Book review: ‘Defying Reality’ by David Ewalt

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The inside story of the virtual-reality revolution.

Readers of a certain age who recall the View-Master will probably shake their heads in disbelief that they ever got excited about the prospect of looking at static photographs in rudimentary 3D through the plastic gadget. Yet the stereoscopic viewer was a massive success, one of a series of products that made huge amounts of money for their inventors by bringing flat images to life.

One thing we can be sure of is that today’s virtual-reality headsets, still at an early stage in their evolution, will look as quaint to consumers in 50 years’ time as those primitive 20th-century attempts at VR do to us now. But what will those future consumers be taking for granted as tools for work and entertainment?

In ‘Defying Reality: The Inside Story of the Virtual Reality Revolution’ (Blue Rider Press, £12.99, ISBN 9780735215672), author David Ewalt makes some predictions, and issues a few warnings, at the same time as providing a thorough account of the long road to where VR is now and an in-depth look at how it has exploded in just a few years.

Starting with paintings on cave walls lets him establish that a yearning to capture what’s happening in the imagination and reproduce it as realistically as can be achieved has been a perennial human desire. For millennia, that was restricted to painting and sculpture, until the advent of photography led to innovations like stereoscopic viewers, films and, eventually, 3D movies on huge screens.

Whereas those were shared experiences, the holy grail has always been to create an immersive environment where the user can follow their own story. Like so many other technical breakthroughs, the most significant developments have been driven by talented and driven individuals determined to channel their efforts into solving this problem.

The results – including the pioneering Oculus Rift – are exactly the kind of buzz-generating innovations that get investors excited. The market for virtual and augmented reality was estimated to total around $11bn at the end of 2017, and is predicted to be worth more than $200bn by 2021.

Ewalt admits that as a “stereotypical 1980s nerd”, who as a child was obsessed with fantasy and science fiction and spent hours immersed in the role-playing game ‘Dungeons & Dragons’, he was bound to be enticed by the prospect of lifelike virtual worlds promised by the likes of William Gibson’s cyberpunk novel ‘Neuromancer’.

Like many others, his enthusiasm was tempered by the premature launch of Nintendo’s Virtual Boy portable game console, which claimed to simulate immersive 3D graphics but gave him eyestrain and migraines. A subsequent career as a technology journalist has given him a bird’s-eye view of progress on virtual reality.

Having tracked both business and technology elements of the VR industry as a contributing editor to Forbes and Reuters, Ewalt writes with authority and makes a strong case for his argument that we are now at a point “as significant as the birth of radio or television; quite possibly, it’s the beginning of a fundamental change in what it means to be human”.

Ewalt admits he’s an evangelist for VR who is keen to share all the cool stuff that’s going on and what it’s going to make possible. Wisely, though, he also wants to get more people involved in the conversation about virtual worlds that he’s confident will, before long, be a part of daily life for billions of people. Gaming will drive initial take-up, but there are plenty of other applications.

There’s a warning, too, as there always is about the next big thing, regarding how addictive VR can be. As any parent who’s tried to prise a child away from a computer screen while they’re in the midst of a networked game like ‘Fortnite’ will know, even virtual environments limited to a headset are frighteningly addictive, so there are ethical questions about whether parents should keep children away from it before they ‘go native’.

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