Virtual Reality Explosion: Soon You Too Can Punch A Shark in the Face
A few stories come up here and there in the general news media about advances in virtual reality technology, but if you haven’t been paying attention to more specialized tech sources, you probably don’t know about the apparent explosion of new VR ventures currently happening. The recent E3 (Entertainment Electronics Expo) showcased a very strong showing of several gaming companies’ attempts to enter into the new field, and while you may not be interested in video games, this industry has a specific interest in pushing the envelope for VR technology which will soon be adopted in nearly every other industry.
Virtual Reality: A Science Fiction Fantasy?
We’ve been trying to figure out how to make virtual reality a real thing ever since it was a fake thing in science fiction. The idea of simulating the real world through mechanical or otherwise synthetic means is by no means a new concept: flight simulators, driving simulators, and immersive artistic experiences have been around long before the computer, relying on a mix of mechanical and electronic means. One famous example, usually considered the first comprehensive VR machine, was Morton Heilig’s Sensorama, built in 1962.
In fact, there were plenty of past attempts at kick-starting the virtual reality industry predicted by science fiction for years. Famously, Nintendo created a whole console devoted to the idea, but numerous flaws caused it failed utterly, spoiling the video game industry on the idea for decades.
I9 has a great article outlining several failed virtual reality technologies, including those mentioned above.
So why is this such a big deal now? Well, for the first time, the technology is not only viable and effective, but hyped beyond all reason.
The Oculus Rift: The Standard-Bearer of a New Generation of VR
About a year ago, a small engineering firm put up a Kickstarter campaign to build their new VR Head Mounted Display, dubbed the Oculus Rift. I’ve highlighted this one before, but since my last coverage, the company has not only met record-smashing success selling development prototypes alone, but they’ve been acquired by Facebook. People are still a little confused about why exactly the social media titan would want a VR headset, but apparently they want to create the largest virtual reality network in history, planning for 1 Billion simultaneous users. So basically, any anime, game, movie, or tv show you’ve ever seen with a massive VR game world is basically coming, thanks to the big FB.
Needless to say, people are really getting excited about this thing. The Holodeck? Seems to be right around the corner. Speaking of Star Trek, George Takei even got in on the fun during his Youtube segment Takei’s Take, where he played an Oculus Rift game where you punch a shark in the face (skip to 2:46 for the actual Oculus Rift demo. Spoilers: he didn’t do very well):
It’s pretty hard to imagine what using one of these devices is really like, but there are plenty of people raving about them. Here are some impressions people have gotten from trying the Oculus Rift out at E3:
Not surprisingly, lots of people are jumping on this bandwagon right-quick:
Looking to be a major contender, Sony’s really trying to beat Microsoft to the punch and to be the first game console maker with a first-party VR headset. Anyone with a Playstation 4 will be able to hook up a Morpheus and play virtual reality games, which really will pull VR into the mainstream market.
Several companies are catching on to the fact that many people already tote around a small, HD screen with motion sensors and computing power: smartphones! Cmoar is a specialized unit with interchangeable lenses which will let users swap out for different uses, including games, movies, and even Augmented Reality with the front-mounted camera. Vrizzmo, another unit made by De Jet Works, takes a simpler, cheaper route by giving you one set of adjustable lenses to slide your phone into.
These are just a few examples, and there are sure to be many more coming. The future of VR seems to actually be here.
Don’t Want to Wait? Build Your Own!
RoadtoVR.com has been my go-to for VR news of late, but one set of articles I keep coming back to (without yet doing anything with them) are their Do-it-Yourself guides for building your own VR head mounted display for roughly $20. That’s right! You don’t have to wait for consumer models to come to a store near you. With a little elbow-grease and surprisingly little technical know-how, you can make your own lens and phone assembly like those phone-based unites described above. I want to do this for myself (once I get a decent phone, that is!), but until then I’ll be watching the news for more details about the coming VR revolution!
It’s finally arrived! Lantern Hollow Press is thrilled to release the June 2014 edition of The Gallery of Worlds this weekend. Encounter new and continuing stories written by clever authors and illustrated by the marvelous Invisible Bridge Studios! Consider this your invitation for adventure and exploration in . . .
Last week Hiram Percy had constructed a playback device in the utmost secrecy and finally began listening to the interview between his father and the mysterious Mr. Ru-Kai. The depth of the conspiracy–against his father and against humanity in general–began to become clear, but at the key moment, Ru-Kai had called out Hiram Percy by name, and the recording had been overwhelmed by some kind of interference. They knew he would be listening…and could be watching him even then!
