I've been blogging about technology for a while now (I'll spare you the "I was blogging when blogging wasn't cool" jokes) and I'm regularly asked questions about the future of technology, where things are headed, and in some cases why we never got there. On the one hand it's nice to think for a moment that someone...ANYONE...is actually interested in what I have to say. On the other hand, I have to actually HAVE something to say. It's humbling to be at an event and have someone ask "So what do YOU think of the new Flaxinating Fluganater 6000? I hear it gets megawickmags. They say it's got 15 bahoogian blaxoplasties". My response is usually a blank stare followed by a quick "Sorry, I haven't heard of that one". So it's a huge relief when someone asks me a more general technology question that I might have a shot at answering.
With all the buzz about augmented reality tech and virtual reality devices like the Oculus Rift it's a subject that's on a lot of minds. Just the other day someone asked me why virtual reality still hasn't become "a thing". I thought about it for a minute and gave them a two-word answer; Star Trek. This time the blank stare was coming at me instead of from me, so I tried to explain. A huge chunk of the world's population gets its concept of virtual reality from Star Trek: The Next Generation's holodeck. Here you have a room you can walk into and an entirely new world appears instantly before you, everything from the ground beneath your feet to the clothes on your back appears, disappears, and reappears at your command. You have absolute control over this environment and it is completely and utterly convincing. All of your senses are fooled. Pick up the rock at your feet. It has texture and weight. Talk to a virtual person and they respond as a person would. The experience is totally immersive and is only limited by your imagination. Actually even that isn't true because you can walk through worlds imagined by others. Who wouldn't want that? Who wouldn't give almost anything for that kind of freedom?
Now consider what we have today; we have headgear that simulates movement in a virtual world. We have rooms that can project virtual landscapes on the walls around you. We even have super-slippery walking surfaces that allow you to walk through a virtual world without really going anywhere. Each one of these is extremely fun and cool. So why aren't we all playing VR games and creating our own virtual worlds? Is it the cost? No, surely not. There are plenty of people out there with the money to afford it. The reason virtual reality hasn't taken off like a shot is that all those years ago when we were introduced to the holodeck the bar was set so incredibly high we're still waiting. We don't want to strap on a headset and earphones, then step on a treadmill just for a few moments of "almost good enough" VR. We want the holodeck, or at least something close to it. As a global society we've become accustomed to instant. We want it now. Everything from news to pain relief has to be immediate or it's just not good enough. The same is true with virtual reality. Sure great strides have been made, but unless it's the totally immersive experience we were promised by science fiction we thumb our noses. VR technology is still in its infancy and we just aren't interested in training wheels. Think about cell phones. The first commercially available cell phones were...let's just say mockable. They were brick-heavy, cumbersome, expensive, ugly devices with terrible range, giant batteries, no features, and a scary knack for shorting out pacemakers. If you had one it meant you a)had already bought all the cars, boats, and houses you needed and still had lots of extra cash, b)just HAD to have the latest tech, and/or c)really wanted to impress people by calling them from the beach. The other 99.9% of the world had no use for them. Fast-forward to now. Everyone has a cell phone. From kids right on up to great-grandparents, the cell phone is as much a necessity as shoes & socks. Heck, my teenaged daughters behave themselves because they know if they don't I'll take their cell phone away. Why? Because they've not only caught up with what Star Trek promised, they've surpassed it. Today cell phones are the Star Trek communicator, tricorder, and ship's computer all in one. Now we can't imagine living without them.
This is true of most technologies. You could have a robot friend right now if you wanted one. The trouble is most people don't want one because it would be clunky, buggy, and probably murder us (in our sleep if we're lucky). We don't want what technology can give us now, we want what science fiction has shown us. We want perfect, or at least almost perfect (Wall-E or Number 5 would be OK). That's true of virtual reality as well. Anyone with enough money could put together the latest VR gadgets out there and come up with something akin to that brick phone I was talking about. It would kind of work, kind of be cool for a while. But that's not the experience we want. We want perfection. We don't want to be strapped to a table or stuck in a suit. We want the world to be created around us. We want to see, smell, and touch it.
We want the holodeck, and until we get something close most of us will just keep waiting.