There is a growing discrepancy between the vision and reality of VR. For decades, science fiction and technology visionaries foresaw a future where consumers were able to freely traverse virtual reality like surfing the web. Virtual reality was seen as an open platform where millions of people could share, consume and explore content. Instead of this vision, we are building walled gardens without connectivity between different content. To open VR to its true potential requires innovation around linking content and open platforms. VR is inherently social, but first we must leap the walls tech oligarchs are constructing across the new virtual reality landscape.
Virtual Reality: The Vision
“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
Thus began 1984’s science fiction classic Neuromancer, which popularized the concept of cyberspace. Gibson’s virtual reality is notable because it was conceptualized before the web existed. This was explored in depth in early cyberpunk works such as Tron, Nueromancer, Ghost In the Shell, and Snow Crash which shared a future vision of the internet where three-dimensional metaspaces were linked and could be traveled at will. More recently this idea has resurfaced in the the popular, Ready Player One, which also contains visions of three dimensional metaspaces, though they technically exist within one game. Each of these works imagines society taking advantage of a networked cyberspace and the benefits of three dimensional spatial semantics.
The visionaries of science fiction foresaw virtual reality like the web in that content from these worlds is linkable through addresses. Thus anyone with a virtual reality device may visit any address and experience its content, as well as click on links to other virtual reality spaces. For example, a quiet cyberspace cafe, might contain links to coffee bean information, virtual chatrooms, ecommerce stores, bulletin boards or news content. Some of this might be hosted by the cafe, some might be links to other virtual reality spaces or web content.
In 2016 the VR platforms are controlled by tech oligarchs. Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, PlaystationVR, GearVR and even Google Cardboard all focus on building walled gardens. Current VR requires you to purchase devices to experience the content created for that specific VR device, similar to XBox and Playstation consoles. An extreme example is that Samsung GearVR doesn’t have native YouTube support as they see this as competition to their own content. These VR companies are backed by billionaires and technology giants, why would they mess this up?
Explanation via Analogy, 1994: The Information Superhighway
“This emphasis on profit has some in congress worried that the coming information superhighway may be dominated by a handful of big boys.”
Before the Internet was the popular form of the web we use today, there were competing models for how to network devices to deliver content. One famous example is the Information Superhighway which would connect ecommerce, videos, business, music to users through their living room televisions. Again, this idea was slightly before the web, and at the time was a competing model for what the Internet could be.
Brian McCullen, @brianmcc, said in his Internet History Podcast, that Bill Gates “along with his buddies in cable and telecom” thought they could bring the Information Superhighway to users “in a prepackaged and pre-designed way.” Yet, Microsoft and cable networks’ walled gardens “didn’t anticipate that everything the Information Superhighway hoped to be, would bubble up from somewhere else.” The world wide web exploded onto the scene with the first major web browser, Netscape, which opened up the idea of the web and an Internet controlled by no one.
The idea of cable networks controlling the access to the networks through television sets crumbled with Netscape’s free browser that could be downloaded onto any computer, for free, and then access any content across a growing web of mostly free content. Netscape also pioneered technology that made websites more accessible, safer and visually appealing. Their contributions to the web were open source and free for websites and competitors alike to adopt. As Netscape jumpstarted the dotcom boom that would define the 1990s, the concept of the walled gardens of the information superhighway was mostly forgotten.
2016: Bring Down the Walls
The idea of a shared virtual spaces has already been present in many popular games. Second Life, 2003, allowed users to create worlds and experience them together on the internet. Minecraft, 2010 alpha, user’s created and shared worlds was also the core mechanic. Still, these games are walled gardens. A user in Minecraft use a link to take him into a world in Second Life or anywhere else.
Links will give the ability to link any object in a metaspace to another metaspace or web page. Hyperlinks are the simple idea behind the web that makes it open and free. Anyone can link to any other page, and it is expected to be able to quickly load on your browser. iPhones and Androids were around for years before DeepLinking was created, this time we need to begin utilizing linking in VR content right away. Linking will force other content to be open and platform agnostic.
2. VR & the Cloud
This is an area that is ripe for innovations. High intensity graphic processing will need to be done in the cloud and streamed to VR browsers. Cloud Gaming has in development and deployment across a variety of platforms, yet very little of this has been open sourced. Google and Apple have also both taken steps to run apps on their servers and stream the content to interested users before they download the app.
3. Open VR Protocols
This part is moving forward, though slowly. It is an area that needs innovations and companies to lead the way forward. Currently we have browser giant Mozilla is leading the way with MozVR and open WebVR protocols with competitors like startup JanusVR creating it’s own JanusVR Markup Language. In March 2016 Googlesimultaneously released open source Web iframes for VR as well as Android app support for VR View.
We are in the early days of VR. If we want it to exhibit the open culture of the web, we need to begin building that openness now. That way when VR does become a useful tool for society, it will benefit the largest number of people rather than the current of VR’s walled gardens.