Hiram hid behind his chair pitifully as the screeching sounds continued to blare out of the player. He peeked over the top every so often, expecting Ru-kai to step out of the shadows at any moment. Nothing happened. After about five minutes, the static stopped as quickly as it had begun.
“What…are…you?” he heard his father’s voice gasping. Ru-kai’s voice turned cold and guttural.
“The truth begins to dawn on you then? This is an arrogant age where you are foolish enough to believe in only yourselves. The others have either fled the world or dug so deep as to be lost to you. But my people are a clever people, far cleverer than even your myths remember. We are the children of a greater god who dared to dream his own theme. He drew us out of the weak creations of the other and made something better. We are practical people and we focus on hard reality. We do not need gold and we care nothing for the foolishness the first ones call beauty. Far greater is strength and efficiency. We have passed this age by toying with you—guiding you in the creation of strength and practicality that you otherwise would have twittered away. And we have greater plans for you still. Your grandchildren will live to see it. Your great grandchildren? Perhaps not.”
An eerie chuckling mixed with the gasping wheeze of the dying Maxim. “Good night, dear Maxim,” Ru-kai said, as his footsteps retreated and the door slowly squealed on its hinges.
Hiram Percy stepped out from behind his chair, trembling. He lifted the needle from the cylinder, and his father’s desperate gasps stopped instantly. His breathing slowed, and he leaned heavily on the table. Snatches of the end of the conversation kept echoing through his stunned mind: “fire, death, and destruction;” “will kill their tens of thousands.” Ru-kai had already unleashed his father’s machine gun onto humanity. Could he be guiding some other poor inventor into something even worse? Another war? He steeled his nerves and started the recording again at the point of the static, straining to make out any words, but there was nothing. Just the howl of the electric beast caught on the tube. Somehow, Ru-kai had defeated his father’s final invention with a greater one. Eventually, Hiram stood up and walked out, locking the door behind him. The next day he returned and boarded up the entrance behind a fake wall.
For the next fifteen years, Hiram threw himself into his work with radio and cinema. He did everything he could to remove himself from all thought of his father’s death and the tube he knew still lay undisturbed in his basement. Slowly, though, the thought of the conversation ate away at him. What greater war could there be? How could science, the savior of humanity, create an instrument of death more efficient than his father’s guns? But what could he do? The answers to the most important questions of the century—of the age—had been lost in a sea of screeching static. If it was even real. How could it be real? He passed in and out of depression as these questions and more flowed through his mind, threatening to drive him mad.
As time passed, there was more to worry over. The rise of a former Austrian corporal to power in Germany, once a struggling artist in Vienna itself, could not help but draw his attention. The Communists were arming Russia. The Japanese had risen as a world power. Descendants of his father’s machine guns sprouted from France’s Maginot Line and adorned hundreds of British bombers. The emerging science of atomic energy was both inspiring and also terrifying. Finally, after seventeen years of torture, the dam of his mind broke and the answer, so long sought, came to him.
Hiram had been sitting at his transmission set, relaying messages along the amateur radio network he had created only a few years before his father’s death when two signals began to interfere with each other. He quickly realized that a closer, more powerful transmitter was overwhelming the one he was trying to receive. Hidden deep under the more powerful signal, Hiram found that the other was still present, tangled and hidden by its louder brother. He instantly remembered the screeching static and realized Ru-kai’s game: He had used a transmitter of his own to drown out the one from Hiram’s father’s machine! If the cylinder had recorded both signals together, then he might be able to sort the two out. His father could win after all! Breaking through the wall of the long neglected hiding place, Hiram was heartened to see that everything was how he had left it so long ago. In all those years since, he had received no scrap of paper or other communication, and he now felt emboldened.
Hiram worked on the problem in secret for the better part of a year. He did indeed find both signals intact, but their frequencies were so similar that his equipment simply wasn’t sensitive enough to pull them apart. He was always careful to keep the cylinder near him, and he took to stowing it in a special compartment he had installed in his strong wooden briefcase. As time passed, he became more and more obsessive, and eventually refused to be parted from it. Knowing that secrecy was his best defense—and therefore the world’s only hope of averting whatever Ru-kai promised to deliver—he never spoke to anyone about it.
After more than a decade of waiting, Hiram Percy found his answer suddenly. He was visiting Allan Clark Holden of Lick Observatory in California. He had been in touch with Holden on several occasions through the radio network due to their mutual interest in the subject. Holden invited him for a visit in January of 1936, and Hiram had agreed, traveling with his cylinder in tow.
