Friday, February 7, 2014

The Rift Between Realities

It's been inevitable, as gaming has drifted further and further into realism, and our engagement with the 'net has grown more and more all-consuming.  At some point, the reality that exists beyond the edges of that screen might be utterly forgotten.

But now it's here, because the edges of the screen are disappearing.  That's happening courtesy of the Oculus Rift, a product that has many in the gaming world all a-flutter.  It's a headset, a pair of screens that you strap onto your noggin.  There are other products like this too, one from Sony, and another that ditches the whole screen thing entirely, and beams images directly onto your retinas.  Yes, it does.

But the Oculus is the most potent of them.  The unit allows you to not just see the gaming world you're inhabiting, but to look around as if you are immersed in it.  It renders the whole thing in 3D, and is sensitive to not just a gimbaled camera on a fixed mount...but to slight shifts in attitude.   You can lean in closer to inspect something, or cock your head.

You are in that world, be that the open world of Skyrim, a map in Battlefield 4, or the cockpit of a starfighter in Eve:Valkyrie, the first game designed around the platform.

On the one hand, I want to experience this.  Like, dude.  Seriously.  Dude.

On the other, I'm a bit leery.  Leery because it already feels like the intrusion of virtual reality into our awareness is taking a toll on our capacity for meaningful relationship.  Leery because it feels like a wonderful way to keep us permanently distracted, lost forever in a world that is entirely our own fabrication.  Or, more significantly, the fabrication of others.

And yeah, sure, we did this plenty before.  That was the place of daydreams, and of good books.

But the idea that we can completely blot out everything around us?  That the world inhabited by our children, or our friends, the real place, should be so easily set aside?  Already, we wander around with  our screens, tuning out the world.

Taking it this step further seems more than a wee bit on the dangerous side.  And no, it's not because twenty years ago I wrote a kid's book in which an evil industrialist uses a functionally identical device to enslave others.  Although that doesn't help.

It's that when we allow our every perception to be fabricated, mediated and filtered, and we lose ourselves in the fantasies that are created for that purpose, it seems there's a real risk that we will wander off from creation entirely.

And those who want reality for themselves, who want us distracted and inattentive?  They'll happily oblige us.

As tech-friendly as I am, this seems worth watching with some caution.