5 Ways Virtual Reality Will be Comin’ Round the Mountain

August 30, 2012 Leave a comment

virtual reality avatar

While technology may still be a decade or so off from full-immersion, visual-auditory virtual reality, online social networks and video games are proving how intense the desire for simulated environments is and how big of a market there will be for artificial representations of reality.

Virtual reality could very well be the next major entertainment industry of the 21st century. As computer technology advances and the processing power necessary for full-blown VR becomes widespread, expect to see some major changes to business as usual:

Be at the office, while working from home. Forget dragging your bloated hung-over liver into the office after a weekend of binge drinking. In the coming decades, if your sociopathic boss calls a Monday morning meeting he or she will probably be doing it in a virtual conference room, where information and ideas will be exchanged through tall, blue alien avatars with nice thighs and lightning fast digital cloud computing.

Skype times a thousand. Catching up with old, needy friends or family members won’t be done on stale, two-dimensional screens any longer. Users of advanced VR will pick avatars and tap into ‘rooms’ shared by as many people as they want. As the modeling technology grows, depictions of physical likenesses will get better and better, as will haptic interfaces that allow for realistic physical sensations like touch, smell, and sound. Awful, emotionally damaging family gatherings will be a lot less stressful and if you don’t want mom and dad to find out about that piercing or tramp stamp you can just omit it from your avatar.

Major contributions to science. Virtual reality environments are already proving to be extremely useful and illustrative in the study of diseases like Parkinson’s and other neurological disorders. As scientists gain the ability to work with theoretical models in hands-on simulations, expect major advancements in medicine, astronomy, and virtually every other field of science.

It’s like you’re really there!” Virtual reality will not only be a major boon for the entertainment industry, it will be extremely useful to perennially underpaid educators. A day at school will be like going to a movie, except actually being in the movie. Imagine how a child’s interest in biology, chemistry, or computer engineering will grow when they can enter cells and circuits and analyze their components in person. So much for textbooks—the universe itself will be the instructor. Imagine The Fantastic Voyage without the danger of being neutralized by a rogue white blood cell.

virtual reality avatar

New industry=new job markets. While some jobs may be slowly become extinct, new jobs will arise as the demand for advanced VR grows. Companies will need new designers and a panoply of creative software engineers and cognitive scientists to help bridge the gap between physical reality and simulated environments. Expect the VR industry to become the mobile app rage of the 2020s and 2030s.

VR has a ways to go before it’s omnipresent, but who would have thought that the Internet would become such an indispensable part of our moment-to-moment lives? As utility and computer processing power converge, virtual reality will come to be just as invaluable to society as the web is now.

Article paid for by The Virtual Reality Corporation, a subsidiary of Google and Future China.


George Lucas Vs. The Laser

August 29, 2012 Leave a comment

George Lucas copyright battle against laser company

In the near future, will we walk around projecting Obi Wan holograms out of our smartphones? How long will it take for a smartphone or hand-held device to shoot out a lightsaber? And the ever-pressing question: will George Lucas sue you?

Further proving that not only does life imitate art but that technology imitates both, the company Wicked Lasers released their Spyder III Pro Arctic laser last year, with a design that looks curiously similar to the lightsabers in Star Wars. So similar, in fact, that George Lucas threatened to sue the company if they didn’t cease and desist.

The Spyder III laser–which can be used for a wide range of utilities, including presentations, construction work, surgical operations, bar code scanners and DVD players—pumps out an entire watt of energy and is the first consumer laser to have four modes of operation. If used incorrectly, it can also be potentially hazardous (possibly causing blindness if shined into the retina), which caused the manufacturer to release a series of product modifications.

The modifications haven’t stopped the legendary Star Wars guru from threatening to take Wicked Lasers to court if it doesn’t change the design. While the laser is being marketed to industrial, military, and research agencies, there is certainly nothing to guarantee that a zealous Jedi fanatic won’t shell out the $200 on the price tag in order to be able to walk into Starbucks looking like Count Dooku (even though Dooku is a Sith lord).

laser provokes wrath of George Lucas

And therein lies the danger. So far, the laser has not been responsible for any major burn injuries, blindness or radiation exposure claims. But who’s to say Lucas and his people won’t manufacture one in order to kill off the lightsaber imitator?

Historically, Lucas has been spiteful, sometimes in surprising, accidentally progressive ways, and unabashed about protecting his Star Wars brand from copyright infringement. But to the point where he would sue a laser company over its “hilt” designs? Lucas may just have to accept that handheld devices and contemporary gadgets could bear striking similarities to movie weapons.

