©Warner Bros Entertainment.
Ready Player One, based on the novel by Ernest Cline, directed by Steven Spielberg.
The biggest onscreen star of Ready Player One, Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel, is the Oasis, the massive virtual world that serves as a game board for the film’s scavenger hunt through 1980s pop culture. But how close is the immersive technology showcased in the movie to appearing here in the real world? I had a chance to catch up with some thought-leaders in VR and related technologies to do a virtual reality check on the ETA of some of the movie’s most intriguing gear.
In the movie, Wade “Parzival” Watts and his ragtag band of 'gunters comb through a massive shared online environment, logging in using head-mounted displays and haptic data gloves (which provide sensory feedback) to see, hear, touch and interact with a digital world that’s more vivid than the drab reality of their everyday lives. Wade, who lives in a trailer park with his aunt at the beginning of the film, makes do with entry-level gear to start, but eventually graduates to full-on body suits and motion capture equipment. The movie’s bad guys, the “sixers” of the IOI corporation, use shiny, state-of-the-art enterprise-grade virtual workstations.
You would imagine that having cheap hardware might put players at a disadvantage, but Wade and his crew – sometimes operating out of the back of a moving van – consistently have the drop on the corporate drones. It seems that even the lowest-grade consumer gear is good enough to provide full immersion to the high-resolution VR world and the instant responsiveness necessary to win races and battle simulations where split-second reflexes are the difference between life and death.
Is this vision of the 2050s reasonable from today’s tech perspective?
'I’m Not Even Sure It’s 10 Years in the Future'
Jake Rubin, founder/CEO of HaptX, a Seattle-based company building haptic technology for high-end VR scenarios like aerospace and telemedicine, says he thinks Ready Player One is, if anything, too conservative in its forecast.
“A lot of the technology shown in the film isn’t futuristic at all; it’s actually in use today, in 2018,” says Rubin. “The head-mounted displays, the omnidirectional treadmills, the resolution and responsiveness of the VR environment – those are all possible right now. The world of that movie [from a tech standpoint] isn’t 30 years in the future. I’m not even sure it’s 10 years in the future.”
Rubin’s company is working on a prototype haptic glove that provides realistic feedback for motion tracking, weight, motion, temperature and form-factor, such that handling objects in the virtual world feels like the real thing. That’s the basis of the tech that powers the full-body suits that are used in the movie to provide all kinds of sensations.
“We’re shipping our SDK [software development kit] now; we expect to have a product in market in the next year or two,” he says. Rubin is targeting high-end enterprise customers first since they have the resources and the business need for haptic gear, but he expects that consumers will soon get a taste through arcades and attractions, then home, and then mobile devices. He also says that it will not take long to scale from gloves to other body parts.
“There will be a range of products available for different budgets, probably by 2030 if not sooner,” he says.
A 'Plausible but Depressing' Forecast
John Underkoffler, a futurist and expert in interface design, has a slightly different view. Underkoffler helped develop the compelling and eerily accurate technology vision in Spielberg’s 2001 movie Minority Report, and subsequently founded a company, Oblong Industries, to bring gesture-based interaction and immersive collaboration to the real world.
He agrees that some of the basic hardware breakthroughs in Ready Player One are at hand but points out that it may be a while before the back-end infrastructure and network bandwidth are in place to run the massive simulation at uniform quality in real time. He believes the 2050 timeframe is “in the middle of the bell curve” in terms of feasibility of mass adoption, provided that nothing unexpected disrupts the current trajectory of development and investment – a big “if.”
“Since people started talking about VR in the 1990s, there have been three or four boom-and-bust cycles,” he points out. Each time, the hype and promise are met with consumer indifference or some stumbling block that inhibits widespread adoption. Underkoffler believes part of the problem is that people are focused on the wrong thing. “VR is essentially a display technology, which isn’t really that interesting. What’s interesting is how we interact with the constructed world and how we can use the full range of human perception in the interface.”
He says he found the overall scenario of the Oasis “plausible but depressing.”
“I wish we could have seen more of Aech’s workshop, for example — more people being creative, rather than just consuming experiences and entertainment,” he says.
'The Assumptions Don’t Add Up'
Daniel W. Rasmus, who runs the consultancy Serious Insights and keynotes VR conferences worldwide, has been watching the space since the 1990s, first as an analyst with Forrester Research and later as director of business insights at Microsoft.
Like Rubin, Rasmus is underwhelmed with Ready Player One’s futurist vision. “It looks like what 2016 thought 2018 would look like,” he says. “In fact, a lot of the VR shown in the film is less real-looking than what’s possible today. Maybe Spielberg dialed it back so it would look more like what today’s audiences see as a video game.”
Rasmus noted some inconsistencies in how the VR interface functioned throughout the movie and wondered why people would be out walking the streets with full-immersion VR goggles blocking their vision.
“My biggest issues with the vision of the future in Ready Player One are social, not technological,” says Rasmus. “There are a lot of assumptions implicit in how we got to this point in 2050, and they don’t add up to what that world looks like on film. If parts of the world are as bad as they look in the movie, then people won’t have access to the technology or the network.”