Ready Player One hero image

Ready Player One: virtually possible

Image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

In the year 2044 it seems human civilisation has reached the end of the road. With life barely worth living in the real world, a virtual world becomes a global obsession.

Society has sadly plunged downhill by the mid-2040s, perhaps because our reliance on technology – or at least the technology to make power – has proved to be misplaced. I think we all assume that the clever people will find a way of providing for our energy needs while preserving the environment. If they don’t, we could be left with the sort of world depicted in ‘Ready Player One’.

This novel, by Ernest Cline, was written in 2011 and is set to be released as a Spielberg film on 30 March 2018. The dates are important – seven years ago some fledgling technology was beginning to attract attention and now it is actually entering the mainstream.

In Cline’s world, energy is short, travel is limited and poverty is rife. No wonder, then, that people across the globe have immersed themselves in the virtual world of Oasis.

We do, of course, already have gaming environments that capture the minds of the players, and we also have games like ‘Sims’ and ‘Minecraft’ where new places and lives can be created. Oasis takes it many steps further, because it is not just characters,  homes or villages that are built but entire worlds – and many hundreds of them as well.

The main attraction of Oasis is that it is not reality, as reality in 2044 is unpleasant for most people. On top of this, and what provides the plot in ‘Ready Player One’, is the death of the game’s creator Jim Halliday who leaves a complex puzzle for the virtual inhabitants of his world. The first to complete the challenge, which is a combination of 1980s arcade games and ‘Dungeons & Dragons’, will win Halliday’s vast fortune and business empire.

It’s a tale that enjoyably rattles along in a science-fiction world littered with cultural references from the 1970s and 1980s. There are also constant references to geeks that are delivered with that mixture of self-deprecation and pride that has become fashionable. There are no references to high-performing autism but, maybe given the extreme geekishness of our main character and his peers, they should have been re-tested. Or perhaps for those with a disturbing knowledge of ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’, there is some hope.

‘Ready Player One’ has its cast of heroes and villains but to find out what the big prize is and who won it, you’ll have to wait until the end of March.

However, the big question is: is it feasible? Could we really allow ourselves to be subjugated by a video game? Could this virtual environment be so good that people are willing to exchange it for reality? It probably depends on how bad reality is, but our focus is on how capable the technology might be by 2044.

Simply put, most of the technology is already with us. When Cline wrote the book seven years ago, virtual reality (VR) was ‘a thing’, but not a very good thing, and haptics was a good idea, but not really ‘a thing’.

In the small number of intervening years VR has improved dramatically. Latency issues, which caused the effects of motion sickness, are understood and have been addressed. But perhaps more importantly, the quality of computer-generated images is now astonishing. It has not quite yet made the jump from the standalone rendered images that are photorealistic, but that will not be far away. It is only the processing power in both central and graphics processing units that holds this back.

It has often been written that Moore’s Law is reaching its physical limits – silicon can’t be stable at atomic scale, can it? – but still it continues. It might be spintronics or quantum computing that takes us to the next levels but it will happen. In fact, creating a totally immersive world like Oasis is probably easier than the challenge of mixed reality, the interactions between the real and virtual worlds, that many see as the most useful application of the technology and which is the focus of much of the development at the moment.

‘Gaming chairs’ are nothing new either. Bachelor pads are littered with them. The haptic chairs used in ‘Ready Player One’ are, one would imagine, almost inevitable. By combining the technology in a massage chair with some haptic gloves, a few strategically placed air blowers and a thermal management system capable of hot and cold, and you are nearly there. Connectors, power and a fairly standard control system shouldn’t be beyond the chair designer. And a tray for your pizza, of course.

Also in ‘Ready Player One’ the value of currency in the virtual world was, due to the economic woes of the planet, both useable and more stable than ‘real’ currency, which has strong echoes of cryptocurrencies like bitcoin. Posthumous avatars appearing to bring messages from beyond the grave is an issue we discussed recently in E&T (see ‘The Digital Afterlife’ on www.eandtmagazine.com)

In short, the film is not based on there being huge steps forward in technology over the next few decades, but instead depicts a particularly ambitious application of that technology. That application, Oasis, has such huge global participation because of the disintegration of society and the failure of other technologies to develop a pleasant environment for us to live in in the future. There is no need to look beyond Ready Player One’s objective of being a futuristic, virtual thriller, but if you did it is quite thought-provoking.

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