Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Matrix: Coming to a Reality Near You?

I do love my virtual world, and I am always looking for ways to make the experience better, the interaction more seamless.

Today I saw a product announcement I’d been looking forward to for some time…the Vuzix 1200VR video goggles.  These are different from most “personal video” eyewear, because they incorporate a motion sensor that can track your head movement.  Look to the left, and your Second Life camera pans left.  At least, that is the promise.  If this product works with SL, it could finally make Mouselook a popular option.

I was (and am) pretty excited about that, even given the steep $600 price tag.  But then I got a mental picture of myself, sitting in a chair, hooked up to my computer at the eyes, and the fingers, and ears…and extended that to include some other peripherals…and before you know it I was imagining myself in a life support cocoon, tied into a highly detailed simulation of reality, along with millions of other people.  In my mind, I’d jumped into the world of the Matrix, sans inimical alien invaders.

While The Matrix is the latest and most visually impressive depiction of this species of dystopia, it’s far from the first.  Way back in 1935, Stanley G. Weinbaum wrote “Pygmalion’s Spectacles”, and virtual reality has been a staple of science fiction since the 1950’s.  Examples include Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt”, and works by Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, and many others.  The Star Trek universe includes VR entertainment with the “holodeck”.  (Too bad this was used mainly as a plot device; given faster than light communications and VR, I think you wind up with a universe that links people much closer together, without the need for all those starships rushing about.  It would have been an interesting show…but of course, it wouldn’t have been Star Trek.)

Anyway, a great many of these virtual reality stories are cautionary tales.  Are we headed toward the world of The Matrix?  Is video game addiction only the tip of the iceberg?  Will we stumble into a future in which everyone’s goal is to retire, plug themselves in, and live a perfect life of their choice?

I know, that’s a lot to extrapolate out of a simple set of TV glasses!  But I know how compelling a virtual on line world can be, even in the current state of development.  I think it’s a good bet that as the technology improves, more and more people are going to be spending more and more time in places like Second Life.  That could actually be a Good Thing, in the sense that it lets you broaden your horizons, your circle of friends, and your experiences in many ways.  It could also be a Bad Thing, if we let the world go to hell while we all play in our make-believe digital ones.

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