Messages from the Future: VR Entertainment

Ok, so in the future, Elon Musk’s math turned out to be wrong. No, we don’t live in a Virtual Reality simulation. Turns out, however dull and tragic it might seem, this world is our actual base reality. Boring, I know. However what his math did prove was that otherwise smart people who are exposed even to old, crappy pseudo-VR, like you have today, almost immediately start to question their base reality for no other apparent reason. Not surprisingly this turned out to be equally true of 15-year-old boys who watched “The Matrix”. Go figure.

That said when we extended Musk’s math even further, it also proved that we will eventually learn to travel back in time, and that time travelers are therefore among us.  Something I didn’t believe until it happened to me.

Anyway, before we get into what made VR entertainment awesome in the future, I feel like I need to explain what VR wasn’t, because in your time a lot of you are still confused about that.

VR Wasn’t On Your Phone

Listening to the press in your time you might imagine that VR is on your phone. That as early as next year you will be able to “put awesome VR in your pocket”.  …Really?  Could someone at Wired please define the word “awesome”? I mean, because I just used that word, and the way you’re using it so wasn’t what I meant.

Today, filmmakers, technologists and, naturally, pornographers are breathlessly diving into this idea (prematurely), pitching and signing VR content deals to produce some of the world’s first so-called “VR films”.

So let’s cut to the chase.

In the future VR was not about turning your head to look a different direction.

Yeah, that didn’t turn out to be it at all. Totally wrong. Yet somehow an entire industry seems to have confused this point. In fact, turning your head during a linear movie appears to be the entirety of what many otherwise smart people mean when they say “VR” in your time. Didn’t the fact that Google made theirs out of cardboard indicate anything to you?

Didn’t the fact that Google made theirs out of cardboard indicate anything to you?

360 wasn’t VR any more than a 4-year-old’s crayon-drawn flip book is a summer blockbuster.

Anyway, despite the efforts of some over-eager filmmakers who really tried making movies where turning your head was, like, a “thing”, you thankfully moved past that phase pretty quickly.

If you are one of those guys considering making one of those linear, head-turny VR movies, you could save yourself a lot of professional embarrassment and personal disappointment and just not do that instead.  Strongly recommended.

I further find it fascinating that the same people who kicked and screamed before admitting that wearing Google Glass made you look like a complete dork, are now honking the same ain’t-it-cool clown horns all over again with VR on your phone.

I get it. I know. You can’t wait to be special, little, cyber-cool, robot-hacker adventure guys. That’s still a cool thing in your time, right? A hoodie, a laptop, Christian Slater, and you, with a shoebox strapped to your face, waving your arms like an idiot catching invisible unicorn butterflies.

I get it.  Yeah, you’re right, you’re really cool when you do that in public.

 Augmented Reality’s Achilles Heel

“Oh, but I am fully aware that so-called VR on your phone is kind of stupid,” you say. “I’m on the cutting edge. That’s why my eye is on Light Field-based Augmented Reality.”

Right. Augmented Reality, or “blended reality”, or “mixed reality”, or good lord, whatever the hell Reality you’re calling it now – it’s all the same thing; why do you keep renaming things that have perfectly good names?

Augmented reality wasn’t an entertainment game-changer either. And this goes against everything you are reading in the press in your time. Most Augmented Reality evangelists are super excited about how AR is a, or maybe even the, medium for entertainment in the future.

So here’s the deal, in the future, AR was to digital entertainment what Sushi is to fine cuisine.  Some of it is really good, but the vast majority of fine cuisine doesn’t involve uncooked fish.

In the future, AR was to digital entertainment what Sushi is to fine cuisine.  Some of it is really good, but the vast majority of fine cuisine doesn’t involve uncooked fish.

Due to the medium’s definitive limitations in the face of the massively expansive domain of entertainment, AR occupied a very narrow slice of the experience pie. It was no more the medium for entertainment in the future than mobile phones are today. You know, hindsight being 20/20.

I admit however, that AR appears to demo very well. About as well as any spanking new special effect technique from Hollywood. Bearded tech bloggers with their geek chic but mostly geek glasses are giddy and excited about the promise of this medium, thrilling and editorially gasping at seeing jellyfish near a ceiling or C-3PO standing behind someone’s desk. And it is kind of cool in a way, because in your time you have never seen that before. As a visual effect (which is all it is), it probably seems like magic. But if you’ve therefor proclaimed AR as “the future of entertainment”, well, you’re missing a really crippling something:

You’re in your room.

