THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH
Twenty-five years ago, I founded Ono-Sendai, the first tech startup working to develop a consumer virtual reality system.
By the time you added up all of the component costs for the graphics supercomputer, positional tracking equipment and head-mounted display, back in 1991 even basic VR kit would cost over a quarter million dollars.
Ono-Sendai believed that a sophisticated games console could do the job, at a thousandth of the price. It might not have the same quality as those graphics supercomputers — but it would be good enough.
One component remained expensive — a sensor for head tracking. We invented and patented a three-axis orientation sensor. It was this device that caught the attention of a much larger company — Sega Corporation.
Sega was hard at work on their own product — Virtua VR — but needed a cheap head tracking sensor, so they licensed our design. We helped to refine Virtua VR for launch at the 1993 Consumer Electronics Show.
Virtua VR was the big hit of CES — everyone wanted a part of the first consumer virtual reality system. But, as Sega moved through the manufacturing process, questions were raised about the comfort and safety of their head-mounted display.
Although awarded “Product of the Year” by Popular Science magazine, Sega quietly killed Virtua VR a few months later, burying the project beneath layers of embarrassed silence.
Why? Because there was a lingering question about the safety of VR, and whether Virtua VR would make kids sick.
On the 13th of October, the company that defeated Sega in the console wars — Sony — will release its PSVR, and the early indications from E3 are that most of the AAA titles for PSVR make people sick.
Ono-Sendai did not survive the cancellation of Virtua VR. We had to shut the company down early in 1994. For everyone working in VR, it was ‘game over’.
Fortunately, real-time 3D graphics — the core technology behind virtual reality — went on to conquer the world.
FROM LITTLE THINGS BIG THINGS GROW
Within a few weeks of the cancellation of Virtua VR I found myself at SIGGRAPH — the big computer graphics conference — sitting in front of a graphic workstation, staring at a nearly-blank screen. There was a bit of text on the screen. You could click on the text, and suddenly you found yourself on another page, with more text that you could click on, which would take you to another page.
I knew this was a ‘hypertext’ system. I’d already written a hypertext system for my Macintosh Plus. That’s how I learned there’s just not enough information on a computer’s hard drive to make hypertext worthwhile.
This hypertext system claimed to link together all of the documents everywhere on the Internet. It claimed to be a ‘World Wide Web’. But it didn’t seem to be very big. A few clicks and I’d traveled from one end to the other. Nice, I thought, but just a toy.
By early October I’d realised I’d made a huge mistake. The Web was no toy.
I installed the browser — NCSA Mosaic — on my workstation. Every night, after I came home from work, I would go through the master list of websites, visiting one after another. In a week I had finished: I’d surfed the entire Web.
It seems inconceivable today to think that the Web was every small enough that you could surf the whole of it. But there was a time when that was true. Even then you could see that the Web was growing exponentially.
It feels exactly that way today in virtual reality.
Back in March I had a look through many hundreds of apps written for Oculus Rift. More recently I’ve gone through many apps created for HTC’s Vive and Samsung’s GearVR. Any of you can do that — it will take time and a bit of money, but it can be done.
This is the last moment that will ever be true.
The number of new VR apps are growing exponentially. This moment in 2016 feels exactly like that moment in 1993. By the end of this year, VR will be too big for anyone to visit all of it.
THE NEW WORLD
Soon after I completed my surf of the Web, I met Tony Parisi and pitched him the idea bringing virtual worlds to the Web. Could be virtual world that linked into the Web, and a Web that linked into virtual worlds?
Five weeks later we had an alpha version of “Labyrinth”, the first VRML browser. I reached out to Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web, told him what we’d done, and received an invitation to share our work at the First International Conference on the World Wide Web.
The Web has transformed knowledge. In the twenty-two years since that conference, our access to knowledge has grown exponentially. We can always have the best information at hand at any point in time to help us make the best possible decision in any situation. Don’t have the best information? Then use the Web to reach out to the best minds. Any of us can do that, all of the time.
