Thanks to its endless references to 1980s video games, Ernest Cline’s 2011 book Ready Player One is hard not to like if you’re a gamer of a certain age. It makes for a rip-roaring read: the classic hero’s journey redone with Back to the Future shout-outs, Joust and John Hughes. And it’s soon to be a film, too: Steven Spielberg is scheduled to start shooting this summer, ahead of a March 2018 release date.
Set in the dystopian future of 2045, the book explains how most of humanity has retreated into a virtual world called OASIS to escape the misery of soaring energy prices, economic meltdown, high unemployment and devastating climate change. The OASIS itself is free - all that’s needed to enter is an OASIS console, a low-cost VR visor and some haptic gloves.
Now, with the release of the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive virtual-reality systems, it feels like the future of Ready Player One is a step closer. In the book, the OASIS came online in December 2012, but back in reality, how near are we to an all-immersive online virtual world? And is the technology featured in the book still a pipe dream, or a taste of what’s just around the corner?
SPOILER STATEMENT: This article does not discuss any of the story elements of Ready Player One, but it does mention a few pieces of technology that are introduced around halfway through. Nothing to mar your enjoyment of the book though, if you haven’t read it yet.
The OASIS Visor
“The wireless one-size-fits-all OASIS visor was slightly larger than a pair of sunglasses. It used harmless low-powered lasers to draw the stunningly real environment of the OASIS right onto its wearer’s retinas, completely immersing their entire field of vision in the online world.” p.58
The Rift and Vive are substantially smaller and lighter than the bulky VR headsets of the 1990s, which had to accommodate CRT monitors. But we’re still not quite down to the size of sunglasses, and wires are still very much in evidence - attempting to avoid tripping over the cord is part of the Vive experience. With a bit of amateur tinkering, it’s possible to make the Oculus Rift wireless, but at the cost of higher latency. However, solutions to the wire problem are on the horizon, and AMD has a wireless VR headset called the Sulon Q in the works. (The downside is that you’ll end up wearing a hard drive on the back of your head.)
The Sulon Q from AMD – complete with computer at rear (Image source)
But the main feature of the OASIS visor is that it uses lasers to draw the image directly onto the user’s eyes - a technology that could substantially reduce the weight of any VR headset. So-called ‘virtual retinal displays’ have been around for a long time - they were first invented back in 1986. Since then, they’ve come on in leaps and bounds, and the latest example is the Avegant Glyph, which retails at about $700 and, in terms of size and weight, is similar to a large pair of headphones. The company originally developed the technology for the military, and users report that it’s “basically like having a crystal clear HD screen right in front of your face, but without a hint of pixelation”. Could this technology end up powering the next generation of VR systems?
“When you picked up objects, opened doors, or operated vehicles, the haptic gloves made you feel these nonexistent objects and surfaces as if they were really right there in front of you.” p.58
Developers are pursuing a few different approaches towards haptic gloves. The Kickstarter-funded Gloveone works using an actuator (tiny motor) on each fingertip, along with five on the palm. The actuators vibrate at different frequencies and intensities to simulate a “touch sensation”.
The Gloveone uses actuators on the palm and fingertips (Image source)
The Hands Omni, on the other hand (pun intended), uses a different approach. Tiny air bladders in the fingertips inflate to simulate the effect of touching an object by putting pressure on the skin, potentially offering a much more realistic sensation. It’s being developed at Rice University in Texas, and it’s still very much at the proof-of-concept stage.
But if you want seriously realistic haptic feedback, check out this bad boy – the CyberGlove Systems Haptic Workstation.
The CyberGlove Systems Haptic Workstation. Not especially portable (Image source)
Those crazy robotic arms create resistance, pulling back on your hands when you touch something – in the demonstration video, the user can actually rest their hands on the dashboard of a virtual car. It’s not intended for gaming though – the developers built it for use in the automobile and aerospace industries, so designers can create cars or planes in CAD and then touch the designs to check the ergonomics.
