Oculus Rift creator Palmer Luckey said that creating a metaverse is the right thing to do, morally.
“I think there’s a lot of reasons that you can argue that it is a moral imperative that we create a perfect virtual reality,” he said in a clip posted and transcribed by Road to VR.
He talks about the benefits of virtual reality for training and education, but also mentions that “perfect virtual reality” could be a replacement for real-world luxury goods.
I was particularly interested on his take about whether virtual reality has to be perfect in order to replace the real world, and his argument is that virtual reality will soon be “good enough” for people in areas with bad living conditions.
Now, I hate to disagree with someone who just sold his startup company for $2 billion, but I think he’s on the wrong track here.
A virtual good doesn’t have to be an exact copy of the real good in order to be a worthwhile replacement.
Recorded music isn’t a perfect copy of a live performance, but it’s still a huge industry and enjoyed by billions. MP3s aren’t as good as vinyl records, according to some music aficionados — I, personally, can’t hear the difference — but are still good enough for a lot of people. A virtual good can have other things going for it besides being a perfect copy. It can be cheaper, more convenient, more widely accessible, or more portable.
For example, I love going to movies with friends. It can be fun to sit next to someone in the theater and hear them laughing or screaming at the movie, then discuss it together afterwards on the drive home. The virtual reality version of this experience is already there, and is almost as good. You can watch a movie, on a giant screen, sitting in a theater. The fact that the interface is still lacking isn’t a big deal because in a movie theater, all you do is sit there, anyway. I wouldn’t pay $350 for that experience, but I could see myself paying, say, $50 to $100 for a holder that I slip my smartphone into. Simulating a movie theater is probably something that current smartphones can handle easily.
That’s nor a moral issue, of course. Watching a movie on a simulated theater screen instead of on a smartphone screen in the usual matter isn’t a moral necessity.
For me, the two main moral drivers of virtual reality are environmental and community-related.
On the environmental side, virtual goods have much less of an impact on the environment than physical goods. Just as streaming video is reducing the number of old DVDs in the landfills, so virtual clothing and other virtual entertainments can replace or reduce the need for physical goods. Virtual meetings and collaboration can reduce travel and commuting, as well as the need for physical offices and meeting spaces.
On the community side, business and governments and non-profits and other kinds of institutions are often founded based on relationships, and those relationships grow out of shared experiences. Friendships are strengthened by doing things together. Going to classes together, going to parties, helping people move, going on trips, working side-by-side on projects, serving on committees, or even just hanging out. Today, relationships are frequently constrained by physical proximity. Even in the age of Skype and email and Google Hangouts, startups are still moving to Silicon Valley to attract talent and investors. Financial firms want to be on Wall Street and theater actors want to be on Broadway. And students want to attend Ivy League colleges.
Geographical constraints mean that there are talented folks out there who can’t be the best they can be, simply because of where they’re located. I live on a farm in Western Massachusetts, and I hate the fact that I’m missing a ton of cool events happening in California. Family reasons prevent me from moving. Other people may be hindered by finances, or visa requirements, or any number of other factors.
A metaverse, even an imperfect one, that allows us to share experiences with others can help us build relationships and communities that transcend geographical and other boundaries.
I’m particularly interested in the smartphone-based approaches to virtual reality. Smartphone prices are plummeting, and the devices are now accessible to a wide percentage of the world’s population. If there’s an inexpensive headset that turns these decides into portals into the metaverse, then we could potentially see a very rapid global uptake of the technology.