Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

The Virtual Future Still Ain't What It Used to Be -- But Will It Be Social?

goggles.jpgBy Dennis D. McDonald

Back in the 20th Century many saw Virtual Reality technology as the future for computer based entertainment. Now it has all but disappeared from public view, even though many  important applications in industrial and engineering design have evolved.

What happened? Why aren't we all using those oversize goggles that used to show up all the time in movies and TV? And what relevance does this have to what might happen with today's rapidly evolving world of social networking?

Part of the reason for the lack of popularity for virtual reality technology, Paleo-Future suggests in Virtual Reality (1980s-today), is that the technology was simply over-hyped.

Another reason is that it just wasn't realistic enough. Jaron Lanier, who at one time was deeply involved with Virtual Reality commercialization, offers his own Top Eleven Reasons VR has not yet become commonplace. Chief among these is the "not-ready-for-prime-time" argument. Also, number 11 in Lanier's list of reasons is relevant to social networking and collaboration:

11) One movie projector can entertain hundreds of people at once. A room full of people can look at a television. A few people can look at a PC screen at the same time. But only one person at a time can fully enjoy VR, even though the equipment costs more than any of the above. That problem has confounded entertainment applications.

Put another way, popular virtual reality technology was not social enough. Nor was it realistic enough for popular consumption. What we have now instead are the following:

  • Realistic networkable videogames now use perspective, movement, and group interaction to create a realistic shared environment.
  • Collaborative social environments such as MySpace and FaceBook supply extended social communication and interaction.
  • Simulated online environments such as World of Warcraft and Second Life employ movement and environments that are semi-realistic yet very engaging, partly because of the significant social elements.

It's as if the increasingly social and relationship-based elements of online interaction are making up for the lack of the truly immersive realistic three dimensional experience that Virtual Reality technology once promised the public. People continue to experience their online environments via flat screens and awkward interface devices such as game controllers, mice, keyboards, and (in the case of Twitter) phone based text messaging.

When we consider the evolution of these various technologies and the continued growth in the social networking aspects of the online experience, we should keep in mind important distinctions between fantasy and reality and how these impact our willingness to suspend our disbelief about certain types of experiences.

For example, when we are communicating with other people, knowing the person at the other end of a communication channel has an important impact on the level of channel quality we need to communicate. When communicating with family members, for example, just hearing the voice of a loved one  at the other end of the conversation conjures in the mind a range of visual and emotional reactions that significantly exceed the capabilities of a jerky low resolution video image. When communicating by voice with someone we don't know, on the other hand, the inability to view body language can be a significant disadvantage.

Perhaps there are situations where a picture isn't worth a thousand words simply because the picture isn't close enough to reality to make a significant difference in our engagement with the communication. For online games or environments the worlds that are engaged in are artificial. The medium and our imagination have to supply more information in order to provide an engaging experience.

All this makes me wonder how far we can go with online social networking and relationship development applications before disenchantment sets in with the quality and realism of the experience. Just as Virtual Reality technology fell short of its promise for a truly immersive and realistic experience, will we reach a plateau beyond which electronically-generated and maintained relationships and social structures take a second row seat to the real thing -- meeting and communicating with people in person?

Or will online communications environments continue to evolve to a point where relationships that develop online -- even with totally simulated personalities -- become impossible to distinguish from real human to human communications?

I am reminded of Neal Stephensons 1995 novel The Diamond Age. In the future world described there, despite astonishing advances in artificial intelligence and nanotechnology, intelligent teaching "books" that adapt to the learning style and level of the student must rely on human actors to supply (remotely and anonymously)  the speaking voice of the book. The reason: certain aspects of human communication and intelligence cannot be perfectly simulated by computers, even in Stephenson's advanced future world.

Similarly, I wonder if the manner in which we build and maintain relationships online will keep pace with our expectations regarding  the overall quality of the electronically-facilitated social interactions. Or will people revolt and demand systems that provide more and better opportunities for direct face to face and voice to voice communications?

I can certainly see how this might evolve over time with the rich and well-to-do being able to afford personal assistants while the rest settle for automated avatars and electronic butlers.  In the short term, I have more modest goals. For example, when I go shopping, I don't want to immerse myself in a three-demensional virtual mall complete with courteous salespeople-avatars. I hate shopping malls as it is. Visiting one online is the last thing I want to do. I want my shopping experience to be quick, sparse, and efficient. I'm not looking for a social experience. 

On the other hand, if I could insert myself into a Star Trek Enterprise type "holodeck" version of a Patrick O'Brian novel and realistically interact with characters like James Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, I'd do so in a minute.  But I still don't think I'd give up on face to face meetings concerning serious family and business matters. and Enterprise Content Management

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