Finally, a completely out-there haptic tech comes courtesy of the HaptoClone. This machine, which is based on Kinect 2 (remember that?), maps your hand and then sends blasts of ultrasound at the intersection where your hand and a virtual object meet, so you can feel, and even hold it. It also means that your virtual hand can touch real objects some distance away and actually move them. Watch the video - it’s just spooky.
The OASIS – “Open-Source Reality”
“The OASIS contained hundreds (and eventually thousands) of high-resolution 3-D worlds for people to explore, and each one was beautifully rendered in meticulous detail, right down to bugs and blades of grass, wind and weather patterns. Users could circumnavigate each of these planets and never see the same terrain twice.” p.57
The description of OASIS containing thousands of “beautifully rendered” planets on which you “never see the same terrain twice” certainly brings to mind descriptions of the upcoming No Man’s Sky. That game claims to contain 18 quintillion worlds, each one unique and properly planet sized. It achieves this through procedural generation and some clever algorithms, which means that the actual size of the game in terms of memory used is comparatively tiny – and drawing the world is lightning fast.
Detailed planets courtesy of procedural generation in No Man’s Sky (Image source)
So complicated algorithms are one way we could hope to achieve the vast online world that Cline describes. But the OASIS is described as being almost photo realistic. Plus it’s clear that the features of the OASIS worlds are bespoke, not the result of layers of unguided algorithmic choices. And procedural generation runs into problems when it comes to interacting with and making permanent changes to the virtual world. So would it be possible to create OASIS with today’s technology?
In terms of looks, we’re getting there. To run the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive, you’ll need a top-of-the-line PC, but the results are pretty stunning. However, Nvidia has taken virtual reality to the next level with its Iray VR rendering tech, which can create super-detailed environments in eye-watering detail. Maybe in a few years’ time, it will be a tough job discriminating the virtual from the real.
Iray is showing impressive results - this is not a photo (Image source)
But connection speed could be a potential pitfall. Presumably, the thousands of planet-sized, realistic worlds that make up the OASIS would be stored on the cloud rather than on your individual computer, so the limitation would be how quickly you could stream or download the photorealistic representation of the world around you. And any kind of lag in a VR game equals instant nausea.
Broadband networks are rapidly improving though – the average UK broadband speed in February 2015 was nearly 23 megabits per second, which is almost double the average speed from two years before. Not only that, ‘hyperfast broadband’ with speeds of 1 gigabit per second is now available in certain areas. And things are only set to improve: in a test in January 2014, BT and Alcatel-Lucent achieved astonishing speeds of 1.4 terabits per second on a test using existing infrastructure, or fast enough “to send 44 uncompressed HD films a second”.
So speed is gradually becoming less of an issue. But what about the problem of gathering millions of people in one place? Here’s how Cline solves it:
“...the OASIS utilized a new kind of fault-tolerant server array that could draw additional processing power from every computer connected to it. At the time of its initial launch, the OASIS could handle up to five million simultaneous users, with no discernible latency and no chance of a system crash.” p.58
Crash-free servers sound like the stuff of science fiction, but the Google App Engine cloud computing platform is basically crash-free already. By distributing processing across multiple machines, it creates redundancy; so if one machine goes down, it doesn’t matter, and the user is unaffected. In terms of numbers, we’re not quite up to five million simultaneous users yet, but we’re getting there: the Guinness World Record for the number of users on a single MOG server simultaneously is 190,541, a record set in Russia on World of Tanks in 2013.
It turns out that Russians really love their tanks (Image source)
The idea of drawing processing power from every computer in a network has been around for a while – various distributed computing projects exist in which users donate CPU time to help with problems that require huge amounts of data processing, such as searching for Mersenne primes. But a project called Pursuit goes even further: it proposes doing away with servers altogether, and sees an internet in which users download files from each other’s machines rather than from a server. Essentially, it’s peer-to-peer sharing on a massive scale.
The downside to this kind of peer-to-peer network is the problem of propagation. With a central server, if a change is made to the game world, it can be instantly distributed to all users, but with a peer-to-peer network, it would take time for the change to spread throughout the system.
