Where are my VR Goggles?

by Mike Shea on 7 May 2012

30 second summary

Though cyberpunk books like Ready Player One show us a world in which we all live in virtual reality, current trends suggest that physical immersion isn't important to us. Instead of Cyberspace, we have Facebook. Instead of the Metaverse, we have Angry Birds. The future of internet commerce lies in microtransations for virtual goods. Creators of books, video, audio, and gaming content will sell through large intermediaries with a 70% / 30% split. Above basic physical needs, virtual goods will prove to be the only goods we care about. This new model will soon make 14 year old kids rich while a generation of corporate middle men will wonder what happened to their jobs.

Ready Player One

I just finished reading the book Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. It's a fantastic book that speaks personally to every gen-x geek who grew up reading Neuromancer and Snow Crash. As a guy who spent 9,600 hours as Loral Ciriclight in the game Everquest, I can definitely relate to those who live, breathe, and love in virtual worlds.

When I read books like Neuromancer and Snow Crash, I looked forward to a future where people lived and died in virtual worlds. In the earliest days of the 21st century, I fully expected that games like Everquest would lead us to this future — a future not understood by many but embraced by some of us.

At my peak, I spent 60 hours a week in Everquest. One long weekend, I logged in for 50 hours straight camping Ragefire to get my cleric epic resurrection stick. During this time, while writing for the website, Mobhunter, I predicted that 50 million people would play massive online games by 2013. I was right. I just didn't expect that massive online game to be Farmville.

I expected massive multiplayer online games (MMOs) to hit consoles but they never did. Hell, they never even tried. I can count on one hand the number of MMOs attempted on gaming consoles and all of them sucked. Sony tried it. Microsoft tried it. No one cared because they never offered anything anyone really wanted.

Instead, tiny flash games embedded in a social network embedded in a browser won the title of largest MMO. I guess it isn't a surprise, really, but who would have expected it?

50 million players roar over the whisper of hardcore gaming

It makes sense that games got smaller, simpler, and faster. They hit 80 million players by working on every computer and taking very little effort to start and play. Games like Farmville have none of the depth of a game like Everquest, but they're simple enough that anyone can play it.

Reading a book like Ready Player One, a book in which characters emerse themselves in a single huge online world called Oasis using haptic gloves and VR goggles, I wonder if it's a future we're ever going to see?

Sure, we have the Xbox Kinect, a device capable of full-body emersion sans-feedback. We also have affordable 52" 1920x1080 displays and six-speaker surround systems. We have devices in our pocket with over 300 dpi.

Yet we've almost taken a step back with console gaming. The Wii came and went fast, creating a vacuum of expectations that never panned out. Sony and Microsoft haven't updated their hardware in nearly seven years. And why should they? The systems have full HD resolution, excellent sound, and good network connections. What else do they need?

How about an audience that gives a shit

Seeing the popularity of mini-games like Angry Birds and Farmville, we have to wonder if the days of fully immersive MMOs are behind us. Big games are expensive to produce and don't draw in nearly as many people. Large immersive games may be forever destined to the fringe of people that would rather live in another world than this one and that fringe may never grow beyond World of Warcraft.

We hear about Valve's recent foray into head-mounted displays and we see the Minority Report glasses Google is developing and we dream once again of Gibson's cyberspace. But I think the days of the fully immersive virtual worlds left us when we realized that the only thing coming out of from Second Life was advertisement and porn. No one cares.

Who needs reality in their VR?

Maybe we just don't care to have physical metaphors. It's fine for specific games like Mass Effect and The Old Republic but for simple social interaction, we have Twitter. For watching videos, we have Youtube. We don't need a single unifying faux-physical land, as cool as it sounds in theory. We're just as happy clicking links and reading text. We don't need high-poly-count avatars, we're happy with a tiny 150x150 pixel icon.

The death of online social connections

As games fit more and more into our real lives, it comes at the cost of social interaction online. With 9,600 hours logged into Everquest, I had built a place in the society of the game. With far fewer hours in current games, my place in those societies are temporary and tenuous. The same connections with people simply don't last.

Gone are the games that demanded so much time of us and with those games go the relationships that required that time to build.

Yet social networks like Facebook and Twitter seem to connect us quite well. People don't meet and fall in love, but at least we get a sense for one another.

The future of virtual economics

So we're all wrong when it comes to immersion. Most people are happier playing Angry Birds and checking Facebook than they are living in some virtual world. We're happier with our cell phone than we are with VR goggles — at least for now. But what WILL the future hold?

Virtual economics will explode. Apple and Amazon have the 70% / 30% market down for virtual goods and I see no reason why games don't start picking this up.

Imagine some sort of core virtual world like Star Wars: The Old Republic. Bioware puts out a development kit to build flash points (their version of instances). Any user can create one, within some basic defined parameters, and then, when it's good enough, sell it through Bioware. Players of the game can purchase these flash points to play a nice repeatable hunk of content - sort of the equivalent of a short story. Say such a thing runs $5. Bioware gets $1.50 of that and the creator of the flash point gets $3.50. Everyone makes out in a transaction for something that never really existed. Blizzard is already experimenting with virtual goods for dollars with the Diablo 3 marketplace.

With a model like this, a 14 year old kid in his basement who is smart enough, talented enough, and creative enough can earn more money than his father is at his dead-end job as a corporate drone.

This sort of economics will grow fast. App stores, music stores, video stories, book stores; all of them are going to become transparent pathways of transactions between creators and consumers. Of course, this means the end of the middle men unless, like Blizzard and Apple and Amazon, those middle men add something worth a 30% cut. Places like EB Games? I'd start short-selling them right now.