Jacking Into The Matrix: EVE And Oculus’ Utopian Dreams

By Nathan Grayson on February 19th, 2014 at 7:00 pm.

Sometimes interviews go perfectly according to script and everything is just dandy. Also, frequently boring. In those instances, you nod dutifully after exhausting every possible line of questioning, turn off your recorder, and usually buy some form of burrito to soak up the tears. But other times things just sort of naturally veer into wacky territory. That’s not to say that CCP CEO Hilmar Pétursson’s dreams of a virtual-reality-born utopian future aren’t admirable (personally, I’d love for them to come true), but these are some huge – almost preposterously so – ideas. Do you want to hear how EVE Online could, according to its creator, help end class disparities once and for all? Then you’ve come to the right place.

I once met an EVE Online player who recounted to me in-person, with an almost childlike grin on his face, how much fun he had fooling new players into suicidally barreling through the most dangerous reaches of space and losing every scrap of anything they’d pried from the game’s cold claws. He loved the manipulation, he feasted on the frustration. Other players were his playthings.

This could bring about a place where we’re no longer constrained by the atoms of this particular Earth.

But then I tried putting things on more relatable terms, and his armor cracked a bit. What was it like to be in those people’s shoes? Had he even thought of those players as people with lives and precious little leisure time and dreams of one day adopting the self-assured swagger of Nathan Fillion as seen in Firefly? Sure, in fairness EVE is not a place people venture into if they’re looking to be coddled, but it’s important to at least be aware of how your seemingly harmless actions are affecting other people. “Maybe I’m a bad person,” he conceded. “Maybe I’m a bad person.”

I don’t think he thought he was actually a bad person. And I can’t really blame him all that much. The Internet is a strange place, and when you’re primarily communicating with strangers through text or – at best – disembodied, faceless voice, it’s easy to forget you’re even dealing with other people in the first place. Or maybe you realize that they’re people, but they’re demi-people to your brain. Not actually on your radar, in a galaxy far, far away from your thoughts and priorities.

And so, by way of that anecdote and a couple others, I ended up bringing CCP CEO Hilmar Pétursson around from, “We don’t want to say too much about EVE Valkyrie‘s future. Right now, we’re staying focused and taking advantage of the platform” to a wide-ranging discussion of how Valkyrie, EVE Online, and Oculus Rift will extinguish all the world’s communicatory ills in one massive, beautifully idealistic supernova. The man had stars in his eyes, but that’s what it takes to steer a universe like EVE. Passion, obsession, and unflinching hope. Madness, in other words. But good madness, I think.

“I figure, ‘OK, we have multiple games – EVE, Dust, and Valkyrie – that all happen in the same universe,” Pétursson began after I shared my experiences with communication breakdowns on the Internet. “We have had some experimentation with allowing people to meet each others’ avatars, which I think frankly was premature. We under-delivered a lot on that. But I see VR as a way to let people have a tight relationship in an abstract way over large distances. To come and meet together. It’s like when people come together at Fanfest in Iceland each year. There’s this immense joy when people actually meet face-to-face and talk about their adventures in EVE in a much more personal way.”

“To be able to bring that out without people having to fly across the Earth to a volcanic rock in the Atlantic – just to have a social experience where we could meet and look at each other across a table with eye tracking and you are who you are in EVE and I am who I am in EVE – [that's amazing]. And then we can manage our trust relationships, our long-term planning, and all of that in a really sort of immersive, personal way. We could have a VR conference and it’d be just like we were there. There is massive potential like that for reality and also for something like EVE. People are doing important stuff in EVE, as evidenced by the recent battle that lost nearly half a million dollars. We should meet with people and talk about it more.”

Outer space meetings! Huzzah! But that’s just the start of what Pétursson saw in VR’s future, and his next bout of crystal ball gazing revealed a rabbit hole a million miles deep. The world is a colossal place, separated by bottomless valleys of distance, language, class disparity, misunderstanding, and a general inability to just reach out and touch people. How do we bridge those gaps? You guessed it: by building The Matrix. Wait, no, you probably didn’t guess that. But, uh, here we are.

“I think VR can get online communication out of the domain where we’re externalizing all this emotion into some logical construct – that is to say, prose – and then to doing combat in a very abstract arena in logic,” he explained, jet-lagged grogginess gradually making way for wide-eyed enthusiasm. ”When it’s ultimately born from some emotion – and I think we can all relate to reading some post on a forum and becoming angry, what to do with all this anger – you try to pour it into an argument. It’s a bit of a poor way to cope or interact with people.”