Star Wars VR – Episode IX – LOCATION: YOUR ICKY ROOM

There’s your coffee cup, there is yesterday’s half-eaten banana, and, oh, there is the underwear pile you keep meaning to put in the laundry basket before Brittany gets here.

In the expanse of storytelling, I don’t know how else to say this, there are only so many believable stories that could happen in that room, surrounded by your own personal junk. Said another way, amidst the infinity of possible amazing stories that storytellers will wish to tell, across vast worlds and realities, only a minuscule, meaningless number of them has anything to do with wherever the hell you actually happen to be in reality.

Got it? By its very definition, AR suffered the severe limitation of having to co-exist with your world such that suspension of disbelief was maintainable.  Even though the effect might make a compelling 5-minute demo today.

Hey, who doesn’t love the idea that C-3PO might be on a vital mission for the rebellion which coincidentally can only be conducted… three feet from your slightly mildewed, 1960s, pink-tiled bathroom?

Hey, who doesn’t love the idea that C-3PO might be on a vital mission for the rebellion which coincidentally can only be conducted… three feet from your slightly mildewed, 1960s, pink-tiled bathroom?

Pixar folk have uttered a number of brilliant statements related to the relationship between Technology and Art over the years, and this one feels relevant here:

“You can have some really stunning imagery and technical innovation, but after about 5 minutes the audience is bored and they want something more interesting — story.” – Lee Unkrich

Yes – I know AR entertainment seems cool right now while the visual effect is still novel, and further, by having not yet experienced any, let alone five or more, big budget VRs, it probably seems like there must be countless stories and realities one could create that would coexist nicely with your real world thanks to AR. In fact, the possibilities might seem limitless to you now. That’s what you’re thinking, right? That’s certainly what you’re reading. And ok, fair, there were a small handful of good ones.

The problem was that those couple good ones got made, and in very short order it became clear that the same few, contrived, narrative devices had to be repeatedly enlisted, ad nauseam, in order to explain away the unavoidable fact that this story was happening a few feet from your much too hastily selected Ikea shelving unit.  And trust me, that got old really fast.

There were the scary killer/monsters in your room stories, the impossible, magical/sci-fi whatever in your room thanks to some coincidental, random, accidental dimensional/time portal stories, the Elon Musk was right about the Matrix stories, and the king of all AR stories, the Bourne-ish spy/conspiracy for-some-reason-you’re-the-random-person-we-coincidentally-need stories. And at some point storytellers and audiences just realized that having to co-exist with the real world was a repetitive, and somewhat annoying, contextual handicap, and backed off, allowing AR mode to settle into it’s righter use-cases.

…at some point storytellers and audiences just realized that having to co-exist with the real world was a repetitive, and somewhat annoying, contextual handicap, and backed off.

That said, the one genre where none of this was a problem at all was – porn. Although few acknowledged it openly, porn dominated AR entertainment. Integrating with your real world actually enhanced porn’s value. On the one hand, the illusion was all that mattered; unlike other genres, no one cared about actual story devices in this context. And on the other hand, with AR you could keep a defensive, watchful eye on the real world. There was little more embarrassing than being walked in on, and on full display, unawares, while blindly aroused in some depraved, fetishistic VR extravaganza.

To wit, whole video sharing sites were dedicated to streaming parades of horrifying, thank-the-greek-love-goddess-Aphrodite-that-wasn’t-me, “caught” videos revealing one blissfully-oblivious, self-gratifying, gogglebrick-faced, sex pig after another. Esh. There but for the grace of God…

Non-porn AR entertainment on the other hand, settled into a more casual entertainment role, generally serving arcade and puzzle games that utilized objects or textures in the space around you, or ignored the room altogether.

This is not to say that was all AR was good for. Not at all. AR was massive in so many other, non-entertaining ways. AR was indispensable at work, in communication, education and productivity.

After all that, I guess it would be a good time for me to tell you that actually, the difference between Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality, was trivial.  They were just modes.  A toggle.

Tap, AR.

Tap, VR.

Tap, AR again. Got it?

So turning off your view off the real world and entering an immersive new one was trivial.

But although mode switching was trivial, it was here in VR mode – the real world blocked out entirely – that entertainment non-trivially reigned.

VR Storytelling

What constituted a VR entertainment experience? What made a great VR story?

Today the closest discrete relative you have to VRs, as they manifested in future, is games. But don’t get all excited. These weren’t sisters.  Today’s games are that second cousin who voted for Trump, eats way too many Cheet-Os, smells her toenail clippings, and buys cheap jewelry on the Home Shopping Network. Comparatively speaking, the best games you have today are fiddly junk. And the platforms that power them are – so – fucking – slow. I mean really, today’s games are cryptic. How did I ever enjoy them? Ug. All these ridiculous limitations.

