Ready Player One, Snow Crash, and other sci-fi stories predict that, one day, virtual reality will be so ubiquitous that everyone will end up in a persistent digital world. But the future of VR and augmented reality might be more nuanced than that.
According to Mohen Leo, the director of content and platform strategy at Lucasfilm division ILMxLAB, our VR future will involve more than just one giant Matrix-like universe. During a panel at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, Leo said that one reason why this VR-as-escapism theme is so common is because we “tend to consider VR in isolation.”
“When you look at truly transformative shifts in technology and culture, they often don’t stem from a single technological advancement, but from the clash of multiple -- at first seemingly unrelated — breakthroughs that then combine into a catalyst for change,” he added.
Leo pointed to video filters as an example of this clash. The reason they’re in our phones now is because of portable computing, miniaturized cameras, multi-touch screens, real-time rendering, face recognition software, and more. So, he argued, it’s too reductive to focus on VR in a vacuum when making predictions. Leo imagines a world where we can interact with the same virtual universe through different devices — true cross-platform gameplay across phones, tablets, consoles, and VR headsets.
Our stories and characters can even spill over into the real world through the help of theme parks and other location-based entertainment centers.
“The relationship between physical worlds and virtual worlds may turn out to be very fluid. ... It actually seems unlikely that we will converge in a single Metaverse when we can choose from many worlds and even customize our own,” said Leo.
Parts of that future are already coming true. Recently, ILMxLAB worked with VR entertainment company The Void to create Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire, a so-called “hyper-reality” experience that combines VR with physical rooms and props so that you actually feel like you’re sneaking around an Imperial base. Another product from The Void, Ghostbusters: Dimension, has an elevator sequence that felt so real to Leo’s brother (a smart medical researcher) that he thought the company constructed a four-story set just for the game.
“What we’re really moving into in this new world is ‘story-living.’ We’re creating spaces and worlds where people have a chance to live out their own stories within a framework that we design,” said Camille Cellucci, head of production at The Void.
Striking a balance between authored narratives and customized experiences (by giving people the freedom to explore a virtual space) is challenging. Leo said it’d be impossible to create the amount of content people would expect from a real version of the Metaverse or Ready Player One’s OASIS.
Developers would have to figure out how to let players participate in meaningful ways without breaking the experience. The technology used in some games today — like procedurally generating worlds with algorithms, or tools that let people create their own content — might help us reach that goal.
But while fantasy worlds and new entertainment experiences are exciting to think about when it comes to mixed reality, we still have to consider how it will affect our lives and the people around us. Creators have to have a sense of social responsibility.
“If we can’t also solve some of the most basic societal problems, then I don’t think we’ve earned the right to use technology to make reality look nicer than it is, or cover up problems we’d rather not think about,” said Leo.