“By using more multi-frequency options, more of our minds, voices, eye contact, gestures – all these things – I think we will have a happier mankind if we can use more of that without having to go and fly all over the place all the time. With VR, 3D spatial sound, the awareness of your own body, that projected through a networked simulation onto somebody else – then we have interaction patterns that connect to our brains on multiple levels. And at some point, you’re just in The Matrix.”

And while I don’t necessarily believe that VR will turn the Internet into a place of calm agreement,understanding, and emotional pow-wows around virtual campfires, I do agree that current solutions leave a lot to be desired. I’ve spewed my share of frustration into comment threads, forums, and blog posts, but mainly for little else than my own catharsis. And I write for a living! Occasionally when I put words onto pages, things supposedly happen. But we’re people. When we’re not communicating on multiple levels, most of us get our thoughts and feelings across horribly. Or we just vomit vitriol. Or we demonize and abuse others, because they’re symbols, not people. The list goes on.

Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe, who was also sitting in on the interview, added that these sorts of utilitarian-to-the-point-of-upotia goals could be possible sooner rather than later. In fact, improving the general state of online communication is one of Oculus’ pie-in-the-sky plans.

“We see VR long-term being very much about communications,” he said. “It’s something we’ve always been limited by with technology. You can’t simulate face-to-face communications. You’re always looking through a screen or a window, which your brain very clearly knows is not real. It’s just a window with a camera or FaceTime or a text or email. Sure, I know somebody is on the other end, but there’s this massive filter or funnel to get to them. It’s not very personal. VR could be the first time your brain is truly convinced that that person is right there, right in front of you, and is real.”

For now, though, it’s still one step at a time, and both Pétursson and Iribe acknowledged that we’re not living in The Future yet. There’s still heaps of work to be done, and without success in the here and now, they might as well kiss those dreams of a VR-powered tomorrow goodbye. At the moment, virtual reality is only a headset with some fancy motion tracking. No eye-tracking or facial expressions or gestures or faultless voice recognition. So then, what’s next? Well, Oculus isn’t overly concerned with having us talk to the monsters just yet, but we might be touching them soon. Er, soonish.

“Right now the VR controller of choice is a traditional game controller, but we’re still R&D-ing internally what VR control is going to be,” Iribe explained. “I think it’s gonna take a while. We don’t want to release anything until we get it right. Usually when people put on the VR headset, the first thing they do is go, ‘This is amazing,’ but then the second thing is they lift their hand and go, ‘But wait, when am I gonna see my hands move?’ The long-term goal is to bring your hands into the experience. We don’t want to do that in some wonky way. We’re not gonna bring them in until it literally, absolutely feels like it’s your own hand. How long will that science part of it take? We don’t know yet.”

Hurry up with that, Oculus! Your flip-flop-wearing tech guru’s name is Palmer, for crying out loud.

But if there’s one thing CCP’s Pétursson is familiar with, it’s playing the long game. EVE Online has moved through the online gaming space less like an infinite fighter fleet and more like a lumbering capital ship. It’s grown and evolved slowly, methodically, and it’s thrived in doing so. Integrating VR into the game, Pétursson reasoned, will likely be a similar process. But the potential results will hopefully be more than worth it.

“Think about it: You’re no longer bound by the constraints of physical reality,” he enthused. “And all the constraints of social injustice and disparity, those exist in part because we can’t have six billion people live the lives that, frankly, we live. The Earth won’t sustain it. We’d need ten Earths for that.”

“But this could bring about a place where we’re no longer constrained by the atoms of this particular Earth. We can give people really compelling experiences that are just limited to a small niche of the world today. And they’ll nearly be real.”

Granted, if little else changes, they’ll still be hungry, cold, and possibly ill, but… sorry. Yes, Pétursson’s argument is full of holes, but I can’t fault someone for wanting to help make the world a better place with technology. Iribe, more than a little biased given that his company is front-and-center here, concurred with a massive grin.

“We kind of joke about it that it’s going to make the world a very small place. Suddenly you put this on and you can be in front of and interacting with anyone in the world as though they’re actually a few feet from you. That’s going to be an incredibly powerful paradigm for the next decade or two in terms of where we go with computers.”

Or Oculus’ evolution will fall short, EVE players will once again demand that CCP focus on spaceships and nothing else, and we’ll be back at Square Whatever The One We’re On Right Now Is. That’s kind of the problem with predicting the future: it’s impossible. But the hope is that, if you place your bets and take things one day at a time, you’ll come out on top eventually. It’s worked for EVE once, it’s working for Oculus so far, and I think it’s worked overall for that whole human race thing we’re all a part of.

