The hologram was a cowboy, the gameplay was simple Ghosts N’ Goblins style and the game was crap. Fine… this wasn’t what I had hoped for but surely the Lawnmower Man rig would be AWESOME! I paid my few dollars and strapped on the sticky helmet and… was roundly depressed. The graphics were, at best, simple. Not nearly as bad as the disappointment when I got to try a virtual boy (how that didn’t induce immediate seizures from me is still a wonder) but it was still nowhere near as interesting or fun as the promises. The counter culture tech magazines and ‘zines were whispering about post cold-war wet ware from Germany. Direct neural interfaces that were “just around the corner” and super computers that would “create worlds as real as our own only more so”. That hanging promise of “more so” would tantalize the furtive imagination of the 15 year old me.
The reality was far less interesting; computers simply did not yet have the power to achieve what they hoped. Like the early days of radio, television and cinema the world of the early internet revolution had its dreamers who were predicting things to come. The Cyberpunk authors saw a future where everything was interconnected and even the most mediocre of transactions was tagged, tracked and recorded. The tech visionaries were visualizing a world of 3D interactive environments, instant communication, and free information for all. This was before the DotCom bubble burst, before the wave of startups and Napsters and RIAA law suits but it was a world that was not wrong, just early.
Many of these people couldn’t predict the change that cellular technology would wreak upon the computer world but change is a catalyst and we’re seeing these former dreams become reality in the most mundane and invisible of ways. An example of this is IP addresses, one of the largest holders of IP addresses in the world is not a tech firm, it’s not the military, it’s the Coca-Cola company! Why, you might ask, well you know those fancy “mix your own” drink dispensers in theatres and burger joints? They are hooked up to the internet and whenever you mix lime and coke it is sending that data down to the millilitre back to Atlanta Georgia where they are crunching the numbers and figuring out what flavours sell where. This is a part of “The Internet of Things” (part of which you can thank Ms. Lerner or at least her former company Cisco for). IoT is a technology where mundane devices are connected to the internet to harvest data from the flavour of beverage you drink to the temperature you keep your house to when you turn your lights off. The goal is to allow for “smart” devices, remote controlling your life from your phone. ABI Research are predicting by 2020 there will be 30 billion devices wirelessly connected to the internet. At 7 billion people on this planet that’s 4.24 internet wired devices for every person on this planet.
We also have a world where we are giving away our identity one piece at a time. People are disconnecting from Facebook complaining about how it is “full of advertising” or "taking advantage of them". The thing is the company they work for or a project they are involved in probably has a presence on Facebook and if they advertise via Facebook or Google or any ad aggregator (which many people do) they are complicit in the harvesting of data. It is an easy outlet with broad reach that is almost required in some industries and most insidiously it’s “free” in many cases. If you asked William Gibson or Bruce Sterling back in the 80s they probably would never have predicted this kind of information share, in their visions the information was “free” and the net was full of “cowboys” who would jack in and smuggle data using “memory expanders” in their head. The reality is now we can put in our pocket a piece of plastic that can hold more information that Johnny Mnemonic ever could even with the assistance of Ice-T and a cyber dolphin but that comes at a price. We’ve created companies like Google and Facebook which have a cultural choke hold not due to the quality of their product or the integrity of their brand but by the pervasive nature of its existence.
The people who “quit” Facebook have a valid complaint, Facebook continues to change its terms of service, its security settings, and its information gathering techniques and it often does so with a lack of clarity. Google does the same, changing how it handles data on its myriad of platforms and what and with who it shares that data and that’s the price that free (if not freedom) packs. Here’s the thing though, neither of these services are required to get on the internet and none of these services cost a penny. So while the people who “quit” Facebook but continues to advertise their events and inadvertently help gather information about attendees or the person who doles out links to various pop culture sites and media they are in fact lining the pockets of “greedy” Zuckerberg and making sure he’s rich and more importantly his puppet masters the venture capitalist investors and the hedge fund capitalists who pull his strings are rich.
The world has shifted so much people are either violating their moral code without even knowing it because they don’t really think about or understand the world they operate in or even worse have had to make an active choice to break their moral code and be complicit in the harvesting of data in an effort to succeed. This boils down to living in ignorance or living a life of hypocrisy. Hardly a pleasant choice and many face it, the number of people who “quit” Facebook only to take up Twitter or Instagram or Tumblr or some other site and service (often owned by the same handful of companies) just continue to do the same thing. The future is not what any of us expected and for many it’s not something that’s easily parsed.
On top of services like Facebook there are the free games, the 99 cent games, the check in services, and so on. You think you’re the “mayor” of your local coffee shop for fun? You think that Candy Epic game you are playing really needs your geotag data and a connection to your Facebook or Twitter account? No, it’s all to harvest data. It knows where you are, who you are, what you are interested in, what you buy, and so on. A recent experiment was done by a security expert who created a program that scrapes the internet for the location of cats around the world through pictures posted of these cats. The experiment wasn't so much about the cats but about the fact people are exposing their locations and movements without even thinking about it. This was all publicly accessible data from "anonymous" pictures scraped from social media without the user's permission.
So, how does this tie in to where I started with Virtual Reality and holograms and what does any of this have to do with video games or entertainment's future? Well, in a word, everything. The fact that people have learnt to expect games to be dirt cheap has forever transformed the gaming space and the expectations of developers add to that the piece of plastic that can hold more information than Keanu Reeves’ brain is the tip of the iceberg of hardware. Graphics processors are able to create images at a fidelity that is near photo realistic on the fly, memory is becoming increasingly cheap and methods of storing and processing this data are changing to the point where it may be near infinite and instantaneous in our lifetime for a price a fraction of what it is today. The very nature of computing is shifting. We’re moving from discrete devices , islands with gated ports isolated from even its nearest neighbour to living in a sea of numbers with virtual machines doling out data to little windows looking in at the peep show of entertainment in the palms of our hands or our living rooms and most importantly on our faces.
