Monday, February 11, 2008

VR dreams

I've always been intrigued by how we refer to present-day technology using the names of far more advanced devices from science fiction. Real holograms do not look like solid objects, real robots do not have human-like personalities, and real spaceships do not visit faraway planets. Rarely is the human tendency toward hyperbole captured in science fiction itself, one exception being the "star destroyers" in Star Wars.

Virtual reality is an astounding example of the phenomenon. I first started hearing the term in the early 1990s, referring to machines placed over your entire head, sending imagery to the inner walls to make you feel like you're in a different world. I'm surprised this technology never caught on, and I'm disappointed that I've never had a chance to try it. Nowadays, the Internet has produced computer-generated alternate worlds like Second Life, but they're still presented through the flat screen of a monitor. They aren't like the VR that has been invented, let alone the VR in science fiction, where you enter a three-dimensional, fully sensory environment that feels the same as traversing the real world, even though you may be lying on a chair in your basement the whole time.

I was having those thoughts the other day as I reread Piers Anthony's 1993 novel Killobyte. It's the best of the dozen or so novels I've read by Anthony, though that isn't saying much, considering he's written over a hundred more. His books, while wickedly imaginative, have not generally had a lasting impact on me. I recognized in Killobyte many of the elements from his other books, including bizarre sexual scenarios, and the incorporation of medieval fantasy into a futuristic setting. (The sex scenes in his books have generated controversy, since children constitute a large chunk of his audience. In fifth grade, I almost did a book report on an Anthony novel in which an android has an affair with a female unicorn who can shape-shift into human form but still has heat cycles. I chose Charles De Lint's Jack the Giant Killer instead.)

The creativity of this book is accompanied by a page-turning quality that he claims he got from Robert Heinlein's The Puppet Masters. There are also some astonishingly realistic chapters, including a painfully vivid depiction of a girl suffering from diabetes. These qualities are important, because virtual-world stories often get so caught up in world creation that the story just sits there. (That was a problem with the dreadfully dull 2000 movie The Cell.) Not so with Killobyte: the complex VR game conceived in the book is intriguing enough to keep us reading, before the book turns into a slam-bang thriller.

In Killobyte, players are hooked up to a machine that not only simulates a range of sensations, from pain to sex, but also responds to brain signals to move a player's character in the virtual world. The only way to exit the game and return to the real world is by selecting that option from a menu that appears within the virtual world. Otherwise, you're stuck, like someone unable to wake up from a dream. (I doubt I'm giving away too much of the plot, since virtually all stories of this kind have the characters getting trapped inside the virtual world.) The game itself is pretty much traditional RPG, but it involves sophisticated voice recognition, artificial intelligence, and simulated sex so convincing it can work for a paraplegic who has lost that function in the real world.

It's amusing to read the book now, for there's no direct mention of the Internet, and all the players connect to the game's network using telephone modems. That's hardly surprising. Anthony apparently wrote the book in 1991, when the World Wide Web had only just been invented, and when the term "Internet" was still techno-jargon. He did not specify when the book was supposed to take place, and for all intents and purposes it felt very much like the present. He was optimistic that the technology described in the book was not far off: "I suspect we shall have games very like this in the next decade or so" (p. 308).

That this hasn't happened should give us pause. Science fiction hasn't forgotten: the popularity of The Matrix and its sequels proves that it's still in the public mind. And I have heard that inventors are on the brink of creating machines that respond to brain signals. But we aren't close to inventing virtual-world machines that effectively trap a user inside them, like an electronically simulated dream. The question is whether we will create such machines--or, more importantly, why.

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