Ready Player One – Lessons for the future of virtual reality

March 2018 will see the release of the latest Stephen Spielberg blockbuster, Ready Player One. The film is based on a book of the same name written by the sci-fi author, Ernest Cline and published in 2011.

It is set in the year 2044 in a dystopian future where the world is breaking down economically and socially, but people escape to a virtual universe called the OASIS. The OASIS was created by a company called Gregarious Simulation Systems (GSS). The OASIS is a Massively Multi-Player Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG). Users access the OASIS using headsets, and haptic gloves and suits. The OASIS was created by a Steve Jobs-like genius, called Halliday. In a nod to today’s tech giants such as Google, Facebook, Baidu etc, OASIS is the place where people spend most of their free time (and money) and GSS becomes one of the most powerful and wealthy organizations on the planet in consequence.

Halliday dies without a successor or heir. But before he dies he creates an ‘Easter Egg’ hunt; the OASIS user who’s first to decipher the clues, perform various tasks to obtain keys that unlock a series of gates will inherit Halliday’s fortune and his company.

The hero of the book is a youngster, Wade Watts, who is about to graduate from high school. He lives with his aunt in a deprived community on the edge of an urban metropolis. She only puts up with him to obtain more food vouchers than she’d otherwise receive. He escapes this unpleasant situation, both literally and metaphorically, by going into the OASIS. The story follows his quest to win the Easter Egg hunt and inherit Halliday’s fortune.

The book is a compelling read. The story line is something akin to a sci-fi Willy Wonka. However, what the book – and likely the film – does well, is to convey the power and potential of virtual reality in a way that the products from the likes of Oculus and HTC have so far failed to do.

Some of the aspects of virtual reality explored in the book that I found most interesting and, in some cases, are now seeing parallels of in the real world, include:

  • Multiple worlds: in the OASIS there are a huge number of worlds for users to explore. These worlds are very different from each other. Some are rendered in detail, others less so. The book describes how some were designed carefully while others are essentially created programmatically. It also describes how whole galaxies were imported from other Sci-Fi series such as Star Wars, World of Warcraft etc. There is a parallel in the gaming world now – a game called No Man’s Sky, released in 2016, that has a theoretical 18 quintillion planets that gamers can explore.
  • Business model: basic access to the OASIS is free, but to move around and between worlds, and carry out even basic transactions, users must pay using credits. OASIS credits can be earned through undertaking quests, winning battles, or earned through work – both in the virtual world and even the real world. Credits can be redeemed for things like equipment, weapons, teleportation, vehicles including space craft etc. As a form of currency OASIS credit has become the world’s most stable currency, due to the devaluation and disruption of FIAT currencies such as the US dollar.
  • Education: Wade Watts attends high school in the OASIS. His virtual school is run much like a real school. However, lessons can take advantage of the capabilities of virtual reality to place students in, for example, a historical location or inside a beating human heart. His place in the virtual school was offered as a replacement for a real-world school. Only students with the right aptitude and capabilities were invited to attend the OASIS-based school. Continuing access to the OASIS school requires regular attendance and completion of school work. All schools in the OASIS are based on a single virtual planet where there is no one-on-one fighting allowed.
  • Integration of real and virtual business. In one scene in the book, Wade visits a virtual pizza restaurant inside the OASIS. He orders a pizza and pays with game credits. A pizza delivery service in the real world, makes him a pizza and delivers it to his apartment within a few minutes of his placing the order in the online game. This integration of real and virtual is not something we’ve yet seen, but we expect it – likely long before 2044.
  • Haptics: at the start of the book, Wade is using a low-cost headset and haptic gloves. As the book progresses he can afford better equipment including state-of-the-art headsets and full-body haptic suits that enable him to feel everything he experiences in the game. Unfortunately, even the best of today’s VR headsets delivers a relatively poor experience because the pixel nets are clearly visible. This means that even with high resolution display panels, the user experiences the equivalent of a low-resolution display. There are solutions, such as foveated rendering, but these are still in development and unlikely to be within reach of average users in the near future. Haptics are also in their infancy.

A few other noteworthy aspects touched on in the book that I found intriguing included:

  • High-speed connectivity: in the early scenes in the book, Wade connects to the OASIS from his hideout. While the book doesn’t reference the type of connection, it must be wireless and most likely cellular. To provide the immersive experience portrayed in the book would require high data rates consistent with 5G. Later in the book, Wade moves to an apartment in Columbus, Ohio, as close as he can get to the servers that power the OASIS. He does this to minimize the round-trip delay. This is similar to what we see in financial markets today, where high-speed trading operations are often situated close to internet points of presence to minimize trip delays. One of the promises of 5G is super-low latency, however to achieve round-trip delays to less than 1ms will require relevant data to be located at the edge of the network close to the user. In a game like the OASIS where interaction is occurring between players all over the world, this will be difficult to achieve.
  • Indentured labor: one of the more unpleasant aspects of the book is the way in which large businesses can require debtors to pay off their debts by becoming indentured labor – effectively slaves. Wade does this deliberately to get inside a rival’s organization and hack their system. Wade is able to manipulate the system to release himself, but many others are stuck in a life of never-ending servitude as they try to pay off debts that will never be paid down.

The few scenes available from the movie in its trailer are fairly reflective of the content of the book, so we’re hopeful that it hasn’t been dramatically changed.

I can heartily recommend the book – but if you’d rather wait for the movie, you won’t have long to wait. But you might have a longer wait for VR to live up to the promise of the book and film.

Official Ready Player One Trailer on YouTube