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A Virtual World

Entry 1941, on 2018-10-18 at 21:22:13 (Rating 2, Computers)

There's always a "next big thing" in the field of consumer computing (by that I mean computers used by "normal" people). First it was hobby computers (this started in the 70s), then it was useful and relatively easy to use personal computers, then laptops, then smartphones, then tablets, and finally smart watches. So what's next?

It has got to the point now where computers are really functional, and there is not a lot more that most users could really ask for. The same applies to smartphones. Sure, there are improvements in the latest phones, but I'm using an iPhone which is several generations old, and it is still quite functional (although I will probably upgrade this year). And the same applies to my iPad which is also a few years old but still really useful. My Apple Watch (which is the original generation) is a useful device but needs an upgrade. But smart watches aren't improving a lot from one generation to the next.

So it seems that we can't expect much new in existing, widely used computer technologies. If that's true, what is the next big thing? Well, the internet of things is one candidate, and that will be significant, but only if ease of setup, security, and compatibility can be improved (come on Apple, you made a good start here, but it feels a bit neglected now). But the more likely really big next thing (as you might have guessed from the title of this post) is virtual reality, including augmented reality.

There's a lot of data out there today, but it is often difficult to access. And the type of information available now is sometimes not well suited to being accessed through conventional user interfaces. Plus there are lots of experiences which computer users want but which are impractical now.

It seems that VR and AR might be good ways to resolve these issues.

Imagine a "Minority Report" type user interface (except a well-designed, logical one, not the silliness we see in mainstream movies like that). That is visualising data as a three dimensional object projected onto the real world, and which can be manipulated using natural gestures. So to compare sales figures of different smart-phones the user just drags "boxes" of data labelled "Apple", "Samsung", etc, onto a machine labelled "graph". The graph projects like a movie from the graph box, and the user can change that by "touching" the projected graph. It can be zoomed, rotated, etc that way. If another type of phone is needed, the user just "throws" its box into the graph machine.

This type of AR is relatively easy (although still there are big challenges, obviously) and matches the sort of model we have now on computers. The boxes of data are files. The machine is an app. And the gestures are user interface controls. It seems to me that this could be done without having to re-work too much of what we already have, and users would recognise the metaphor. In fact, it would be a bit like reversing the metaphor, because the AR interface would be a lot like the real world which the conventional computer desktop was based on.

Now add thought control. This may sound a bit futuristic, but it is realistic using existing technology. The biggest problem might be collecting the signals without implanting probes into the user's brain - this sounds like something the average user might find too intrusive!

But if the sensors can be made sensitive enough then thinking about the data can manipulate it. The person can test ideas on real world data by just thinking about how it might act. Obviously this might involve quite a bit of training for the computer to understand how the human thinks, but the basics of this already exist.

It has been known for some time that sufficiently detailed and accurate projections of the real world can be subconsciously interpreted by the observer as being real. People who watch high resolution, high frame rate movies, using technologies like IMAX, feel like they are really there, and can suffer from motion sickness. Virtual reality headsets are even more immersive because looking in different directions gives a realistic depiction of real 3D space.

It seems apparent that VR headset experiences are already very compelling. For example, people report finding it almost impossible to force themselves to walk out onto a (virtual) narrow plank between two tall (virtual) buildings. As that technology continues to improve there might be a point where VR is practically indistinguishable from reality. In fact, using various augmentations it might be "more real that reality".

Given the current state of this technology, and the seemingly obvious idea that it will progress greatly over the next couple of decades, who could deny the real possibility that people will want to live entirely in a virtual world? In the past, science fiction stories have depicted dystopian worlds where people sit in tiny cubicles for their whole life and only interact with others, or with the world, through virtual reality. It's hard to see how this won't become real.

As I said above, these ideas tend to be presented in dystopian terms, but is that fair? Well, to us today, it seems that way, but many people from 100 years ago would think that the way we live today: sitting for hours in little cubicles (our offices) looking at screens (computers) and then driving home in little mobile boxes (cars) and sitting in other boxes (our lounges) watching somewhat bigger screens (TV) would be dystopian from their perspective too. Yet this is a lifestyle many people participate in quite freely.

In fact, living in a VR might be the great equaliser. It costs no more to go on a virtual holiday to Italy than it does to take a trip down to the local supermarket. It costs no more to drive a Lamborghini than it does to drive a Toyota Corolla. Everyone could live a millionaire lifestyle without having to pay for it, and without imposing too much damage to the environment, because there would be no need to travel and no need for real world items to be manufactured from scarce resources.

If we were offered this experience today we might not want to take it, because the technology isn't quite good enough yet, and we would feel that we were getting a "second class" experience compared to the rich people who could afford the real thing. But in the future, when the virtual world is better than the real one, and everyone - no matter how rich - lives in it, what would be the justification for evaluating it as second best?

This might sound like a nightmare from a social perspective. If people interact with the virtual world instead of each other, how is that good? Well, I think people will still interact with others, but it will be through a virtual world interface. It will seem in every way as if the other person is there without them actually physically being present. Even today, many people choose to interact with others far more through messaging and social services than they do through real life.

But now things get even more concerning, because why would you interact with a real person when you could interact with an artificial intelligence which is indistinguishable from a real person (except possibly being far better)? And at this point we really do get back to the dystopian science fiction theme, because a person's total existence could be completely fabricated inside a VR system.

You might say the universe wouldn't be real, because it would be "just" a huge computer simulation. Which, of course, gets back to that other favourite topic of mine: how do we know that our current reality isn't a simulation? Philosopher, Nick Bostrom, and some other pretty smart people, point out that it is in some ways quite sensible to think that we do live in a simulation already (see my blog post "Life's Just a Game" from 2016-07-06).

And here's the key question: if we do live in a simulation, should we want out? Given that everything we care about: our friends and family, our work, our interests, all might exist inside a simulation, what is the value in leaving it? Is it likely that the "real world" outside is any better? That seems unlikely.

And that might be the ultimate proof that living in a simulation isn't as bad as we assume at first. If we didn't know we were in one, then found out that we were, does that make our previous existence less valuable in some way? And would we want to give up everything we have now to "escape". I don't think so, which seems to show that really good VRs are just as good, or better, than reality.

So maybe we shouldn't be as scared of the idea as our initial reaction makes us. Maybe we should welcome the idea of the upcoming VR arriving. Or maybe we should admit we've been in it all along!

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