberpunks like Bill Gibson and Pat Cadigan, she points to writers who followed them, called by some the post-cyberpunks, important writers like Neal Stephenson, Charles Stross, and Richard K. Morgan. And, of course, many who have nothing to do with cyberpunk have explored VR and AR. To meet some of them, click over to Reading List: 50 Scifi Books Featuring AR and VR Technology https://uploadvr.com/list-50-scifi-books-featuring-ar-and-vr-tech.

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Like my colleagues, I’ve given myself permission to speculate about VR in stories—dozens of stories!—without having any direct virtual experience of my own. Hey, I’ve never been to Mars either, but that didn’t stop me from setting a novel there. However, I’ve watched with keen interest from the sidelines as the technology has gone from science fiction to technological fact. But with the launch last year of the Oculus Quest 2 https://www.oculus.com/quest-2/, I decided I should take VR for a test drive. The Quest is a relatively affordable standalone unit that includes a wireless headset and two hand controllers with access to an impressive library of “games and experiences,” to quote the promotional literature. It launched more or less simultaneously with the Sony PlayStation 5 https://www.playstation.com and the Microsoft Xbox Series X https://www.xbox.com, the two leading game consoles, just in time for the 2020 Christmas season. I suppose it’s competing with them for a similar audience, although console gaming will almost certainly swamp VR in sales, with some analysts estimating that the PS5 might sell some 200 million units over its lifetime.

I must say that my first impression of the Quest was that it has the same pricey plastic toy appearance as the consoles. And yes, I’ve played some of the games, although I’ve never been a big gamer. I’m slow on the twitch and my patience for puzzles is short.

So games? Meh. But, oh, those experiences! More on them in the future.


Copyright © 2021 James Patrick Kelly

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