Google has Google Glass, during the first advertising blitz for the still beta level device they showed an ARG (Augmented Reality Game) imagined to convert an area in to a virtual battlefield. Facebook spent 2 billion dollars on purchasing the up and coming tech company Oculus who are behind the Rift headset which recently entered its final prototype phase. Sony have their Morpheus device which will work in concert with their Playstation Entertainment Systems and all the while Microsoft toils in the background with an undisclosed VR project and even Valve apparently are working on “VR contact lenses” though this is still the realm of speculation and rumour.
Virtual reality failed to catch on previously for a few reasons, the “uncanny valley” was no small one, back then it could have been called the Uncanny Grand Canyon but also effects like motion sickness and a lack of flexibility in interfaces. These things have changed though, you can already by a 360 degree treadmill that will let you move in game in real life, we have the Kinect and Playsation Camera that allow for motion tracking, and eye tracking technology and image resolution have all but illuminated motion sickness. Hell even “Haptic gloves” like those talked about in the novel Ready Player One are no longer the realm of science fiction but becoming the realm of science fact. Facebook didn’t spend more money than some nations will see in decades for a gaming platform, they spent it for the potential it entails. We are moving toward virtual worlds, worlds within our world that we live, grow old and we die in. The computational power to achieve this is well beyond what could reasonably attached to a TV or placed in a house, it’s going to be distributed over computers spread around the globe, decentralized and balanced with redundancies and backups. Games like Titanfall are examples of this with Microsoft’s Azure Technology handling the back end AI as well as multiplayer technology in a dynamic real time scaling environment and because people no longer think they should pay for games it will be funded with transaction slivers, data harvesting, and advertising targeting.
The thing is, tis may not be all bad. It’s this scalability that’s going to open up the possibilities and not just for MMOs but for every aspect of the experience allowing developers to create vast virtual spaces with complex artificial intelligences, branching and unique story telling experiences, and complex interaction possibilities catered to your profile. If people thought the Sims were addictive, wait for your very own personal first person Sim Life. Right now the main thing holding this back is price, the price of hardware like servers and virtual reality rigs just makes these things out of the range of the common person but with the price of the Rift and Morpheus being pegged at less than the current console generation and the cost of servers and changes in technology that are happening quietly on a daily basis this could change and quickly. In all likelihood this will change and within our generation, I foresee a future of virtual workplaces and truly second lives. Many of us work in offices, these offices cost money to rent, they cost money to heat, they cost money to furnish. The “virtual” office of today is still very solitary but what if we had a virtual office where you put on a headset in the morning and you logged in and could sit at your desk and create your documents as if you were right there? What if for lunch you could jet off to Azeroth to kill some Horde and be back in time to hand in that TPS report?
When people joke about the “geeks” taking over the world, they don’t realize how prescient and true that statement is. Technology is slowly and insidiously creeping in to the most mundane aspects of our lives. It is shifting the way we interact with other people and how we build our relationships. The thing is, the two forces that are causing the greatest leaps are warfare and entertainment. Porn, video games, espionage and warfare these are elements of these defining forces that created everything from our high fidelity video imaging technology, to our cell networks, to the internet that binds us together. We have generations (plural) that have grown up not knowing a world that wasn’t interconnected, we have definitions or privacy that are so vastly different a person fifty years ago would not recognize them.
Is this good or bad, I don’t know and no one out there can answer with any certainty because for every bad a good point can be put up to counter.
Facebook sells my information/Facebook reconnects me with long lost friends and family.
Google harvests my data/Google makes my job infinitely easier.
Twitter reduces discussion to bite sized meaninglessness/Twitter allows protestors to organize and mobilize in ways they never could before effecting change.
Free games are garbage/Free games have opened up the world of gaming to those who never before even thought about it.
The reality is people like me can predict the future using our gut but there’s no crystal ball to gaze in to that will tell us if what we are becoming and the directions we are heading with video games, music, pop culture, and technology are positive so it is incumbent on us to be aware, to be prepared, and to be realistic.
Be aware of what the nature of the product you are using is doing, who it is sharing data with and what it is sharing.
Be prepared to live without something, don’t invest your life so heavily in a technology that you can’t live without it because then you become beholden to the corporate entity that owns that technology.
Be realistic, companies are companies for a reason and that’s to make money don't expect them to dispense a product as some act of largesse and begrudging a person working for this company is ultimately futile especially if you take part in any form of endeavour intended for mass consumption yourself. You are a pot calling a kettle black.
Most of the time there isn’t some grand conspiracy to “steal” or to “manipulate” it’s simply corporations trying to line their pockets as best as they can, that’s never changed and that will never change, at least in a capitalist society. So when Google says “Don’t Be Evil” don’t buy the hype, when Yahoo says it’s “standing up to the NSA” don’t believe the spin, when Apple and Microsoft say they care about consumers first don’t trust the message. But by the same token, don’t expect them to give you services that cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars for free promoting your trivia night, your website, your knitting circle, or even your pictures of your meals/cats/trucker hats. As my grandfather would say there is no free lunch. This especially applies on the internet, if you are using a service and there is no subscription fee that’s probably the worst case scenario because the reality is, you’re probably paying for it with a little sliver of your soul or even worse, the souls of your friends.