Ernest Cline’s magical world of virtual reality is explores a potential new medium of communication through an excellent heroic tale.
1. Wide-ranging applicability and use cases of Virtual Reality. Although the novel was written in 2011, Ernest Cline does an incredible job of detailing the complex and numerous use cases of VR throughout the novel. Cline’s 18 year old main character Wade Watts attends school via VR, where you can have a limitless number of students all learn from the same teacher. Beyond that, different worlds and galaxies are easily conjured up with different themes, time periods and technology taking learning and experience to another level: Wade spends time playing old video games in an effort to unlock certain clues about James Halliday, Wade re-enacts all of Matthew Broderick’s part in the movie War Games in an effort to unlock one of the keys, Aech and Wade frequently hang out in the Basement, a re-created 1980’s recreational room with vintage magazines and game consoles. All of these distinct use cases – education, gaming, social networking, and entertainment – are the promise of Virtual Reality. There is a long way to go before that promise is met.
2. The intersection of the online/offline world. As James Halliday writes in Anorak’s Almanac: “Going outside is highly overrated.” Ready Player One does a great job of exploring the conflation of the online and offline worlds. The book weaves together experiences from this intersection into critical moments of the book including Wade’s escape from the Stacks and his imprisonment by IOI. While there is a tangible feeling that online is the much preferred experience for all the reasons discussed above, it’s the offline in-person events that truly shape the heroic ending of the book. This serves as a reminder that the OASIS is very much a virtual reality and explores the need for in-person human connection. Ironically, this is something Halliday sorely missed out on as shown through his unrequited love for Ogden Morrow’s (co-creator of the OASIS) wife, Kira. As big companies move into our homes through Google Homepods, Amazon Echos, Facebook Portals, the human connection element needs to be maintained.
3. The ability to disguise your identity online. “In the OASIS, you could become whomever and whatever you wanted to be, without ever revealing your true identity, because your anonymity was guaranteed.” This quote about the OASIS is largely true of today’s Internet. Through private browsing, Virtual Private Networks, avoiding Google and ad-tagging websites, people are able to stay anonymous online already. But what the OASIS does in addition, is allow you to modify not only your back-story, but also how you appear to others, something that is very important in VR. While there is no question that Wade, Art3mis and Aech are able to avoid insecurities by masking their identities, eventually those insecurities are revealed, albeit with little consequence. Given the myriad of leaks and breaches in the last few years (Yahoo, Facebook, DoorDash, etc.), as the VR ecosystem continues to grow, increasing amounts of privacy will be needed to maintain anonymity.
1. What is the dominant revenue model in VR? The evil villains at Innovative Online Industries (IOI) and their army of sixers have tried several hostile takeover attempts to acquire Halliday’s Gregarious Simulations Systems in order to convert it to a paid user model. IOI is the world’s largest internet service provider and just like other three letter named tech behemoths (cough, IBM, cough), fits the classic evil corporation vibe. Dismissing the potential business and technology conflicts (the world’s largest ISP is probably critical in delivering the OASIS throughout the world), its interesting to theorize what the dominant revenue model of VR may be. Facebook recently launched its VR world to complement its Oculus devices and there have been varied attempts to launch similar software worlds like Rec Room. The big discovery Google made early on was that advertising would be the business model of the web. Facebook copied this as it created social networking and as devices transitioned from desktop to mobile, and image to video, advertising continued to be the dominant mode of content monetization. Is there any reason to think VR will be any different? Potentially. The current dominant model for video gaming is subscriber based, freemium (paying for enhanced abilities, character changes, etc.) or single purchase. While there is no reason these ideas can’t be combined with advertising, the idea of a multi-world VR landscape may reduce some of the targeted ROI you receive from very specific ad-targeting on Instagram and Google today. In a limitless world, advertising to specific people will be difficult. Beyond that, porting the mish-mash of complex technologies used in today’s advertising landscape would add even more challenge.
2. The BIG, evil tech corporation. IOI is the quintessential evil technology company. As the world’s largest ISP, IOI could be a reference to Comcast, which is the United States’ largest ISP and often referenced as one of the most hated companies. Comcast, like other ISPs is always facing the challenge of serving millions of subscribers but unlike other companies, they are monopolistic in certain areas where they are the only viable provider for internet, allowing them to raise prices and treat customers poorly. The big, evil technology corporation cliché has been around for a long time and today’s largest tech companies have all spent sometime being that cliché. This dynamic can arise for many reasons. At Amazon, it’s the continued alienation of open source communities, the anti-competitive behavior around its search algorithm and the smothering of small vendors on its marketplace. Facebook and Google have both faced privacy concerns. Google has been sued for manipulating search on mobile devices. Microsoft was sued for anti-trust issues over browsers. As startups begin to dominate their core businesses, unless they continue innovating, they begin acting defensively to maintain their leading position. Facebook feature copied Snapchat stories almost immediately after they came out. IBM had a book written on them in the 1980s claiming they were anticompetitive. There is a reason corporate communications (WeWork lol) are so important and maintaining the image of a positive change for good. Every major technology company has spent time as the evil one, some have just spent more time than others.
3. Difficulty in creating VR applications. Ready Player One stoked a lot interest in the promise of VR, but the actual implementation is incredibly difficult with the hardware and software we have available as tools today. Moore’s law is slowing and some computer scientists have suggested specific chips to address the demands of newer technologies like Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality and Deep Learning. After Facebook acquired Oculus in 2014 for $2.4B, funding continued to flow into VR startups. Magic Leap, the highly secretive and most heavily funded VR startup has raised $2.3B on its own, and after years of development finally released its hardware for over $2,000 per device and its unclear if it makes a profit on any sales yet. More recently, several VR companies have gone bankrupt and laid off employees as product development didn’t reach application or end users before the funding ran out. While the software and hardware continues to improve, a lot still needs to be figured out before VR becomes mainstream.