In a rare interview, Gabe Newell has said he's been spending "a lot of time" looking into brain-computer interfaces. "The Matrix is a lot closer than people think", he says, and it's going to be "an extinction-level event for every entertainment form that's not thinking about this."
Here's the full interview with IGN, though I've jumped straight to Matrix chat.
Newell does qualify his optimism a little. "It's not going to be The Matrix", he says: "The Matrix is a movie and it misses all the interesting technical subtleties and just how weird the post-brain-computer interface world is going to be. But it's going to have a huge impact on the kinds of experiences we can create for people."
"It turns out that your brain has really good interfaces for some things and really badly designed, kludge-y interfaces for doing other things, and the fact that your immune systems gets involved in your perceptions of temperature means there are all sorts of weird parts of your brain that participate in the sensation of being cold, whereas things like your motor cortex or your visual cortex are much more tractable problems. And that's what I mean. We're going to learn a lot as we proceed as to what things work and what things don't, what things are valuable to people and what things are party tricks that don't really matter in the long run."
Brain-computer interfaces have been around for a while, but in very limited forms, and primarily to help people with neurological impairments. In a GDC talk last year, Valve's resident experimental psycholgist Mike Ambinder confirmed they didn't have any projects underway. This could well amount to nothing, like when Valve got excited about measuring your sweat.
It could also legitimately be amazing. Who hasn't fantasised about properly-immersive, whole-brain fooling VR? I think there's merit, too, in Newell's emphasis on unpredictable developments. He compares the hypothetical tech to "trying to describe the internet to someone who's never used the internet before". A new mode of interacting with both physical and virtual worlds is bound to throw up wild experiences.
But, you know, books aren't going anywhere.