Virtual reality is coming of age
by Alexander Walters // guardian.co.uk // 31 December 09
If you want evidence of how virtual worlds are breaking into the mainstream, look at how commerce is taking hold within them
I'm standing outside a branch of Diesel and a colourfully dressed man is dancing the robot in front of me like Peter Crouch on steroids. Browsing through the items on offer in the window, I spot a pair of jeans that I like the look of. The price tag says £1.59. A licensed, authorised, branded pair of Diesel jeans for £1.59. The only catch is that they're made of pixels, not denim, and they belong in a fictional universe that could be the future of advertising, social networking and gaming combined. Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of PlayStation Home.
The concept of PlayStation Home is simple. It's a free-to-use, beautifully rendered, fictional universe in which anyone who owns a PlayStation 3 can reside. Once a user loads up their profile they are dropped into an apartment with a balcony that overlooks something resembling Monaco. In the town outside lie a communal square, a bowling alley, a pool hall and even a shopping mall in which to buy real estate or clothes.
This brings us to the jeans. Inside the shopping mall lies a branch of the real-world clothing brand Diesel. In it, users can buy any number of pixelated replicas of Diesel's real-life ranges for real-life money. Diesel is by no means the last brand that will set up shop here, because PlayStation Home has just announced reaching 10 million users. Home isn't alone either, it's merely the latest in a long line of virtual reality (VR) worlds that are now springing up all over the internet.
Is this all a waste of time? Conventional wisdom states that we should have better things to do with out lives than spending hard-earned pennies on pixelated pairs of jeans. Critics will argue that these worlds are populated by nerds, geeks and middle-aged recluses with all the social skills of a road accident. Perhaps years ago this was the case, but the popularity of VR environments has seen a staggering rise. World of Warcraft now has over 11 million subscribers worldwide. Second Life has an economy so large that their Linden dollar is tradeable currency in the real world to the tune of $29m per quarter. The games industry now generates more revenue than its cinema counterpart. It appears that, one by one, we're all becoming geeks.
With so many people now taking part in these environments, it's just not possible that they are all losers. I've dipped my toes into Second Life, Home and (briefly) World of Warcraft. While they didn't hold my attention for long, the people I met there were, by and large, friendly and interesting. Perhaps tellingly, most of them admitted that they kept their VR identity a secret in the real world for fear of mockery, so a VR enthusiast might be closer than you think. Admittedly, these worlds still have a long way to go. Anyone with a reasonably busy lifestyle probably can't spare the time to indulge in them and wouldn't see the point. This was my initial reaction, and the one that still holds me back from diving in to VR headfirst. But pause a second, and imagine the possibilities that VR might enable in the future.
One day these experiences will be totally immersive. Sony already has a patent on (though are unlikely to be anywhere near developing) a device that replicates sensory interaction via a neural connection to the user's brain. Touch a granite surface in the VR world and it will feel like granite. Drink a glass of Coke and it will taste like Coke. In this kind of genuinely immersive, graphically photorealistic world, the possibilities are endless. Imagine constructing your own dream holiday to a perfectly rendered 1960s London, or ancient Rome. When you combine these capabilities with the attraction such worlds already have for brands and advertisers (imagine a living, breathing VR Paris with your company's banner hanging over the Eiffel tower), the horizon grows broader still.
In addition, the scope for VR worlds goes beyond gaming. What is Home but a graphical manifestation of social networking? The same people who once scoffed at old-world networks such as Twitter, Facebook and MySpace, but now use those services daily, may one day warm to a VR version. Why Facebook a friend in Thailand when you can catch up in a virtual reality Bangkok? VR has come a long way, but it has not yet broken into true mass appeal. Worlds such as Home do, however, do show how far the technology has come. Personalised fantasy holidays, as popularised in films such as Total Recall, are closer than we think. With new worlds that are graphically comparable to the latest game releases, supported by advertising and almost unlimited in scope, the possibilities for virtual reality are endless.