The Big Secret About (Virtual) Reality

There’s a deep suspicion I have: I don’t think the Internet is about technology.

In fact, I don’t think technology is about technology either. Every mode of communication that was ever invented–from the alphabet to the printing press, to the telegraph, the telephone, the Internet, and now to virtual reality–stems from one unifying human craving: the need to feel less alone.

Now, I say this to some people, and their faces light up with recognition; I say it to others and get a blank stare. Am I wrong? Are some of us different? Is it a matter of looking inward and remembering what drives us? I don’t know. I do know that I–and we–won’t figure this out until we start talking about it. And so, a chance Twitter rant turned into more than a dozen conversations that finally convinced me to put fingers to keyboard and begin asking these questions.

So, pour yourself a cup of tea (or something stronger) and let me take you on a brief journey of story and connection, as I’ve known them.

I’m nine years old, and a street vendor convinces my father it’d be great to buy a paperback of Bram Stoker’s Dracula for me. “It’s a classic! Good education!” My dad–who’s an excellent physicist but a questionable psychologist–thinks this is a marvelous idea. I stay up most of the night inhaling the book, then tiptoe at 4 a.m. into the living room and hide it face-down, far from where I struggle to fall asleep. I don’t tell anyone.

I’m sixteen years old, and Canadian TV airs a late-night show called Forever Knight. It’s about a police detective who’s a vampire, and in love with the coroner who knows his secret. They solve murders together and use science to try and restore his humanity. They enact Beauty and the Beast tropes, though I don’t know that at the time. I watch, spellbound, and write letters about them that I keep in a drawer, then struggle to fall asleep. There’s no one to tell.

I’m a freshman doing research in the computer library. There’s a sign about accessing the Modern Language Association from the newly-launched university intranet. I click on something, and there’s a gray page with a ship’s wheel and the word ‘Netscape’. I type in ‘Forever Knight’ just to see. I find a webring (websites connected to one another by a common theme) then get so excited that I skip a week’s worth of classes, teaching myself HTML so I can join them. I build a rambling project called The Journey of Life. It includes sections called ‘Reality’, ‘Heaven’, and ‘Hell’–the latter being where all the cool vampires are. An average of forty thousand visitors come every month. We write long correspondences and some of them fly all the way to Canada.

I’ve finally told someone.

The Internet shaped my life. I missed the Millenial designation by two years, but I’m the epitome of a digital native. My career, family, my closest friends and skillset: none of it would exist without the Internet. I’ve watched the World Wide Web become what it is, created hundreds of sites on it, seen it grow from 36 million users worldwide to ten times that just on Twitter. It’s been over twenty years of technology evolving humanity, rather than the other way around. And now, I’m witnessing what feels like a turning point.

I didn’t think VR was going to happen. Back in high school, when I first read Virtual Light, I became obsessed with tracking news of any lab working on VR. There were room-scale installations, gloves, helmets, and tales of Tron-like experiences. Star Trek’s Holodeck was coming any day, and then it didn’t.

My heartbreak was so great that I swung to the other extreme, deciding VR was just the stuff of science fiction. I was no more going to experience it than one of Trek’s replicators or forcefields, and so it was best to plant my feet in actual reality and craft two-dimensional stories as immersively as possible. George Carlin once said that “Inside every cynical person, there’s a disappointed idealist.” I think he was spot-on with this (and many other things), and that the reason we’re so afraid to believe VR will happen is that we so desperately want it to happen. It’s possible, even likely, that I’m projecting. That’s OK. The longer I live, the more convinced I become that we’re not all that different. We want to feel safe. We want to be worthy of love. We want to know that someone else sees the world as we do and in that knowledge shed fear and find communion. The Web offered us a window into a world where this was possible. The virtual universe will be our portal to it.

If I sound too optimistic, please don’t mistake my intent. Just because the 2D and 3D web can connect us to each other doesn’t mean that they’ll succeed in doing so. As we’ve seen of late, the technologies we’ve built for a more efficient society might tear it apart faster than any weapon. This may well be the irony of every great invention since fire. We create tools out of hope, but we use them out of fear.

When you put on an HTC Vive headset, you see an open expanse and the words ‘This is Real’ on your virtual horizon. Looking back on all my years in advertising, I can’t think of a branding moment that was as visceral. I can describe the gasp I made upon first experiencing this, how my heart swelled when I stood on a mountain, playing fetch with a robotic puppy. I can tell you that my jaw hung open while painting with a plasma brush in 3D, or that I cackled with glee while tossing planets in space and watching them explode. But until you feel all this for yourself, my descriptions will be as compelling as watching astronauts on YouTube. Weightlessness sounds like fun, but for most of us, it’s an impossibility.

First web graphic on my site; circa 1996

Now is likely when someone will jump in to say that for plenty of people a Vive (and the computer that powers it) is an impossibility also. Others may note that while the experiences I’ve described are somewhat impressive, they don’t feel 100% real and there aren’t enough of them. To those I say: take a deep breath! In 1996 a PC and modem were even more cost-prohibitive than the high-end VR headsets are today. My first website was downright ugly. I created the graphics in Microsoft Paintbrush, and every part was so arduous that there were actual tears. (See cringeworthy example, which took courage to post.) Backgrounds were impossible; blink tags were a thing.

None of us knew what we were doing then. None of us know how to build in VR now either; but this time, we have a leg up.

We can take what has worked in other media, learn from previous mistakes, and then iterate. That iteration is evolution; not just of a particular technology, but of our self-knowledge, our ability to connect, our understanding of what we need to say and why. It’s not a process that can be rushed. And so it frustrates me when people point to the speed of headset adoption, content creation, or hardware abilities as an all-or-nothing proposition. The Internet wasn’t built in a year (or even a decade). The virtual universe won’t be either.

That VR will exist in some form is, I think, inevitable. Not just because it offers presence in stories, or because it will let us have otherwise-impossible experiences. I believe that what we now call VR is simply the other side of this screen and we’ve finally carved the door to enter it. On that other side are our dreams and our nightmares, and I’m both exhilarated and terrified to see them.

Either way, I don’t think technological progress has an undo button. We’re here, at a point when we can actively shape the reality we perceive. So rather than quibbling about potential profits, I hope we can start by telling good stories. Let’s give each other a reason to walk through that door, then do it with a little less fear and a little more hope.

See you on the other side!

Dessy spends her days bringing the future a little bit closer. As the VP and Head of Story at 645Ventures she searches for early stage startups who create remarkable innovation in VR, AR, Machine Learning, or Computer Vision; she then helps them grow through hands-on assistance and/or investment.