Maybe virtual reality will change the world, or maybe it’s just a neat toy. Either way, you might want to have a bottle of red and blue pills handy, just in case.

__________________

« | »

, , , , .

37 Comments »

  1. jellydonut says:

    Hey Hilmar, you guys should fix the actual game Eve Online before adding virtual reality space barbie to it.

    This is starting to get oddly reminiscent of 2010.

  2. fluffy_thedestroyer says:

    if you place your bets and take things one day at a time, you’ll come out on top eventually. It’s worked for EVE once, it’s working for Oculus so far, and I think it’s worked overall for that whole human race thing we’re all a part of.

    That is so wrong in many ways. CCP as done great things to mess with Eve. fortunately they’ve learned from their mistake and moved on. Oculus right for now didn’t do crap or didn’t do enough to proove its good. Personally I don’t give a crap who i talk too with a VR helmet tbh as I find this technology too much of a candy rush but if you put it in a space flight sim where theres action instead of excel calculation then you got something good going on with the VR helmet. Just think about it. Fighting in space when your stuck in the view of your own cockpit while you could look around with the helmet. Thats some immersion right there. Compare this to talking with another person …. and all I got to say is fuck your communication with VR. I want a true experience with VR.

    Seriously, why would I spend thousands of dollars on a vr helmet JUST to talk to someone and to get that feeling that I’m there. The hell is that bullshit. Use a camera and you got the same feeling lol and it cost 40$ top

    • Saerain says:

      “CCP as done great things to mess with Eve. fortunately they’ve learned from their mistake and moved on.”

      Their mistake has been to cave to this idea that chickening out of fleshing out the game is “moving on”.

      “Seriously, why would I spend thousands of dollars on a vr helmet [...]”

      $300 or less. Please criticize out of something other than your ass.

      “[...] JUST to talk to someone and to get that feeling that I’m there. The hell is that bullshit. Use a camera and you got the same feeling lol and it cost 40$ top”

      Right. Brilliant. I see it, now. While we’re at it, why use HOTAS for a flight sim when you have WASD?

      Fucking hell…

  3. Aerothorn says:

    This sounds like a fascinating interview, so I’m disappointd that Greyson spent so much time on obvious commentary rather than a more straightforward transcription that let us evaluate the words for ourselves, as in his best work.

    • soul4sale says:

      The last thing I want to do is come to a gaming blog and read a developer interview in its entirety. The vast majority of public-facing developer communication is not relevant data, just marketing noise. I want the noise cut down to the relevant points and contextualized by the person who asked the questions in the first place. Grayson brought perspective to the happy talk, and that’s the real value here.

  4. CookPassBabtridge says:

    I found this fascinating think piece with science fiction author Robert Sawyer on youtube. He asks why, when the idea that technology would give us a better tomorrow underpinned so much of early science fiction, has dystopia become the prevalent modern way of thinking? He argues against that, which i like:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MDMsd_UV9uQ&feature=youtube_gdata_player

    (All the more fascinating as it seems to have been made for chinese tv and the obvious ironies to much of what he is saying)

    • Diatribe says:

      We’re destroying the planet with no sign of change. Resources are being exhausted. Government surveillance of 1984 doesn’t seem like fiction any more. Nations have figured out how to restrict internet access for their whole country, and powerful corporations (e.g., Google) are co-operating with these restrictive regimes. Satire has occasionally become indistinguishable from reality.

      Utopian stories seem pollyannaish and far-fetched. Distopian stories seems much more realistic. Art reflects life.

      • CookPassBabtridge says:

        Possibly, but I do like the notion that the technological and cultural creativity that might deliver us from it starts from a sense of possibility. I feel just as burned out by it all as you do, but keenly observed cynicism and powerless sneering at The System hasn’t done much for me over the decades (even if it felt better at the time).

        I just rather liked his little seed of hope – not as naive ‘positive thinking’ but as a starting point that shakes off some of the learned helplessness of the modern era. He also has a lecture called Humanity 2.0 which is fascinating.

        • bigblack says:

          Thanks for the link, I tend to agree with you.

          It’s the endless depressing slog of assuming everything and everyone is fucked and doomed that really pulled me into reading the science fiction work of the late Iain [M] Banks, an author whose work – at least going by the names of ships – has apparently been highly influential to EVE (a game I’ve never played) and its player base. If you’re not already reading his Culture series, I think you may well love its outlook for the very reasons you’ve set down here.

          • teije says:

            My favourite SF author by far. His stuff is brilliant and expands your mind as to how a future society with true AI could actually be.

        • Faxanadu says:

          Really don’t think that’s it. I think utopia is popular when things are shit, because it’s nice to fantasize about things being better.