“In the OASIS, you could create your own private planet, build a virtual mansion on it, furnish and decorate it however you liked, and invite a few thousand friends over for a party.” p.57
In terms of virtual worlds themselves, we’ve already seen a few, some more successful than others. The glorious failure that was PlayStation Home ended up becoming a giant fashion store, just like the huge shopping malls on the first planet in OASIS, and that fabulous experiment Second Life has been rumbling onwards since 2003, most recently hitting the headlines after it was revealed that an anime school girl owns Donald Trump’s virtual mansion. Linden Lab is working on a VR follow-up to Second Life called Project Sansar, so that may very well be the closest thing we get to the OASIS in the near future. That is, unless Palmer Luckey, with the backing of Facebook, makes good on his promises of “parallel digital worlds, where you can live, work, play and communicate”.
The Shaptic Technologies HC5000 Fully Adjustable Haptic Chair
“It was suspended by two jointed robotic arms anchored to my apartment’s walls and ceiling. These arms could rotate the chair on all four axes, so when I was strapped into it, the unit could flip, spin, or shake my body to create the sensation that I was falling, flying, or sitting behind the wheel of a nuclear-powered rocket sled hurtling at Mach 2 through a canyon on the fourth moon of Altair VI.” p.191-2
In terms of haptic chairs, there’s nothing quite as fancy as Wade Watts describes in the book, but there are a few seats that boast force feedback: all the way from a simple bass speaker shoved under your bottom to the wonderful craziness of the hydraulics-powered Force Dynamics 401CR.
Designed primarily for racing games, the 401CR can shunt and bump you with powerful G forces, as well as rotate 360 degrees. But it comes with a price tag in the “tens of thousands”, so you’re unlikely to see it in your living room any time soon. Unless you’re a millionaire and you have an absolutely huge living room.
The Shaptic Bootsuit
“It covered every inch of my body from the neck down … The outside of the suit was covered with an elaborate exoskeleton, a network of artificial tendons and joints that could both sense and inhibit my movements. Built into the inside of the suit was a weblike network of miniature actuators that made contact with my skin every few centimeters.” p.192
There are a few haptic wearables in the works. They range from gizmos that attach to just part of your body, right up to full-on haptic suits, a bit like the one described in Ready Player One.
The Impacto armband taps and vibrates your skin in an attempt to replicate the feeling of blocking punches in a beat ‘em up. But you can also strap it to your leg to simulate the effect of kicking a ball in a football game.
The Impacto armband simulates the effect of punches (Image source)
The KOR-FX gaming vest, on the other hand, translates a game’s audio into vibrations that are sent across your chest, with the direction of the vibrations matching the direction of the audio in the game. Perfect for feeling explosions, if that’s your cup of tea. But it’s still light years away from the advanced tech discussed in the book.
The KOR-FX Gaming Vest (Image source)
A bit more complicated is the trippy Synaesthesia Suit that was demoed to great effect with Rez Infinite earlier this year. Vibrations ripple through the suit in time with the game’s soundtrack, creating an elaborately immersive experience.
The Synaesthesia Suit (Image source)
But this is still nothing like the complicated specs of the Shaptic Bootsuit described in the book. The Teslasuit, on the other hand, is a bit more on the right track. It provides feedback with neuromuscular electrical stimulation at up to 52 points across the body - and it’s made of neoprene, so you can definitely tell you’re in the future. (Shame it’s not silver, they missed a trick there.)
We’re still not quite OASIS-ready though. The Teslasuit has far fewer feedback points than one “every few centimeters”, and no one has so far come up with a full suit that has an exoskeleton to provide resistance - although the Haptic Workstation above shows that this is possible, for your hands, at least.
The Olfatrix Smell Tower
“The Olfatrix smell tower in the corner was capable of generating over two thousand discernible odors.” p.192
Interestingly, despite smells providing possibly the most intrinsic connection to place - think of how good smells are at transporting you back to a place in your memory - there’s been very little work done on creating them to order. The Virtual Aroma Synthesizer from Swiss flavour and fragrance firm Givaudan is one of the few attempts at mixing up smells on demand. So don’t expect to see an Olfatrix smell tower in your gaming den any time soon.