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Jacking Into The Matrix: EVE And Oculus' Utopian Dreams

More Than A Game

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.

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.

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