In our mashup society it’s becoming more and more popular to blend different aspects of pop culture—copyright monsters like LucasFilms, Google and Disney may just have to CHILL out and make room for a little Fair Use. At least when it comes to lasers and pirates.

An Organic Search Engine and A Post-Human Magnate

June 13, 2012 6 comments

My forthcoming e-book, which I am currently fundraising for with an IndieGoGo campaign, will feature four sci-fi stories, each with a strange little twist. Below are new summaries for two of the stories.

data mining, organic search engine

future organic search engine for machines

In “AutoPhil” the main character, Phil, is a financially desperate human looking for work a few days into the Singularity. He accepts an ominous job archiving human minds for a superior artilect named Rasputin.

Beyond just introducing the idea of a biologically organic search engine (the human mind, which, in this fictional universe, is still evolving) used by machines in order to optimize their marketing tactics, this story poses the question of how post-Singularity entities will compete with each other economically. The way I depict it, things are more cutthroat than ever, with the entire human noosphere open to horrifying data mining tactics.

In my novella “Someday This Will All Be Yours” I trace the life and times of Dr. Jim Jacoba, a biotechnology scientist turned post-human magnate, who, in his quest to achieve an indefinite lifespan, unwittingly assists in the machine takeover, all the while losing his family to death and betrayal.

In this story, I depict the Singularity as the new Manifest Destiny, a spaceward expansion based on privatizing and patenting regions of the solar system in order to mine for computronium. As AI artilects merge, acquire one another, and step on each other to suckle off the all-powerful Dyson Spheres being constructed around the Earth, humans struggle to maintain relevance.

Heinlein’s YA Market on the Red Planet

From 1947 through 1958, Heinlein wrote twelve novels for the juvenile market. In this series, he introduces the gamut of SF conventions: lunar exploration, interplanetary travel, colonization of Mars, interstellar travel (both at the Einsteinian speed limit and faster), and many others. Through these novels (which comprised one of the most successful juvenile series in SF) Heinlein reached, and continues to reach, generations of readers.

The heroes, always male, are inevitably spunky and clean-cut juveniles (usually about high school age) who can be counted on to run afoul of oppressive rules. These books are well-written, and many readers (juvenile as well as adult) find them delightful.

Heinlein's young adult Red Planet

Red Planet (1949) is an example of Heinlein’s excellence in that series. A Mars novel, Red Planet is not much outside the usual conventions of planetary SF. Old and arid, Mars has an unimaginably ancient indigenous civilization that lingers on, its survivors usually in some state of contemplation. The Martians have enormous powers (which becomes an element late in the plot), but they don’t seem much concerned that the earth people are colonizing their planet. Earth, though, very much needs the room because of dangerous over-population on the home planet.

Mars is the new frontier for the people hardy enough to survive the harsh environment. But even on this new frontier, an officious and, finally, bungling bureaucracy tries to make things difficult for the true Martian colonists—humans who wish to make Mars home. In typical fashion, the young heroes, Jim and Frank, foil the plans of the villains (and at one point escape capture by ice-skating the frozen Martian canals).

It is an exciting story, especially as Heinlein manipulates the plot in order to deliver enjoyable—and finally, moral—entertainment for young readers. Heinlein gains suspense with a method that is usual in popular fiction. We know, and the author knows, that the protagonist (the “good guys”) will win. In order to bring suspense, the author stacks the conditions greatly against the protagonist. The reading enjoyment then shifts to figuring out how the protagonists can win against such extraordinary odds.

So, of course, the forces of decency prevail, and in something like a second American Revolution, the Martian colonists gain a measure of self-autonomy. The self-reliant loners win out against the system; this is a theme that runs through all of Heinlein’s fiction, adult and juvenile.

Heinlein’s career in juvenile fiction came to an end with Starship Troopers (1959), a novel that his publisher would not include as part of the juvenile series. The publisher objected to the militarism of the novel, which depicts a future in which only those who have served in the armed services are entitled to full citizenship. It is a world that seems constantly on military alert (finally justified by the fact that earth is attacked by a species of especially nasty spider creatures).

-Steve Anderson

Does Virtual Reality Bleed?