Most of the trip to the observatory was uneventful, and he passed several pleasant days with Holden before Holden had the opportunity to show him some of the latest equipment that had been installed at the observatory to measure cosmic radiation—including radio waves. Hiram had to stop himself from visibly choking when he realized that the new sets would be more than accurate enough to sort out the signals on his father’s tube! Placing a hand protectively on his briefcase, he asked Holden if he might make private use of the machines that evening, to sort out an old but important problem. Holden said he could, but that it must wait until tomorrow, since that night the lab would be undergoing maintenance. He assured Hiram that he could have all the time he needed first thing in the morning. Besides, he added, there was supposed to be a low hanging fog in the valley that night, keeping out the light pollution from below and making it ideal for observation. Hiram swallowed hard, but agreed. It had waited this long, and so it could wait one night more. Better that than mention the tube’s existence to someone else.
That night at 3 a.m., as Hiram mounted the steps to the telescope’s viewing piece, something caught his eye. There was a small carpet at the base of the telescope, where the observer stood, red with black binding. Something brown poked out from under it, near where he was to stand. Thinking it perhaps a wrapper to a piece of candy left behind by some absent minded graduate assistant, he picked it up, stuffed it in his pocket, and forgot about it.
Until the next morning.
Hiram stood in the lobby of his hotel, his briefcase in hand, nervously waiting for the cab that would take him back to the Lick Observatory. He had not been able to sleep even the hour or two that had been available to him, spending the time instead obsessing over what he might find on the recording. He had not even bothered to change clothes. To keep his hands busy, he shoved one of them into his pocket, where he found the slip of paper from the night before. Without any apprehension, he pulled it out and glanced at it. His gasp of terror was plain, and several of the hotel patrons looked at him in curiosity. Hiram looked around the room wildly, hugged his precious briefcase to his chest, and sprinted from the room. A curious bystander picked up the paper that Hiram had dropped in his haste. On it was written, in flowing black script, just the words, “We are coming.”
A short article ran the following week in the Hartford, Connecticut Courant:
Hiram Percy Maxim fell ill on his return trip to his home after having visited the famous Lick Observatory in San Jose, California. He felt unwell on the train and was quickly transported to the hospital in La Junta, Colorado, where he passed away on February 16, 1936. His luggage was missing from the train, and the hospital claims it was never delivered to them, causing the family to consider legal action to force its return. An inventor in his own right, he was the son of Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim, the inventor of the machine gun.
We hope you’ve enjoyed The Inheritance of Hiram Percy Maxim! Check back next week for more from a different LHP author, and don’t forget to check out our eZines for more unique content!
This is my last post for the month, and so I’ll be wrapping up my original thoughts on William Gibson’s non-fiction theories and responses to cultural phenomenon outside of his novels, primarily those thoughts encapsulated in Distrust That Particular Flavor, an anthology of Gibson’s non-fiction.
Generally, the most influential idea to me that comes from these writings is the idea which is a primary theme of Gibson’s more recent novels since his cyberpunk trilogy, the idea that the “cyborg” is not as simple as a literal man-machine hybrid, but that we as modern men and women have already integrated technology into our beings so closely that we have become what he predicted in the 80s without so much as a single shard of implanted silicon. But there’s another aspect to this idea which is very useful for writing purpose which I want to cover.
My thoughts (and Gibson’s) today come mostly from his piece “Googling the Cyborg,” a talk he gave to the Vancouver Institute in 2008 which is included in Distrust.
Why We Didn’t See Computers Coming
If you look at traditional science fiction, especially in TV in the 30s and 40s, there are a lot of rocketships. Rocketships and flying cars and jetpacks. Do we have any of those today? Not really, at least not as they were envisioned. It’s fascinating to see how so many writers were trying very hard to predict what the future would look like and settled on technologies that just didn’t create the sort of renaissance they expected. Nothing really about the computer, which at that time was already beginning to exist.There are robots in these films and stories, but they’re pretty much exclusively the snappy-clamp-handed stainless steel variety that have sparks and glass vacuum tubes coming out everywhere. But Gibson describes one thing that did come up: the “electronic brain” which was almost like a computer, but never quite bridged that conceptual gap.
This is because of something Gibson describes as “Steam Engine Time:”
The observable fact that steam, contained, exerts force, has been around since the first lid rattled as the soup came to a boil. The ancient Greeks built toy steam engines that whirled bronze globes. But you won’t get a locomotive till it’s Steam Engine Time. What you wouldn’t do, in 1940, with an electronic brain, would be to stick it on your desk, connect it somehow to a type-writer, and, if you had one, a television… (247).
What do we know about, use, or dream about today that will become our future, without our even noticing? Is it nanotechnology? Stem cells? Aliens? There’s not necessarily any way we could identify it (we can’t know the future until we get to it, really), but I believe that after computer technology broadsided humanity with its unexpected revolution of our daily lives, we’ve been on the lookout. That helps to explain why we have such broad and varied foci for our speculative fiction nowadays, but that’s another conversation.
