It’s worth remembering that virtual reality has never always been about gaming. Any real virtual reality enthusiast can look back at VR science fiction. It’s not about playing games … “The Matrix,” “Snow Crash,” all this fiction was not about sitting in a room playing video games. It’s about being in a parallel digital world that exists alongside our own, communicating with other people, playing with other people.
Palmer Luckey wants to build The Matrix. I can totally relate. I wanted to do something similar back in my 20s, when it was called “Cyberspace,” the “Metaverse,” “the Other Plane,” or, for me, “Reality Prime.”
He’s a bit off base with a few things though. It’s not so much that VR died in the 90s, around the time he was born. The hype certainly died down, so there weren’t many media artifacts to review later. But VR thrived in many forms, including making billions in MMO gaming, sans HMDs. Immersive VR also survived at the very high end (e.g., CAVEs, etc..) for oil exploration, simulation, and more.
What really happened, apart from the H/W remaining too expensive for mass adoption, until cell phone demand drove component prices down, is that a lot of people working in VR realized that there were better ways to serve the world. In other words, we moved on to bigger and better things.
It’s nice, btw, that he gives a shout-out to his time at ICT. World-class inventor, Mark Bolas’ open-sourced HMD design was apparently instrumental for defining the first Oculus Rifts. Palmer may be aware of more design differences between his and Mark’s inventions than I am. Rift has certainly come a long way since then. It’s quite nice, if not quite done.
But what about this “Matrix” thing?
In the film, people are plugged into the global AI network, their realities (and bodies) controlled by mysterious AI entities with varying motives, all centered on control. We’re a long way from that in real life. But still, the analogy may hold for what Facebook, Oculus’ new benefactor, is already doing.
In the movie, there was a weak (IMO) plot device where the AIs were secretly exploiting humans as batteries. It’s weak because: thermodynamics. People are relatively poor transformers of food into energy. What about alternatives in geothermal, nuclear or fusion power, you ask? You have to just accept this bit of superficial fiction on faith. Fair enough.
However, if you replaced the idea of “people as batteries” with “people as wallets” connected to the grid, now you’re onto something, allegorically speaking.
It’s not energy that people collectively produce to benefit the AIs, but rather new/monetizable value, which can be dollars, attention or even new ideas and intellectual property, all fungible.
To many people working in big internet technologies, customers are already fairly abstract entities, never seen directly, but more like “wallets” and “personal data” plugged in at arbitrary endpoints. These customers somehow make things (real or virtual, doesn’t matter), they make money and charge-up their bank accounts, almost like batteries.
That’s not Facebook’s concern, for the most part, as it’s beyond their corporate capability to create so much original content and value at this scale. They can collect and connect it very well though.
But affecting how people spend their money and time is Facebook’s core business model. That is: influencing your “brand thinking,” consumption and spending habits with targeted and personalized content, especially ads, even selling your data to third parties who will. That’s their bread and butter.
To get these “internet attached wallets” to open up for advertisers for the maximum return on investment, Facebook needs your “personal data” to get to know you better. For that, they provide a socially compelling service that gets you to share your life freely without worrying your pretty little head about who owns that data you created or where it goes next.
So yes, in a strong sense, Facebook is a lot like those AIs who provide an immersive world for the humans to blithely live their lives while unwittingly producing a commodity the AIs need. The main difference is that unlike the Matrix, we don’t spend all of our time in Facebook — yet. But Facebook would very much like to improve that metric, using VR and companion mobile devices (chat, text, voice) as the medium.
In the near future, Facebook will know what you like (and want) simply by how you look at things or how you react emotionally, with no manual “like” button needed. They could continue to experiment on you, as they’ve done before, to mine your personality, and potentially even control you, most subtly, by conveniently filtering and mediating your interactions, social and otherwise.
If that doesn’t seem plausible, read my previous post about how it works. This isn’t science fiction. And it doesn’t require anyone with “bad intentions” either, just bad business models, and it will happen. The result is inevitable without adequate constraints, given the push to always make more money with a bounded set of people, roughly 7 billion. It will take much longer until Facebook gets into the business of making more customers. (I’m kidding, I hope).
To be clear, I think very highly of Facebook and Oculus’ engineering talent, product designers, and leadership. I have a healthy respect for their achievements and capabilities, which only adds to these concerns — if they succeed. They don’t seem to want (or believe) this outcome as conscientious individuals, and yet they’re already building it collectively, brick by brick.
So when people openly throw around that they’re inspired by and building towards “The Matrix,” then I think we need to ask even more emphatically about social impact and ethics and demand to know who will ultimately control this new power we’re unleashing.
Palmer is right. This is not about games. The stakes are so much higher than that.
What do you think?