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Steven Spielberg’s ‘Ready Player One’ fails to lift virtual reality

Steven Spielberg’s ‘Ready Player One’ fails to lift virtual reality

April 24
18:39 2018

The release of the movie Ready Player One could have been a breakthrough moment for virtual reality. The blockbuster has taken almost $400m at the box office since its release two weeks ago and has received generally good reviews. Heroes wearing VR goggles have appeared on bus shelters and billboards around the world.

Facebook and Google have so far failed to get most consumers excited about VR. Could the film’s director, Steven Spielberg, do it?

To VR pioneers such as Oculus founder Palmer Luckey, Ernest Cline’s book, upon which the movie is based, is more than just another sci-fi novel — it has closely informed the development of the product itself. For years now, every new employee at Oculus has been given a copy of Ready Player One as part of their induction.

So it surprised me to learn that executives at some VR companies were nervous before the movie was released. While the film would undoubtedly elevate VR in the popular consciousness, some in the industry were worried about how their technology would be depicted.

The world that Cline imagines in 2045 is not a happy place. Stricken by poverty and environmental disaster, people turn to VR to escape. “These days, reality is a bummer,” hero and narrator Wade Watts tells viewers as the camera pans over scenes of people living in stacked-up trailer parks.

Women are shown boxing, pole dancing or ignoring their children, entranced by a virtual world that only they can see and unaware of how unfortunate they look in reality. There are plenty of scenes where people disappear into their headsets, unaware of the real humans standing right next to them.

There is a fleeting shot of someone wearing a Vive headset, Oculus’s main rival, and its manufacturer HTC has created a Ready Player One VR game to go along with the product placement. But despite the book’s place in the Oculus canon, the Facebook-owned company is not mentioned at all.

That is probably for the best, given Facebook’s own dystopian plotline right now. Trying to infer any equivalence between James Halliday, the benevolent geek who created the Oasis, the film’s virtual world, and Mark Zuckerberg might be a struggle at a moment when the Facebook chief is in Washington being grilled by politicians about privacy scandals and electoral manipulation.

What should be more concerning for the VR industry is that the film, despite its success, seems barely to have moved the needle on awareness of the technology. When I saw Ready Player One in my local cinema, the self-consciously nerdy crowd cheered for cameo appearances of obscure video game characters such as Battletoads or Gundam, a battling robot from Japanese anime. The technology that has attracted attention around the movie has been the “vintage” 1980s gaming references, not VR.

Google trends, which tracks fluctuations in popularity of search terms over time, shows only a very slight uptick in queries for “virtual reality” or “VR” since Ready Player One came out.

The lightweight goggles worn in the movie are far removed from today’s headsets. They are almost cool — one kid wears them on the back of his head like a reversed baseball cap — and benefit from transparency, so we can still see the actors’ eyes behind the lens. It seems like a big leap of imagination from even a state of the art VR experience today.

Google trends shows only a very slight uptick in queries for ‘virtual reality’ or ‘VR’ since ‘Ready Player One’ came out

With headset sales still slow, the VR industry has lately seized upon the idea of “location-based” VR to convert the masses. These centres range from something akin to an internet café or arcade, where headsets and games can be rented out by the minute, to elaborate theatrical set-ups.

Last weekend, I went with three friends to one of the latter type, a Star Wars-themed experience at the Void at Disneyland. All four of us were immersed together, teaming up as we tried to break into an Imperial base guarded by dozens of stormtroopers.

It was exciting and novel to be side by side in both the real and virtual worlds, able to reach out and touch each other. Though we could only see the virtual Star Wars universe through our headsets, tactile accessories and scenery placed around the actual room synchronised to the virtual environment, making it all the more vivid.

I can imagine in a few more years, the real-life rollercoasters of Disneyland might start to see the Void as a competitive threat, rather than a side-attraction.

Going into the Void, though, takes quite a lot of work, and at $33 a person for a 20-30 minute experience, it is not cheap.

Despite the Void’s efforts to make getting into VR as easy as possible, a staff member had to help us into our kit. A huge helmet, containing the VR headset and headphones, is tethered to a hefty PC worn in a backpack. It just about makes sense when your virtual self is dressed as a stormtrooper, but it is a long way from slipping on a pair of glasses.

Perhaps my biggest takeaway from Ready Player One is not how realistic or appealing the technology might be, but how much time its characters spend in VR.

If you are worried about smartphone addiction or want to escape reality now, just wait another two or three decades for whatever comes next. In the not-too-distant future, the technology of 2018 will seem as quaint and harmless as the movie’s idolised 1980s arcade games do today.

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