by ALEX CARNEVALE
And even so, could you delimit what you saw?
A friend of mine has a pretty bad commute. She rides all the way out to the tip of the island, where it looks out on the ocean, and then back into the city. The way out is slightly shorter; just over two and a half hours, and there is no good way of getting back. Since she is an instructor, she uses her time to grade papers, send oblique messages like "u there?" or "thanking bout you" and quietly shift in her seat, indicating to herself the provenance of an event that may never come.
She is a religious woman, and she thinks of God during these times (I think of Michelle Obama). She wonders, with no small amount of respect for the entity she has determined is greater than herself, why has He put her where she is?
Virtual reality has come a long way since Nintendo produced an ill-fated device called the Virtual Boy. Selling just over a million units worldwide — far below the company's expectations — the device rendered simple games, 2-D and 3-D, in a flummoxing red and black. Still, your eyes were properly ensconced among these awkward visions — indisputably, you had entered another world.
VR prodigy/prophet/sellout Palmer Luckey sold his new and improved virtual boy, code named Oculus Rift, to Facebook last week for $2 billion. His company was on the verge of releasing its second prototype, a $350 pair of goggles intended mainly for developers, but made available for the greater public as a both a nod to the history of new worlds, and to fulfill promises made in their first effort at fundraising on Kickstarter.
Why is Luckey a prodigy? His ideas about Oculus VR being primarily a gaming experience and pitching it directly to friends in the development community proved savvy so far, but he has proven his pedigree by attracting programming talents like those of ID founder John Carmack to his vision of what the VR platform should mean for users.
Mark Zuckerberg changed all that. "If we can make this a network where people are communicating, and buying virtual goods, and there might be ads down the line," he told stockholders in the understatement of the year. "That’s where the business could come from."
Yes, an alliance with Facebook means ads in your new universe, but did you really think any new world would ever be without them? Someone else has chosen the universe you will enter; creating universes for others will soon become a caste, just as there is a commuting caste, or an iPhone caste. I believe Neal Stephenson was the first to develop this idea.
Such caste divisions will also exist in Riftworld, but violence and bodily harm are impotent there. Trade and financial considerations will still change lives. Relationships and betrayalthons are likely to continue as distinguishing features of human existence, such as the vitriolic barrage that pelted Luckey when he sold his fledgling company to a data-mining behemoth headed by a man who never made anything in his life except money.
Supporters of the Rift's early prototypes have disparaged Luckey for seeming to compromise a stated plan to be an independent, open piece of hardware. Comments on the company's KS page excoriated the founders for "giving up their vision." More than a few demanded the latest prototype for free, "as a gesture." Others idiotically and amusingly requested part of the company's purchase price.
Deeply hurt by his most devoted subjects' irritation, Luckey sprang out to the media to reassure his followers that Mark Zuckerberg might be a very powerful man in the IRL existence we all know and treasure, but in the VR world he was planning, such estimable influence was merely a function of godliness.
The wounded god sputtered out: "I am sorry that you are disappointed. To be honest, if I were you, I would probably have a similar initial impression! There are a lot of reasons why this is a good thing, many of which are not yet public." Not even the Wizard of Oz so quickly drew his curtain!
Churches have many influential supporters, until they don't. In some areas that means a reduction in services for the poor and homeless. In my hometown, a soup kitchen is badly needed, and no local church has the financial wherewithal to offer one. An extensive VR operation, with rows and rows of terminals for the needy, requires no expensive supplies of meat and vegetables, since eating is nonce in Riftland. We do not have to cure poverty or hunger, we must merely provide a useful means of allowing a person to ignore it.
This notion, of worlds below worlds, is more ancient than recent. Popular beliefs among the early Nordic peoples suggested that time ran at different speeds, slower in the lower worlds, faster in the higher ones, and even differently in the spaces between those places. Being able to postpone an emotion is surely useful, and this feature, adapted from real world denial, has a variety of military and non-military uses. There is almost always a place we would rather be than the one we are in.
It is easy to conclude that $2 billion dollars, most of it in overvalued FB stock, was a cheap price to pay for what is essentially an unstable entry into Hogwarts. As for my dear friend who rides the railroad for hours on end, I'm certain my own heart would be ten times more comfortable knowing she could be in Riftland during that long commute, observing Hawaiian sea turtles or climbing the Western Wall.
There, in that new place, each thing is either different or the same as every other thing. She will be sworn to an allegiance not unlike the one she took with the man who created the real universe. Joining Riftland, there is another God, in his early twenties, named Palmer Luckey. He did an AMA on reddit, he probably linked it on his twitter?
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.
Photographs by Julia Clarke.
"Booty Killah" - Elliphant ft. The Reef (mp3)
"Everything 4 U" - Elliphant (mp3)