How concepts from The Matrix, Ready Player One, and Feed are the building blocks of the future
As an avid sci-fi reader, I’m often overjoyed when reading a decades old novel and finding that the author had accurately predicted some future technology or cultural norm — how prescient! Many of today’s current technologies, including credit cards, the internet, cell phones, and voice-control were inspired by the science fiction of the 20th Century. Even large tech companies have relied on the influential power of fiction: Snow Crash was reportedly mandatory reading for the Microsoft team working on Xbox Live, while Amazon’s Kindle project was codenamed “Fiona,” after the main character in The Diamond Age, another Neal Stephenson novel. A few months ago, it got me wondering: what science-fiction inspired technology are today’s founders working on?
Interestingly, every founder who raised their hand was working on similar or tangential technology — Augmented / Virtual Reality (AR/VR). After pondering this result for a few days, it actually made quite a bit of sense. Science fiction most often describes consumer-facing (and impacting) technology, and it’s probably less likely that a book or movie inspires someone to found their enterprise software company than something “cool” like AR/VR.
So, I asked Steve Zhao (Co-founder, SandboxVR), Jake Rubin (Co-founder, HaptX), and Sophia Dominguez (Co-founder, Svrf) more about how science fiction was a catalyst for their current startups. Here’s what they said:
(These interviews were edited lightly for length and clarity)
Earlier this year, SandboxVR, a location-based immersive VR experience company announced that they had raised a massive $68 million Series A round led by Andreessen Horowitz. The tagline on the company’s pitch deck for the fundraise simply stated “The Holodeck Company,” in reference to the the well-known Star Trek Holodeck which enabled characters to enter virtual environments.
Despite the Star Trek reference, SandboxVR was actually inspired by a much more recent film. Steve explains, “We call it your neighborhood Holodeck — we use the Star Trek reference since the space and experience players are in is the closest thing to a Holodeck. The experience itself was inspired by The Matrix, where once “plugged in” you can be anyone anywhere.”
Zhao first saw The Matrix on VHS in 1999, when he was 17 years old. At the time, the idea that in the matrix, you could “be what you want to be and go wherever you want to go” made an impression on him. As is the case with a lot of science fiction technology, the ability for a person to feel as though they physically were “anywhere” was fiction because the technology to enable this immersive experience did not yet exist.
In fact, it’d be another 17 years until he co-founded SandboxVR in 2016. By that time, commercially viable VR headsets were finally on the market, and he believed the timing was right. “It was realizing we could build the Minimum Viable Experience of The Matrix — that the users forget they’re in a simulation. To do this, we had to develop real-time multiplayer inverse kinematics technology to capture, animate, and render people with full-body motion capture in virtual reality.”
For now, Steve and co-founder Siqi are focused on building better VR experiences, improving the company’s technology, and expanding to more locations. In the near future, they expect to add advanced haptic feedback technology to their experiences, so that players can more accurately touch and feel their virtual environments. Down the road, or “far off,” as Zhao puts it, SandboxVR hopes to deploy technology “that can control a brain’s sensory output.” At that point, perhaps “The Holodeck Company” will finally become “The Matrix Company.”
You can read more about Steve’s journey from the SandboxVR blog here.
Jake Rubin had already been fascinated with virtual reality when he read Ernest Cline’s 2011 sci-fi novel Ready Player One. The book centers on teenager Wade Watts in a 2044 dystopia, who uses a VR setup including a “haptic suit” to physically interact in a virtual world known as “OASIS.” While the concept of virtual reality was nothing new, the haptic suit featured in Ready Player One presented a compelling opportunity.
Notes Rubin, “Pretty early on I zeroed in on haptics. That was before the Oculus rift kickstarter, before VR got hot again really during the tail end of the long VR winter. Even back then, digging into the academic literature and patent findings and looking at the activity in the field, it seemed to me that one of the most interesting and urgent problems to solve was haptics. How do we get the rest of our bodies into the experience? Even back then, it was pretty clear that the audio-visual piece although, although it wasn’t there yet — was going to be solved. The same was not true for haptics. So that’s what led me to zero in very early on on haptics.”
Rubin recruited Dr. Bob Crockett, a biomedical engineering professor at Cal Poly State University to work on developing the haptic technology, and eventually the pair co-founded HaptX (formerly AxonVR) in 2012. Today, the company develops haptic gloves with realistic touch for enterprise solutions for training, simulation, and design, with partners such as Nissan. Eventually though, HaptX hopes to develop a full-body haptic suit rig, even more immersive than that used by Wade Watts in Ready Player One.
“Virtual reality is about immersing yourself in a virtual world that doesn’t physically exist. With today’s technology, you can see that world and you can hear that world with pretty good fidelity. But the biggest and most obvious missing piece is touch. We envision a world in which virtual experiences are indistinguishable from real life,” Rubin commented in 2016.
The 2018 release of Ready Player One the movie, directed by Steven Spielberg, brought Rubin and HaptX a great deal of media attention, in fun circle of art — imitating life — imitating art.
When Sophia was 13 years old, she read Feed by M.T. Anderson. The 2002 novel takes place in a near-futuristic American culture and deals with some heavy issues such as corporate power, consumerism, information technology, data mining, and environmental decay.
Sophia described her initial reaction to the book, stating, “Feed depicted a futuristic world where everything was in AR/VR. We were consumed by our feeds, but not in the way we envision them today. The feed was placed in our real-world surroundings and content was all around us. The real and the digital were seamlessly integrated — and there is something incredibly inspiring and insightful about that — especially to a 13 year old who had a slight interest in tech. The dystopian parts of the novel made me want to work in the AR/VR space (though I admit I didn’t know it was called that) to make sure it wasn’t controlled by one ‘advertising’ company.”
Feed was published years before many of the platforms we think of as having “feeds” (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc.), as well as before AR/VR technology such as ARKit, ARCore, Oculus, Magic Leap, and Hololens had been born.
Once these technologies and platforms had been established, Sophia felt it was finally possible to create a company “focused on content that can be viewed all around you and is not limited to a rectangle” — just like that in Feed. In 2016, eleven years after first reading the book, she co-founded Svrf with Brent Chow. “Svrf is the first search engine for AR and VR. We help people find the best AR and VR content by making it accessible on any platform.”
While Sophia and Brent are busy building Svrf today, they are looking forward to additional technological advances such as smaller AR/VR headsets, better computer vision / cameras, and faster 5G mesh networks in order to speed up consumer adoption of immersive content and applications.
The technology in science fiction is often fiction because at the time of creation, there isn’t a feasible way for the product or technology to work. Founders like Steve, Jake, and Sophia didn’t let this get in their way. Even if it meant waiting many years until other technological breakthroughs or consumer behaviors are adopted, they never let go of the flash of inspiration they had when exposed to a revolutionary idea. When asked how one begins building a company with a vision that’s not technologically possible yet, Sophia simply quoted popular Silicon Valley icon an Y-Combinator co-founder Paul Graham: “The best way to know the future is to make it.”