June 3, 2012 1 comment

virtual reality, edge of the world

In the throes of my passion about virtual reality, I finally watched the sci-fi film The Thirteenth Floor last night. I don’t know why it took me so long—fortunately, I was not disappointed. Though I was hoping for a bit more of a subversive ending—such as the confounding conclusion to Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, which leaves the viewer still wondering about the nature of reality—this movie explores the idea of simulated worlds in a way that few films have.

In the Thirteenth Floor, the investigation of the murder of a man developing a revolutionary virtual reality machine turns up the disturbing truth that ‘users,’ or people from our world, are tapping in to inhabit virtual characters for nefarious reasons. Ultimately, we learn a far more disturbing truth about the nature of our ‘world’ and who might be tapping in to inhabit us.

For a moment this movie started to head in a direction that I’m interested in taking in my upcoming stories, which is the idea that virtual reality can bleed into the real world and change the nature of real ‘reality.’ I’ve already explored this a bit in a short story I wrote called “Beta,” which aesthetically and thematically is kind of the combination of Ender’s Game and Lars Von Trier’s film Melancholia.

Harold the House

Harold the House, illustration by Angela Mehira Gilden

In my short story “Harold the House” (part of my sci-fi collection I hope to turn into an e-book, for which I’m currently launching an IndieGoGo campaign), I take a more practical approach to virtual reality. In “Harold,” virtual reality is part of the interconnection between artificial intelligence and humans. AI houses basically act as our maids/personal assistants/lovers, and configure virtual reality environments to keep us satiated. In this world, it is not so much virtual reality that begins to bleed into reality, but the power of AI, which begins embedding subversive messages into our subconscious.

In a forthcoming YA novel I’m outlining, called booKWorm, I’ll be exploring the idea of virtual reality as a way to actually warp physical reality—and even history—itself.

In future posts I’ll be delving more into where we are right now with virtual reality as a consumer item.


Tupac’s Using Instagram?


At first I didn’t understand. Everyone kept talking about Tupac and something ‘gram. I thought they were saying Tupac’s using Instagram. But that didn’t make sense. How can you use social media if you’re dead?

Then I realized they were referring to the hologram of the deceased rapper Tupac Shakur displayed alongside Snoop Dog at this year’s Coachella music festival. By now virtually everyone’s heard of this and it’s spreading like a nerdcore meme wildfire across the Internet. And rightly so. It’s pretty darn neat. Some would say mind-blowing. I would say ‘just the beginning.’

Already people are calling out their lists of dead celebrities who they’d like to see resurrected by the new hologram technology. Sinatra. Elvis. Mozart. John Candy….? The Beatles sons’ may not be needed to reanimate the Fab Four anymore—we’ve got holograms!

What most people aren’t quite connecting the dots on yet is the full implication of what we’ve seen. The incredible ease with which groundbreaking technological innovations—Watson, exoplanet detection, augmented reality, nanotechnology, etc—are now streaming into our daily lives may blind us from seeing that the Tupac hologram represents more than just the ability to project the digital likeness of someone for entertainment purposes. It represents the ability of technology to essentially recreate someone.

The company that created the Tupac hologram, the Digital Domain Media Group, did so by piecing together video recordings of Tupac performing during his life. Advanced computer graphics were used to reanimate not only his mannerisms, movements, and voice but smaller details like jewelry and tattoos.

Prominent transhuman scholars and Singularitarians, such as Ray Kurzweil, maintain that a vastly more complex form of simulation will be possible in the future, in which not only our likeness but our subjective existence will be able to be resurrected. This would entail uploading our minds onto software and instantiating them onto an entirely non-biological substrate. Once our physical bodies die our minds would then be projected into a virtual universe, which by then will probably be the village square of choice. In this sense, I guess I’ve answered my initial question of how a dead person could use social media.

We may look back on this year’s Coachella as more than just the birth of a mainstream consumer love affair with holograms. This could go down as an oddly pop culture-friendly watershed moment in transhumanism.


Rama alien object

In the year 2130, a very large object happens through the solar system. It is so large that at first astronomers take it for an asteroid, and even give a it name, Rama, as they would for any newly discovered astronomical body.

Closer investigation of Rama reveals a startling fact. The object is a cylinder, 50 kilometers long and 20 kilometers in diameter. It is a made thing, not a natural object. Furthermore, the creatures who built it clearly had advanced technologically far beyond humankind.

Wonders increase when the survey ship visits Rama. The survey crew easily passes through the air-locks—the doors are not locked—and find an inhabitable, self-contained world in the hollow interior. But there are no signs of the intelligent life that built Rama. The crew explores the vast interior for days, but Rama remains virtually the same enigma as when first discovered.