          Dystopia is now popular because for quite a few people things are good.

          Soon, things will be shit again and utopia will be in. Isn’t that great?

          • CookPassBabtridge says:

            “Dystopia is now popular because for quite a few people things are good.”

            What country do you live in because I need to move there now

      • Josh W says:

        Also, dystopian stories are almost universally stories of revolution. With the exception of wargame dystopias, (that are effectively utopias for the warlike, because that’s what they are there to support), dystopian fiction deals with the question of how to live your life when the world seems utterly ruined. How to fight against the despair that comes from that and still do something. Sometimes they are tales of failed revolutionary impulses (1984 as one of the rare examples, and weirdly one of the most publicised), but often they are about ways to win, about ways to overcome oppression and dark situations.

        They fight problems that are grander than our own, because it’s like exercise, and because anxiety amplifies problems when they are personal to you anyway. When you’ve suddenly lost your job and you have a massive phone contract you can’t afford, you can start to imagine absurd situations of people being locked away from their friends in debtors’ prisons, or having their faces taken away or something.

        Fiction that hits those anxieties dead on and addresses them in the same overblown sense is a Godsend!

  5. Didden says:

    I like his comment on Incarna: “We under-delivered a lot on that.”

    Under-statement.

    • Saerain says:

      Really? “Under-delivered a lot” seems accurate.

      But under-delivering is what the community demanded by demanding that CCP stop delivering on it.

  6. Beren says:

    Having actually seriously played Dust514 (and a bit of Eve) I’ll just say that noone should trust CCP to execute on this vision.

    Valkyrie will be yet another arcadey space shooter in what I expect to be a pretty large field of arcadey space shooters by the time the consumer Oculus ships.

    They have no plan or intention of actually integrating these other games into New Eden properly.

    Just as aside Dust514 has one of the worst F2P business models I’ve come across yet. If people were dumb enough to buy the items they sell it would be $.25-$1 a match for many average players. A month of boosters (a subscription if you will) is $20-$30. It’s pretty amazing. I think the only reason CCP doesn’t get much grief about it is that console people are invisible to the rest of Eve.

    • jellydonut says:

      Those of us who only play Eve just want it to go away.

      • Beren says:

        It’s an embarrassment as an fps and should go away.

        Glitchy 20fps barely and right now it has the lowest skill player base in all of fps gaming.

        However Eve would be a much more interesting game with hardcore fps players involved but current Eve/Dust gameplay isn’t going to attract anyone. I don’t see CCP delivering a good shooter or being willing to make an actual place for new players (and thus upsetting eve players).

        CCP fails.

  7. The Dark One says:

    I remember reading a science fiction novel that took place in The Future™ (2004). The neat bit was that one of the main characters interfaced with his AR glasses through little bracelets that could sense his tendons moving. I wonder if it’s actually feasible at this point.

  8. amateurviking says:

    That kind of remote presence tech is basically an inevitability now that OR and Valve (and others) have got the basic tech working – it’s just refinement from now, and the economic impetus is there too. Granted haptic gloves etc will need some work (mostly miniaturisation?) but the audio-visual stuff, expression and voice recognition (+insta-translation) is mostly a case of iteration. Lots and lots of iteration. I’m expecting big things but not next year basically.

  9. Zeraphim says:

    Isn’t Eve Online basically a prototype of the game from Ender’s Game? It must be some kind of training ground for space combat considering the stories that spawns out of it.

  10. PopeRatzo says:

    My wife won’t let me buy an Oculus Rift. : (

  11. Talksintext says:

    “Maybe I’m a bad person,” he conceded. “Maybe I’m a bad person.”
    I don’t think he thought he was actually a bad person.

    I do. There’s this myth going around that the Internet is “different” because people behave differently. The only reason they behave differently is because they’re set free from the normal consequences of their actions. This allows their true inner self to be expressed, and for this guy that inner self is a sadistic asshole. It’s one thing if there was some purpose, beyond plain assholetry, to his actions, but clearly there wasn’t, he was just messing with people for his own minimal kicks.

    That makes him a bad person, even if in real life he normally doesn’t act on it, underneath it all clearly he is.

    • Harlander says:

      It’s not just consequences, I think, but also feedback.

      If you’re interacting with someone face-to-face, you get a vast array of cues and subtle indications that just don’t exist online. A real person you can see before you will trigger your empathy in a thousand ways because you can tell that they’re a person. That doesn’t work as well with just a line of text.

      • Josh W says:

        I agree, him+internet is a bad person, or perhaps him minus not_internet.

        Regardless of what his intrinsic being is, in that environment, he is an arsehole. Many people are arseholes on drugs. They should probably stop doing drugs.

