I first played with VR in 1983/1984 while working in the missile industry. Back then we didn’t call it VR, we just called it simulation but it was actually more intensive than VR, just as proper flight simulators are. Our office was a pair of 10m wide domes onto which video could be projected, built decades earlier, in the 1950s I think. One dome had a normal floor, the other had a hydraulic platform that could simulate being on a ship. The subject would stand on whichever surface was appropriate and would see pretty much exactly what they would see in a real battlefield. The missile launcher used for simulation was identical to a real one and showed exactly the same image as a real one would. The real missile was not present of course but its weight was simulated and when the fire button was pressed, a 140dB bang was injected into the headset and weights and pulleys compensated for the 14kg of weight, suddenly vanishing from the shoulder. The experience was therefore pretty convincing and with the loud bang and suddenly changing weight, it was almost as hard to stand steady and keep the system on target as it would be in real life – only the presumed fear and knowledge of the reality of the situation was different.
Back then in 1983, as digital supercomputers had only just taken over from analog ones for simulation, it was already becoming obvious that this kind of computer simulation would one day allow ‘computer assisted dreaming’. (That’s one of the reasons I am irritated when Jaron Lanier is credited for inventing VR – highly realistic simulators and the VR ideas that sprung obviously from them had already been around for decades. At best, all he ‘invented’ was a catchy name for a lower cost, lower quality, less intense simulator. The real inventors were those who made the first generation simulators long before I was born and the basic idea of VR had already been very well established.)
‘Computer assisted dreaming’ may well be the next phase of VR. Today in conventional VR, people are immersed in a computer generated world produced by a computer program (usually) written by others. Via trial and feedback, programmers make their virtual worlds better. As AI and sensor technology continue rapid progress, this is very likely to change to make worlds instantly responsive to the user. By detecting user emotions, reactions, gestures and even thoughts and imagination, it won’t be long before AI can produce a world in real time that depends on those thoughts, imagination and emotions rather than putting them in a pre-designed virtual world. That world would depend largely on your own imagination, upskilled by external AI. You might start off imagining you’re on a beach, then AI might add to it by injecting all sorts of things it knows you might enjoy from previous experiences. As you respond to those, it picks up on the things you like or don’t like and the scene continues to adapt and evolve, to make it more or less pleasant or more or less exciting or more or less challenging etc., depending on your emotional state, external requirements and what it thinks you want from this experience. It would be very like being in a dream – computer assisted lucid dreaming, exactly what I wanted to make back in 1983 after playing in that simulator.
Most people enjoy occasional lucid dreams, where they realise they are dreaming and can then decide what happens next. Making VR do exactly that would be better than being trapped in someone else’s world. You could still start off with whatever virtual world you bought, a computer game or training suite perhaps, but it could adapt to you, your needs and desires to make it more compelling and generally better.
Even in shared experiences like social games, experiences could be personalised. Often all players need to see the same enemies in the same locations in the same ways to make it fair, but that doesn’t mean that the situation can’t adapt to the personalities of those playing. It might actually improve the social value if each time you play it looks different because your companions are different. You might tease a friend if every time you play with them, zombies or aliens always have to appear somehow, but that’s all part of being friends. Exploring virtual worlds with friends, where you both see things dependent on your friend’s personality would help bonding. It would be a bit like exploring their inner world. Today, you only explore the designer’s inner world.
This sort of thing would be a superb development and creativity tool. It could allow you to explore a concept you have in your head, automatically feeding in AI upskilling to amplify your own thoughts and ideas, showing you new paths to explore and helping you do so. The results would still be extremely personal to you, but you on a good day. You could accomplish more, have better visions, imagine more creative things, do more with whatever artistic talent you have. AI could even co-create synthetic personas, make virtual friends you can bond with, share innermost thoughts with, in total confidence (assuming the company you bought the tool from is trustworthy and isn’t spying on you or selling your details, so maybe best not to buy it from Facebook then).
And it would have tremendous therapeutic potential too. You could explore and indulge both enjoyable and troublesome aspects of your inner personality, to build on the good and alleviate or dispel the bad. You might become less troubled, less neurotic, more mentally healthy. You could build your emotional and creative skills. You could become happier and more fulfilled. Mental health improvement potential on its own makes this sort of thing worth developing.
Marketers would obviously try to seize control as they always do, and advertising is already adapting to VR and will continue into its next phases of development. Your own wants and desires might help guide the ‘dreaming’, but marketers will inevitably have some control over what else is injected, and will influence algorithms and AI in how it chooses how to respond to your input. You might be able to choose much of the experience, but others will still want and try to influence and manipulate you, to change your mindset and attitudes in their favour. That will not change until the advertising business model changes. You might be able to buy devices or applications that are entirely driven by you and you alone, but it is pretty certain that the bulk of products and services available will be at least partly financed by those who want to have some control of what you experience.
Nevertheless, computer-assisted dreaming could be a much more immersive and personal experience than VR, being more like an echo of your own mind and personality than external vision, more your own creation, less someone else’s. In fact, echo sounds a better term too. Echo reality, ER, or maybe personal reality, pereal, or mental echo, ME. Nah, maybe we need Lanier to invent a catchy name again, he is good at that. That 1983 idea could soon become reality.