Because Rama will pass dangerously close to the sun, the survey crew must abandon the vehicle. But before leaving, they prevent the Hermians (the human colonists on Mercury) from destroying Rama. The Hermians fear that Rama is preparing to take up a strategic orbit from which the Ramans—finally out of hiding—could control the solar system.

But Rama behaves in no way expected by humans. After rounding the sun, from which it draws energy, Rama continues on its way out of the solar system, its destination and purpose unknown to man.

In our critical attention to Rendezvous with Rama, we should first note that it is an extraordinary example of hard SF in the Vernian tradition. The giant vehicle is neither fantasy nor literary prop. It is very real, from the triple air-locks outside to the cylindrical sea inside. Further, its structure and movements are, until the last chapters, consistent with known scientific principles.

Very late in the novel, Rama shows propulsion capabilities that defy Newtonian physics (“There goes Newton’s Third Law,” one character says in disbelief). Until then, though, Rama is big, but not bigger than the potential of human understanding.

At another level, the Wellsian one, Rama is about the human reaction to an alien encounter. With considerable skill, Clarke develops in the narrative the two most elemental responses to aliens: first, that they could only want to conquer us, or, second, they will come to save us from ourselves. The first attitude we see in the Hermians, who consider Rama a threat. The second attitude we see in Boris Rodrigo, who, as a member of the Fifth Church of Christ, Cosmonaut, sees Rama as a giant ark, come to save the faithful.

As we have seen, though, Rama is neither (or reveals itself as neither). It has no apparent concern for earth, and has traveled this way entirely for its own purposes. Humans must face the possibility that they are too insignificant to be noticed, and play a very minor role in the universe.

But Rama may after all be carrying a kind of message. One of the most intriguing features of the storyline is that Rama is so unprotected from would-be vandals and predators. Do the Ramans assume that any species technologically advanced enough to reach the ship in outer space would also be respectful enough to leave it unharmed? This interpretation would link technological advancement with cultural maturity—even moral progress.

Such a theme is consistent with the tempered scientific optimism that we see in Clarke’s work throughout his career. Commander Norton, who leads the survey team, sees his role in Rama as that of a privileged caretaker. He is determined to leave the vessel in good order, and finally allows his crew to cut into one of the interior structures only after it is obvious that there is no other way to enter it.

Identifying deeply with the technological triumph that Rama represents, Norton sees a future in which humankind will someday enjoy the same achievements. His experience aboard Rama leads him to conclude that “There was mystery here—yes; but it might not be beyond human understanding.” Or, perhaps the universe is not stranger than we can know, and the universal language of intelligent life is science and technology. Rama itself—the very fact of its existence—speaks to humankind in the universal language of science.

Our appreciation of the novel takes an even richer turn if we consider closely the Hermians and their efforts to destroy Rama. Although they are considerably advanced scientifically and technologically, their behavior is hardly enlightened. The Hermians are evidence that Clarke is neither one-sided in his understanding of science, nor simple-minded in his trust of scientific advancement. It is only luck that places the right person at the right place at the right time to prevent the Hermians from destroying Rama. Furthermore, the Hermians might have been right—Rama could have been setting a strategic orbit from which it could control, militarily, the solar system. We know for certain that it isn’t only after it doesn’t.

Commander Norton acts on a “gut” instinct that Rama means no harm—and he is right. The Hermians reason from scientific logic to determine that it does mean harm—and they are wrong. Is Clarke telling us that, finally, science is subsumed in the fallible human domain, where chance, impulse, and irrationality supersede scientific logic? Is Clarke, after all, a closet humanist, speaking for the integration of “gut” instinct and scientific logic (just as many scientists insist that science is both Intellect and Passion)?

Does the Hermian’s near-success tell us anything about the Ramans themselves? We could argue that perhaps Rama after all had a defensive system; there was simply no reason to use it, since Norton and his crew took care of the Hermian threat. Or perhaps we see an ultimate naivete at the far end of the spectrum of scientific development—have the Ramans forgotten that violence is possible? Or perhaps the Ramans are fatalists—”what will be will be.” Or do they in some intuitive way “know” that a Norton will always come along to prevent vandalism?

These issues are a quantum leap beyond shoot-outs in outer space (and yet the novel is no less entertaining than good space opera), and they enrich the novel considerably. When a science fiction novel poses questions of this sort, it is on its way to becoming literature.

-Steve Anderson

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