        He’s more ok, because eve is a game with “arseholes welcome” spread above it in big flashing unoffcial letters.

        (also the first time I mispelled it ares-holes, which strikes me as an amusing name for over-conflict focused people)

    • Caerphoto says:

      Mostly agree, which makes me super glad we have video games for these people to act out their sadistic power fantasy urges in, which hopefully means they’re less likely to do it in … I hesitate to use the term ‘real life’, but yeah.

      • Distec says:

        I think you and Talksintext need to calm down and get a grip. As if a bunch of pasty geeks would be running around nailing animals to trees and beating you up for pocket change if EVE didn’t exist. Thank God video games are keeping these monsters contained!

        I think you’ll find that normal people are entirely capable of being assholes. Not every instance of shitty behavior is evidence of malevolent psychological dysfunction.

        • Faxanadu says:

          I don’t think they wanted to express “nailing animals to trees” (oh god I giggled at that) it’s just easy to word it in a manner that sounds really bad. I think they just meant people being assholes. Or then I’m wrong and they’re a bit loony. Just saying, cuz in “The Injustice Engine” article there was like 300000000 misunderstandings about how “severely” fucked up someone thought someone was thinking about.

          • Distec says:

            I read that article too. And even though it solidified my resolve to not buy DayZ, I think a lot of the accusations of sadism were over the top.

            Most “rough play” like this in games can be chalked up to the following:
            1) It’s just a game. You may like or dislike that argument, but I think it’s valid.
            2) When most people online are just text and maybe a player model, they’re not as “real” any more.

            That’s a tad bit more nuanced than assuming such players are secret monsters in human skin, itching for a chance to screw over other people if they couldn’t get their fix in a game.

        • Talksintext says:

          I’m not saying anything about that level of sadism equaling, what, wasting a dozen hours of someone’s time.

          But there are tons of assholes in society. Vast majority of the time, they constrain it, because there are consequences and they lack a justification framework to defend their actions. If you steal a random person’s laptop, it’s hard to justify that to yourself as “not bad actually, because…”. A lot of people don’t want to feel like they’re “bad”, regardless of whatever their nature is. When they do objectively bad things to others, they need some sort of defense against their own guilt or potential shame. On the Internet, there’s this myth, this justification, that it’s not “real” so nothing really counts for ethics.

          There you go. That lifts one thing holding back assholes. Then there’s the lack of consequences, strike two. And, yes, the lack of face-to-face empathy-provoking interaction. But I think you overestimate this last one, because the first two conditions are sufficient in reality because once someone is set on unethical behavior, they can usually find a way to do it without facing the person directly (they will purposely avoid that empathy feedback situation).

          And there are infinity trillion examples of this in reality, especially in the corporate world, government, and business in general, where there are plenty of legal or semi-legal things you can readily get away with, things that clearly are unethical, where people abuse and use others to serve themselves, even if their relative gain is significantly smaller than the other’s loss. Those people are assholes as well. They’re not “nice” or “good” people.

  12. Josh W says:

    My thoughts about VR relate to my thoughts about skype; people have had access to ubiquitous video calling for quite a while now, and people don’t just talk to random people via it. This is because the internet allows us to talk to strangers. Obvious I know, but the interesting thing is that these various kinds of fractional communication are sort of what we are comfortable with. People like to share confidential blogs of their woes under an assumed name somewhere obscure, while posting staged pictures of their wonderful life on facebook. People (cough) like to write grand text posts about political issues that they spent a while thinking about, and would take way too long to go through in personal conversation, or sometimes be far too intense.

    The knack is to find a way to share these fractions in productive ways. Playing highly competitive competitions against people across the world without it descending into the worst of xenophobia and abuse. Sharing personal hangups without getting into an absurd cycle of mutual support in self-destruction, or again in my case, sharing big and complex thoughts without getting self-important and pseudo-grandiose.

    I think we will get VR, but many people won’t use it, it’s like a docking clamp for a space craft, you only use it after you’ve got synced up via other kinds of communication. When you’ve started to move from being strangers via other kinds of getting to know each other.
    More directly relevantly, I think eve-fanfest thrives on a slight breakdown of the normal eve deviousness. Part of what makes the connections there work is that they’ve spent the rest of their time carefully holding each other at bay. You simply won’t get that experience bringing VR into eve, and you might actually weaken the gap between the two that makes that dynamic work, although on the other hand it could lead to the deviousness of eve becoming even more cinematic and faceted.

  13. Jinoru says:

    Ready Player One?

Comment on this story

XHTML: Allowed code: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>