We know Moore’s Law guarantees an exponential increase in computer power. The Web has created an exponential increase in the scope of human knowledge. That’s the human side of this transformation.
So much that was hard work before the Web is easy now, because of an exponential increase in our ability to share our knowledge.
Twenty years go by. Ten iterations of Moore’s Law. A VR system that cost a million dollars in 1993 costs less than two thousand dollars today — and is far more powerful than any system you could buy at any price, back in the day.
Twenty years of connecting to one another, sharing what we know with one another, learning from what others have shared, then putting that learning to work.
“Knowing is doing, and doing, knowing.” What we can do today is a thousand times greater than what we could do just twenty years ago, because we do it together.
This is the stage for the rebirth of virtual reality.
Maybe VR never really died: Maybe VR was more like Sleeping Beauty, waiting for the kiss of Moore’s Law to awaken.
We created VR the moment it became possible, but it wasn’t until this year that VR became affordable.
Hardware is only half of the story. Over the last year a global community of VR creatives have connected together, sharing what they know, learning from one another, and putting that learning to work.
Almost any question I have about how to create VR can be answered within a web browser’s search box. Everyone working in VR is sharing everything they’re doing. We’re all learning from one another. We’re all learning a thousand times faster than we did twenty years ago.
So what is VR for? Now that we have VR, that’s a question I hear a lot. Once, I dismissed this question out of hand — like an illiterate asking what writing was for.
But I’ve had time to reflect, recently, and I’ve realised this question isn’t stupid. It’s the most important question we can ask.
People asked the same question when the Web came around — what is it for? It took us a decade to understand that the Web is for the sharing of knowledge. Now we all understand that.
Over the next few years we’ll see something similar happen in VR, as we come to understand that VR is for the sharing of experience.
Knowledge and experience are not the same thing. You can transmit knowledge by writing it down. You can not transmit experience through words. Experience must be — experienced.
This is why VR can become the most important cultural advance since writing. That’s not an exaggeration — though it might be a while before we see that proven true.
The Web gave us the capacity to share knowledge on a global scale. VR does the same thing for experience.
A RESOURCE SHARED
For VR to succeed it needs to learn primary lesson of the Web: “A resource shared is a resource squared”. To move quickly we need to share everything we find along the way. We need to adopt frameworks that promote sharing — both on the Web and in VR.
The most exciting part of VR in 2016 is the emergence of WebVR — Web browsers specifically designed for immersive experiences. WebVR is the point where the sharing of knowledge and the sharing of experience touch. Because of that, WebVR is going to be white-hot. WebVR serves as the transfer point where all of the value of the Web enters the virtual world.
Although still small, the WebVR community is building both application platforms and frameworks (such as A-Frame, which I used to create an immersive version of this presentation) making it easy to create virtual worlds accessible to anyone with a Web browser — everyone from a child using a cheap smartphone and a Cardboard headset, all the way up to the latest room-scale gear.
By this time next year, WebVR will be a daily part of life for perhaps two billion people. It will be the new media type, embedded in every relevant web page, tied into the Web — not separate from it — multiplying experience with knowledge.
ALL UNDER HEAVEN (天下)
What have we learned from the Web?
Sharing makes us smarter. Those who learn how to put sharing to work outperform those who don’t. The best programmers are the ones who spend the most time on Stack Overflow and on search engines.
Share and learn. That’s what we’ve learned.
We’ve also learned that open moves faster than closed. There’s always going to be a tension between openness and profitability — and that’s the kind of tension you want to embrace. We know sharing disrupts business models. We can put that to work, instead of running scared.
We’ve learned that people everywhere want to share. They will not be satisfied with games.
People will play with Tilt Brush for a lifetime, while they’ll only experience a few hours in Star Wars: Battlefront.
Create the opportunities for people to be creative, to connect and share their creations, to learn from one another’s creativity — then create the space to do great things with their creations.
Connect sharing to experience and VR will encompass all under heaven.
That’s what we’ve learned from the Web.
This is the lesson we bring with us to VR.