So what of the electronic brain? Did it stop being important after we decided to stick it on a desk and hook a TV to it? Gibson sees it in something we’ve come to completely take for granted: Google. The internet, a massive network of invisible connections that bring information of almost any subject to the extended memory of every user, is just another aspect of our becoming cybernetic organisms. We don’t need cranial jacks when all we have to do is type in what we want to know, and the great electronic brain does the thinking for us.
Maybe our future visions of artificial intelligence, the electronic brain’s shiny new iteration, will become just as quaint and silly as previous generations’ rocketship dreams seem to us today. Maybe while we look forward to the next big thing, we’re missing the little thing that will actually change our lives, much like the computer did almost without anyone noticing it. Until Steam Engine Time hits again, it’s likely we won’t know.
That’s it for this week! We’ve got Halloween coming up on Thursday, and with that our All Hallows Eve edition of The Gallery of Worlds! Sign up for our newsletter to get a free download code!
Hello everyone! This month I’ve been talking about William Gibson’s non-fiction writings, centering on his assertion that our interactions with technology have already made us the cyborgs of his stories. This brought me back to the Technological Singularity, the idea that at a certain point in human history, we will eventually artificial intelligence sophisticated enough to create better artificial intelligence.
This is a really cool / terrifying idea, and I’ve covered it before, specifically focusing on how to use it or avoid being hobbled by it in your own writing. However, what I realized I have not discussed is the tempestuous debate surrounding this topic in both the public and academic spheres.
Singularitarianism as the New Utopian Dream
Vernor Vinge, on of the first contemporary theorists in the field of “Future Studies” has predicted four different possible routes we might take to reach an uncontrolled and possibly cataclysmic explosion of technological development:
We might develop self-aware artificial intelligence on purpose (think Siri)
We might accidentally create self-aware artificial intelligence (as in, the Internet wakes up, or Skynet)
We augment our intelligence prosthetically to the point that we are superhuman (Cyborgs)
We augment ourselves biologically to the point that we are superhuman (think Benedict Cumberbatch’s Khan from the recent Star Trek movie, but not necessarily evil or murderous)
Obviously, the examples I give seem to imply that any one of these could mean our doom, and that is one interpretation of the theory. However, many Singularitarians (as they have come to call themselves) have hopes that this event will actually mean the next stage of human evolution and mean the transcendence of natural limitations. According to some, this could mean we finally get Utopia.
Ray Kurzweil is an extremely outspoken (and combative) member of this group, and is responsible for inspiring a lot of the public interest in this topic. His first book The Age of Intelligent Machines kicked off much of the larger discussion and made him well known for his transhumanist predictions that we will take the less apocalyptic route and use the Singularity to become more than human. Here’s an interview from SingularityHub which encapsulates much of Kurzweil’s thoughts:
Or, for a much shorter and quite funny presentation of what Singularitarians believe, see this video:
But the Singularitarians do have their opponents, and it is important to see the other side of the argument.
Opponents of the “New Church” of the Singularity
Theoretical utopian societies always have detractors, often because they make necessary assumptions about human nature or technology which can be criticized. It is interesting to note that even some of the cyberpunk writers such as Bruce Sterling and Neal Stephenson are critical of Kurzweil’s theories, seeing them as too fantastic to truly represent a possible future.
But there are also voices from the scientific community who do not agree with the premises of the Singularitarian movement. One example is Brazilian neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis denies that the human brain can actually be simulated, and that we can especially not replicate the human consciousness. While Kurzweil believes that we are pretty close to figuring out how the human brain works, Nicolelis thinks this is all “hot air” (according to Singularity Hub). Another is George E. Moore, the guy Moore’s Law of semiconductors is named after, who does not believe that machines will attain the same intelligence as humans, because they are outside the natural evolutionary process which (he believes) resulted in us.
In fact, IEEE.org, the website for the Institute for Electric and Electronic Engineers, has a fantastic list of high profile supporters and detractors of the theory of the Singularity, and their diverse thoughts on the subject offers a sample of the debate (part of a larger single-issue web magazine full of extremely interesting articles; check it out here!). The sheer number of consequences and possible outcomes for the Singularity (or any of the above should the event never occur) has been a significant feature of science fiction in the past 20 years, so it is extremely useful to understand where so many of these writers, critics, and theorists are coming from.
That’s it for this week! I’ll finish up my discussion of Gibson’s non-fiction next week (there’s one more really great article I want to talk about). Until then, do you believe in the Singularity? Let me know in the comments below!