Virtually Ready

1x08 Virtually Ready

This is the last newsletter until late January. Hope everyone has a great holiday season.

Are you sold on the current state of virtual reality?

Although I've always appreciated the advances that we've stumbled into, my primary experience with VR has been a few low-end Samsung devices that mostly stick a screen close to your eyeballs--neither enjoyable, nor comfortable. I've been fascinated by Microsoft's HoloLens (and augmented reality has mostly been my cup of tea), but the price point is still too high, and Microsoft seems dead focused on enterprise usage more than developer or commercial usage.

Recently, I've been backing almost anything on Kickstarter that has to do with cyberpunk as a genre. Maybe it's nostalgia (both of us are in our 40's). A couple of those campaigns were solid looking virtual reality games. I backed them even though I didn't have any VR equipment. Once those campaigns succeeded, I realized that it might be time to cross that chasm.

At the same time that I was backing these Kickstarter campaigns, Facebook started promoting it's VR world Horizon. Facebook certainly hasn't been on my list of most ethical companies, but Horizon looks like a keen experiment, and ultimately brought me to the conclusion that although I probably won't spend too much time with games, the social experimentation of virtual reality worlds is a worthy pathway of investigation and presents a burgeoning future of communication and commerce.

One need only to look as far as massive multiplayer online (MMO) games. In fact, there was an XBox game called Defiance (tied to a SyFy channel show) that the two of us played for a period of time when it launched. The open world wasn't really one that lent itself to extensive hangout sessions, but that didn't stop people from standing their avatars next to each other in bars and safe havens, or having fun driving their quads off high-rise structures to see how many times they can turn in the air... all within a post-apocalyptic world.

It was good fun that let the imagination run wild, and you see much of the same going on in other, more popular open worlds such as Fortnite, as well as niche genre games like Star Trek Online, where you can hangout on a planet without much to do other than pretend.

VR has always been a great technology to follow as we move through science fiction, science, and cinema. It's evolved as much onscreen, as it has in real life, and in the imaginations of those interested in the new Cyberia. Although people raved about Battlestar Galactica (the remix), most forgot about the prequel: Caprica. Caprica was notable for a few things; Among them, the concept of the Holoband. This headband took wearers into a virtual world created for many things, but ultimately it had degraded into a virtual reality overrun by games and teenage clubs. The Holoband was easily hacked by would-be programmers, opening up new worlds for users to explore.

This concept isn't new. The idea of a virtual world was explored heavily in other series and films such as Tron. Caprica also shared another concept with Tron: The idea of sentient avatars or programs. Tron Legacy even referred to isomorphic algorithms as spontaneously emergent programs.

Whereas Tron was sci-fi on the "grid," what made Caprica different was it's grounding in a near future coupled with the "realness" of the virtual worlds. Recently, entertainment has come a step forward in this concept with the Feed on Amazon Prime. This series focuses on an Internet-enabled/cloud-enabled augmented reality feed directly embedded in people's brain cortex. With the feed "on" not only do you have unlimited access to playback of your memories, news feeds, etc., but it also allows your brain to process QR codes that influence the world that the feed (and you) see, taking augmented reality to a new level, and furthering concepts of a programmable reality.

Although all of this is science fiction... virtual reality is not, and we've finally reached the point where headsets and other devices are economically feasible, as well as entertaining, educational, and full of potential. A complete brain interface might be currently out of reach, but we don't need that to get closer to the world immersion that takes social networking and MMOs to a level of science previously only seen as science fiction. --Michael Szul & Bill Ahern

Want to take this conversation further? We're experimenting with a public team on Keybase--an end-to-end encrypted messaging, file, and identity management service. Check out our public team here. You can also contact Bill and me directly from the chat feature. --MS

Editor(s) Note:

Interested in artificial intelligence, natural language processing, and chatbots in particular? Don't forget that Michael wrote a book: Building Chatbots in TypeScript with the Microsoft Bot Framework.