“No, you can’t kick that door down because we meant for you to find the key. Oops, you can’t walk over there because, well, you just can’t. You can break the window… oh, but no, you can’t use the broken glass to cut the rope, because, well, honestly none of us thought of that.”

If a specific action was not preconceived by a creator, you can’t do it. No room for your creativity and problem solving, unless the creators thought of it first.  And the whole time you have to twiddle these stupid little game controller buttons and joysticks. God forbid I should wish to say something to a character, with all those coy responses designed to side-step the fact that this so-called “AI” can’t logically respond to anything outside of some arbitrary, branching, preordained multiple-choice quiz.

This isn't VR either.

This isn’t VR either.

I mean, imagine how you would feel if you were back in 1978 and all the millennial, hipster news bloggers were fawning over Coleco’s Electronic Quarterback as “awesome video games in your pocket” and you were the only one in the world who’d spent 5 years playing a PS5?  You wouldn’t know where to start.

And yet games are still the closest, discrete thing you have to actual VR.

VR Storytelling: The User Strikes Back

A great story, as you think of it today, depends on structure, timing and sequence. Without a story’s structure and a sequence of events, how can there be a story at all? Fair point. A traditional, linear auteur very carefully structures a story, and times a sequence of specific events, that build to a conclusion. The linear storyteller definitively owns these decisions.

But in an interactive domain, glorified by VR, the user throws that structure, timing and sequence into chaos. Because the user makes those decisions. Not the storyteller.

So structurally speaking, “Storytelling” and “Interactive” are polar opposites.

Now at first this sends all the linear story tellers into a tizzy because it sounds to them like a kind of absolute chaos. But that’s because they’re just used to having absolute control over structure, timing and sequence.

“Yes, but what do I do then? How do I tell a story?! What are the tools of my trade?”

To this I would remind the linear storyteller that story is about more than structure, timing and sequence. Story is about character. In fact, the very best storytellers will instruct, much better than I can, that “character is story”. That embedded in every character are countless stories that might manifest fascinatingly under a near infinite range of meaningful challenges. Writers of the world’s greatest stories start with who their characters are. The way characters react to conflict drive the story forward. In fact when a story is perhaps not about character, the story is usually bad.

Character backstory was a critically fundamental part of interactive storytelling in the future. The platforms were fast enough and the AI intelligent and improvisational enough to literally perform characters that you could relate to. As a writer, you could create people.

There were other tools: environments, objects, and acts of God (or maybe acts of “storyteller”). Along with character these were all parts of the interactive storyteller’s palette. The story was literally embedded in the assemblage of programmatic objects.  And “acts of God” did allow the storyteller to take some control. To affect timing and events.  To a point.

And in the end, that was the game. Not sequence and timing, but potential and likelihood.

The art of VR storytelling was the masterful design and assembly of character, environment, objects, and acts of God in the construction of a narrative theme park – saturated with latent story probability.

The art of VR storytelling was the masterful design and assembly of character, environment, objects, and acts of God in the construction of a narrative theme park – saturated with latent story probability. All powered by sophisticated, improvisational AI.

VR storytellers were experts in human behavior, and understood how to encourage motivation and read and manipulate emotions in action.

Crying

Despite the skill of great VR storytellers, one of the things they struggled with for years were sad stories. There were so few successful dramas that brought you to an emotional place. And at some point we realized – it was a result of the very medium.

In real life we experience emotional pain due to our lack of control over the universe, and that is what makes us cry. For example, say Bosco your puppy gets run over by some (yes, self-driving) Uber. You would do anything to stop that from happening, but it’s real life so you can’t.  The same is true for movies and books where you are limited to a preplanned path. You can’t change it.

But in VR, we were in control. When you saw some pending tragedy, you had the immediate ability to fix it, undo it.  We could choose what we wanted to happen. Bosco can be saved!  Hooray!

VR, as a medium, existed to provide wish fulfillment.

As a result, you almost never cried in VR. And VRs that wrested away your control to try to make you cry, just didn’t do that well.

Actually, Size Matters

The hipster millennial reporters, who thought awesome VR could ever make its way to your phone, took years to accept that despite Moore’s Law, there was a consistent, significant, qualitative improvement afforded by large, dedicated, wired systems. The quest for perfected VR ended up being a never-ending hole of technical advancement because the target was so high (the convincing recreation, abstraction and manipulation of the real world and all nature’s elements and laws) and so far beyond what was technically possible at any given time, that any version of miniaturized, portable VR always seemed grossly inferior. The state of the art physical set up, the sensors, haptic projectors and computing power required to run great VR still had not, by the time I popped back to this time, become small enough to carry with you, and nor would you want it to.

