The History of Virtual Reality – A New Place to Call Home – Extra Sci Fi – #1

From the ice-filled matrix of Neuromancer to the metaverse of Snow Crash, to the strange and dangerous net of Otherland, the idea of stepping into a virtual reality has captivated the imagination of millions of sci-fi readers across the globe. How did it begin? How has it influenced us? And where will it take us next? [music] So, super fun announcement right up top: Thanks to the folks at Oculus Rift, we can afford to make two more episodes of Extra Sci Fi this season. And that’s a big “Heck yeah!” in our book. So, we’re going to interrupt the regularly scheduled programming of the Golden Age to talk about one of the most interesting ideas in science fiction: Virtual reality. Interestingly, not only because of the stories it gave us and the concepts it let us explore, but because of the influence it had on real-world technology. Technology like the incredibly awesome Oculus Rift. So, thanks again to the folks at Oculus for underwriting these episodes. And don’t forget to immerse yourself in Marvel Powers United VR and Lone Echo, exclusively on the Oculus Rift. Now, let’s get this show started! So, where did this idea of a virtual reality begin? When did one reality cease to be enough? Well, ever since Plato talked about shadows flickering on the cave wall, literature has questioned whether there are other realities we might access. However, it’s not until science fiction that we begin to really run with it, and earlier in the history of sci-fi than you might think! But, before we can get to that, we have to talk about why a virtual reality is special. Why is it different than just a reality other than ours like we might see in a fantasy novel or basically any work of fiction, where the whole thing takes place in a reality different from the one we live in? The answer is as simple as this: For there to be a “virtual reality,” there has to be a “real reality.” For instance, the universe in Lord of the Rings is just a different reality. Another reality. But in that world, OUR world doesn’t exist. [pop] For Frodo and Sam, there’s still just one reality. It just happens to involve elves, and dwarves, and orcs. Virtual reality, on the other hand, offers us other realities that we can pass in and out of. Often, at will. All anchored to what we call “the real”: the space we find ourselves in when the virtual reality is off. It’ll be a potent tool for science fiction authors to comment on our world because it allows them to contrast the world the characters live in – often places similar to our own – to the fantastic realms they jack into when they put on the goggles or attach the ‘trodes. And one of the first major uses of virtual reality may be the “feelies” in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Huxley simply presents us with full sensory entertainment. It’s like a proto-virtual reality. You can’t interact with the world it gives you, but you can see it, feel it, taste it, and smell it. It’s like you’re inside this other world for a while, even if it’s more of a theme park ride than what we’d consider virtual reality. But he uses it as a cautionary tale, warning us how easy it might be to lose ourselves in a seductive virtual reality when our real one is drab, unfulfilling, and dull. The first story that has what we’d really think of as virtual reality – complete with headset – is probably Pygmalion’s Spectacles, published in 1935, three years after Brave New World. It takes a different approach to virtual reality. In the book, it offers its user a reality truly more attractive and more pleasant than the dismal reality he’s trying to escape. But then, he bumps up against its rules. In some ways, it’s remarkably prescient and, though the author uses the metaphor of virtual reality being the next step for film, it predicts one of the main difficulties games have in creating a truly immersive virtual world: Someone, somewhere, has to program them. Virtual experiences created by human beings are inherently limited, constrained by the rules and logic of their programming. Try to do something too far outside of what they were intended for – like in the case of Pygmalion’s Spectacles: fall in love – and you hit the hard wall of rules that keep you from doing what you want. And thus, pulls you out of the experience. Many later science fiction stories will use this as a plot device, having the protagonist come to realize that their world is not real, that it’s merely a simulation when they accidentally stumble upon some limit OF the experience. And this theme was incredibly popular with the legendary Philip K Dick. Philip K Dick spent a lot of time questioning reality, in his own life and in his work. He was, in many ways, a precursor to the cyberpunk age. And, before we can get to cyberpunk and the authors who really sparked the modern dream of virtual reality, we HAVE to talk about Dick’s approach. Because he married these two ideas: Using virtual reality as a way to critique our reality and using the limitations of virtual reality to make the inhabitants of his virtual worlds aware that there might be other realities out there. To show us and them that the way their worlds were wasn’t actually the only way. Then, there’s one of my favorite of his novels: Ubik. Check this premise out: The story follows a group of anti-psychics charged with thwarting a plot by a team of psychic agents against an industrialist on the moon. During the mission, a bomb goes off – much like the one that just went off in my own brain when I described the premise – and a number of them die. Or … almost die. They’re put in cryogenic stasis, but their minds are still active, existing in a virtual reality. But WHO actually died? Are the living characters dead inside a simulation and the dead characters alive? This question will tie you in knots reading it. But it culminates with the characters becoming aware of the simulation. By the places where it falls apart and isn’t as expansive or complete as the reality that must underlie it. And, in doing so, he forces us to confront a reality filled with the commoditization of people and the possibility of a world where that wasn’t the case. A world where all needs were met by Ubik. A Maze of Death is another, yet grimmer example of this in Philip K Dick’s work. Here, it’s almost impossible to say anything without spoiling some of the twists. But it uses the same techniques to ask questions about morality and the value of life. Something we’ll expand upon NEXT episode, as we get to where VR in sci-fi really took off: The ’80s. So, jack in next time for the VR explosion in cyberpunk, anime, and film from the ’80s to today. [music, telephone ringing and being picked up] Mr. Wizard, get me outta here! [he gets outta here, dropping the phone] [music] I was really pumped when Oculus came to us wanting to do these episodes because the Rift is my favorite VR headset. Currently, I’m immersed in the living fairy-tale, Moss. Quill might be the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. [cute noise] Don’t get jealous, [Zoe]. And then I switch over to Superhot VR when I wanna live out my more … action movie star dreams. So, check it out at the link below, and PLEASE tell them Extra Credits sent you! [music until the end of the video]


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