Low-Fi

Don't leave me on Kickstarter with any cyberpunk campaign running. Although this wasn't the first cyberpunk VR game I backed, it seems to be the most likely to come to fruition, and certainly has the best hi-tech, low-life graphics. Low-Fi is a cyberpunk noir VR game filled with crimes to solve and bad guys to outsmart. The graphics fit in line with what you would expect in a Blade Runner universe, and those involved have both the programming skill and the entertainment experience to pull this off. Low-Fi's story is a bit "meta" in nature. You're entering into a virtual reality game where the humans are the leftovers who cannot merge with the virtual reality simulation within the game story.

Currently, the game is being developed for PC-enabled VR only, but they're looking into mobile solutions such as Oculus Quest. --MS

Secret Service Raid on SJG

For those that follow the podcast, you might have noticed that we've moved closer and closer to the "digital lifestyle" aspect of Codepunk's tagline. In this episode, we wander into ghosts of cyberpunk past to revisit the Secret Service raid on Steve Jackson Games. --BA

Zenith

Zenith was the first Kickstarter cyberpunk MMO I backed... but it's also the one I'm most skeptical about actually getting. The project raised over $280K, but the ambition is through the roof. The Zenith team left update messages trying to abate the skepticism, but I'm still assuming this project crashes and burns in spectacular fashion... or we see another fund raising campaign pop up. The team involved is extremely young, so that ambition and creativity is greatly welcomed, even if the project does fail. After all, even in failure we'll move the needle collectively as an industry.

The game itself is a cross between anime (old school Final Fantasy feel) and cyberpunk, and is actually a little more fantasy than I'd like, but the expansive open world is larger than the game-based VR of Low-Fi, and that's the aspect of inner exploration that captures my attention when it comes social virtual reality experimentation. --MS

Facebook Horizon

Facebook Horizon looks ridiculously cartoonish, and money has clearly been dumped into the marketing campaign. At first glance, you might brush it off as nothing more than a Facebook gimmick to enter the VR space like other failed experiments: Home and Portal. This is misleading though since Facebook owns Oculus. They have an insider edge now when it comes to VR, and the Oculus acquisition was the most enthusiastic one by Mark Zuckerberg.

The look and feel of Horizon is akin to Nintendo games. Nintendo might have ceded the hardcore gamer space to XBox and Playstation, but Nintendo is still the #1 family-oriented device. The casual gamer reaches for the console that is decidedly more cartoonish and comical. Facebook's Horizon design is by choice. The cartoonish avatars make VR more game-like, inviting, and non-invasive. The style is a style of play--more enticing to casual Facebook media consumers.

But the technology is clearly building out a social realm for communication and play. Microsoft took the HoloLens on the corporate and industrial route. Facebook wants Oculus to be as ubiquitous in your home as your Alexa devices are now becoming. --MS

Twin Peaks

This was just announced as I was putting together this newsletter, which is why this email is longer than some of the past ones. I decided to detail a handful of VR worlds that were coming. Of everything on this list, nothing gets me more excited than this Twin Peaks experience. Twin Peaks was highly influential on both Bill and me, and the VR experience will likely cause a surreal reaction as influential fiction and virtual reality merge in the head of the headset wearer. The ability to actually explore the forest, the red room, the glass box observatory (from the recent Showtime revival), among many other locations will likely cause me to waste endless hours just sitting and... experiencing. I'm sure this is exactly what David Lynch wants too. --MS

Winter Offering

Winter Offering

My local Costco does a great job carrying local craft beer, and this winter season, I loaded up on some classics, as well as some new ones. The clear winner from this list was Kentucky Christmas Morning from Hardywood--a potent, yet sweet stout that is essentially Christmas Pancakes but aged in bourbon barrels. GBS and CBS are both classics that you can never go wrong with, and Sweet Baby Java is an espresso-infused version of the chocolate peanut butter porter favorite Sweet Baby Jesus.

All of the beer in this photo is recommended, but none of it is weak, so be prepared for some potent brews... and enjoy your holidays. --MS