The target was so high and so far beyond what was technically possible at any given time, that any version of miniaturized, portable VR always seemed grossly inferior.

The reason you might not fully appreciate this is because you are still defining VR resolution as you think of it today. Oh, that gets miniaturized, sure, but that was lame.

For example, by the time I popped back here what you’re calling haptic holography was a critical part of both the experience and the interface. This was not just some dull Apple Watch pulse. I mean you could bruise yourself on a virtual rock if you weren’t careful. Wide ranges of textures, heat, cold, fluid dynamics (wind, water, etc) could all easily be replicated. If you got haptic water on your hands, they really felt wet. Which lead to all sorts of applications. You could wave your virtually wet hands and feel the coolness of evaporation; you had to dry them off on something. You could feel VR clothes and the weight of objects.

And get this, they could even create haptic effects inside your body. Again there were safety limitations, but it allowed the system to adjust your sense of orientation, to create the illusion that you were flying, or falling, or accelerating or decelerating, or standing. Even when you were just sitting in a chair you could feel like you were walking. And seriously – don’t get me started on porn.

As you can see, by the time your Apple Watch (the only device most of us carried) had enough thrust to power aural/visual-only experiences, the larger, wired, in-home rigs were producing massively richer, more jaw-dropping experiences that just made the phone version seem, well, kind of stupid.

You’d see businessmen fiddling with some portable version on the Hyperloop, but there just wasn’t much to that.

And so it went for some time. Until our senses could be bypassed entirely, computers became sentient, and all hell broke loose.  But that’s another post.

Generation VRI

Back in the “moving meat days”, and despite VR-proofing rooms (which basically involved padding, like you would do for a baby, but only for a full-grown, 250-pound man) everyone of my friends had some awful VR injury story . VRI was a thing you bought insurance for. As you neared walls and objects in the real world, most VRs would alert you in various ways. However, you would be surprised how strong the drive to do what you’d intended could be in the heat of the dramatic moment. You would invariably push, just that little bit further, to accomplish your goal, despite the warning. This tendency was called “elevening” (11-ing “push it to 11”). Elevening caused stubbed toes, noses and fingers. People tripped, collided, broke bones, knocked things over, fell off balconies, knocked people out windows, got electrocuted and burned, and in too many cases, died. To counter this, some VRs employed something between VR and AR called Reality Skinning, where your real room and objects like chairs or whatever was in it, were all rendered as themed objects in the virtual one. But I always found that a bit lame.

Getting injured in VR, however, was the least of our issues.

Although VR was awesome, it’s problem was that is was really awesome.

Pretty much an entire generation weaned on VR grew up, at best, bored stiff with the real world. But usually worse. Leaving the virtual world and reentering the real one of inconvenience, dirt, ailments, limitations and an oppressive lack of control was such a profound let down. Your ego was once again forced to accept your oh so many pathetic imperfections.

Pulling out was universally met with depression. Often severe.

People slept there. It was vilified as being addictive, but how could it not be? An always-on Vegas casino, perpetual early-dusk; party-time forever.  Like heroin addicts, VR users suffered from a wide range of ailments, severe nutritional deficits and health problems related to hours on end foregoing attention to their real-world meat. Dieting stopped being something anyone tried to do. You think you have a sedentary population today?  You have no idea.

Users exhibited all sorts of bizarre behaviors and tics due to reflexively gesturing virtual actions that had no impact in real life.

Intelligent users were often confused and distrusting of base-reality.

A surprising number of people drowned when they discovered they couldn’t actually breathe under real water, let alone swim. Others jumped off buildings because they actually did, with complete certainty, believe they could fly. Empathy plummeted. Samurai sword violence shot up dramatically.  And we generally stopped procreating, having been profoundly overstimulated by wildly perfect, surreal fantasy surrogates, and because we’d also become far too insecure in the presence of other equally damaged, relatively ugly, real live biological people to build relationships anyway.

I mean, no duh, seriously? What did you expect?

There is so much more to this story, but suffice it to say that VR changed everything. You could do anything, be anywhere, be anyone…

As such, VR was not just another medium.

VR was an alternate world in which our wishes were granted.

Think about that while you fiddle with your phones.

Oh, and Oculus Rift didn’t end up ushering in anything. They just became a peripheral company.