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Why the Matrix Will Not Happen

Posted in 3D, all posts, future, internet by coleman yee on February 24, 2007

(This is a continuation from “the Future of Internet Is Virtual Worlds. Or Is It?”,  and part 2).

A lot of people think that the Matrix is inevitable. I take a contrarian view.

But first – what do I mean by “the Matrix”? It’s just a scenario where our brains connect to the internet directly (not necessarily all the time), without the need for screens or keyboards, where we basically can live inside a shared virtual world, communicating, controlling, and sensing everything in our minds.

Is that inevitable?

Let’s first assume that the materialistic worldview is correct, meaning that human consciousness and thought is nothing more than neurons firing, and that there are no disembodied conscious entities like ghosts or spirits. If the sum total of humanity is no more than physics, then the Matrix is theoretically possible.

Let’s also assume that we’ll be able to find a way to interface the computer or internet to the changing and highly complex neural structure of our brains, without adverse effects.

And let’s just assume that technological advances will eventually make the Matrix possible – all you have to do, is recline and plug yourself in (assuming it’s not wireless). Other than a small minority of people diving into it, will the rest of us follow?

Maybe not.

If things become ideal, the Matrix will be incredibly compelling. Since computer data will have direct access to the brain, virtual environments with incredible sensations can be created and experienced, such that phycial roller coaster rides, reverse bungee jumping, and skydiving become sluggish in comparison. Imagine a heroin-induced high on steroids (assuming you’ve tried both heroin and steroids), only better. I’ll be the first to get addicted.

But that’s only if things become ideal. Of course, things will never be ideal.

Assuming that the internet remains decentralized, we can expect there to be rogue sites or virtual environments, created by naughty boys and girls. Imagine entering a rogue environment, designed specifically to harm visitors. The damage done will potentially be more than what a very bad drug trip can do, much worse than a serious case of paranoid schizophrenia. A horror nightmare on steroids?

Besides rogue sites, there will also be (black hat) hackers. Sure, if our brains are connected directly to the internet, there will be very serious security measures in place to prevent our minds from getting hacked. But because the payoffs of a successful hack is so high, where the hacker can potentially gain control over your mind, or let you hear their voice whenever they want, or rewrite your memories, or eventually possess you, there eventually will be a hacker smart and patient enough to break past your firewall.

That firewall is your final protection against the your loss of control over the only thing in the world that really matters – your mind.

Would you risk the ultimate loss so that you can enjoy the ultimate experience?

I don’t think so.

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The Future of Internet Is Virtual Worlds. Or Is It? (Part 2)

Posted in 3D, all posts, future, internet, web by coleman yee on February 23, 2007

(Note: this post is much longer and more complicated than the previous one. You can jump straight to the easier part 3, “Why the Matrix Will Not Happen“.)

In part 1 of “the Future of Internet Is Virtual Worlds. Or Is It?”, I explained why an immersive 3D internet will not take over the 2D one.

My whole argument really hinges on the assumption that the internet will remain largely informational, and not be surpassed by the experiential.

If my assumption is wrong, meaning that the internet will become largely an experiential one, then it’s easy to believe that the internet will also mostly be in 3D.

So why would the internet remain largely informational, and not experiential? Wouldn’t the Matrix-like scenario be inevitable?

Let’s hold our proverbial horses for now and not go as far as the Matrix yet, since that would probably be a very long way off, if it ever happens. I’ll address that in a later post.

For now, the internet is still mostly informational. People use the internet mostly for the informational. However, there is a small and growing proportion of users who spend more time in the experiential.

The majority of these would be the game addicts enthusiasts. For them, the time spent in the experiential has replaced most of their informational time, as well as their real-life time.

Fragging monsters in World of Warcraft is more compelling than much of their real lives, such as sleeping or bathing.

Computer games and simulations are compelling because they offer opportunities that are otherwise impossible or very costly in real life. Most of us will never encounter monsters in real life, let alone experience the thrill of fragging them (or the danger of getting eaten). Nor do we really want to corner our cars at 300km/h in real life, either because our cars can’t (assuming we even have cars), or we’re not sufficiently inebriated.

A main attraction of online immersive 3D games like Second Life (which some insist isn’t a game) is the ability to meet and chat with others in that virtual world. But the reason why Second Life isn’t exactly taking over the internet by storm (despite the hype) is simply because the experience in Second Life for most people is not superior or more compelling than that in real life.

Thus for the rest of us well-adjusted people who lead normal lives, much of real life is still more compelling compared to the current experiential online offerings. (Something compelling need not be positive – screaming kids, for example, can also be rather compelling.)

So, for the internet to be more experiential than informational, the experiential would have to be more compelling than (much of) real life.

Which leads us to the next question: when will the experiential be more compelling for the rest of us well-adjusted normal people? When or how would 3D immersive environments surpass real life in terms of richness of experience?

This can happen only when certain technologies advance to a certain level – specifically visual, audio, and haptic interface technology (I’m ignoring bandwidth and computing power here).

The visual interface is definitely the most important. The current quality 3d renderings virtual worlds are very poor, compared to what we see in real life. To have a really gratifying and compelling experience, the 3D environment has to be photo-realisic, with a wide field of view (not the tunnel-vision views we’re used to on your computer screens). Think Omnimax.

To make things even more compelling, throw in realistic sound and haptic feedback. Good quality sound, even with a feeling of 3D space, is within technical reach. But realistic haptic interfaces, due to the complex nature of how our sense of touch works, is almost impossible outside of a Matrix-like scenario. Imagine wearing a special suit to receive haptic feedback. How does the suit convey a light touch? (Easy.) How about a punch? (Not that easy.) How about a cold wind that flows around different parts of your body? (Very hard!) Or the sickening sensation of bouncing on a bungee cord? (Close to impossible.) You get the drift.

But, even if I don’t get very realistic haptic feedback, if I could move around in a photorealistic 3D world with a wide field of view and good sound, it’ll be quite an experience. Instead of looking at nice photos of the Grand Canyon, I get to fly around in the canyons? I’ll be the next addict.

So, does that mean that the experiential would then overtake the informational, given good-enough technology?

Not necessarily.

Even with serious improvements in technology, there will be things holding us back. And unfortunately, these would be mundane things holding us back.

First of all is work. I would think that the informational would remain much more important than the experiential during work. Sure, with good-enough technology, we will probably have more virtual meetings with clients, but most of us don’t do that full-time, and never will. Of course, I may be wildly wrong in this case, since the nature of work might change drastically, such that the experiential becomes more important. But I doubt.

The other thing that would limit the extent of the experiential, even with good-enough technology, is our real, offline lives. (Let’s not argue about what is real and not for now.) Sure, the experiential internet will eat into our real lives, but this will be limited by real life commitments. Yup – screaming kids, nagging spouse – the usual (some things don’t change). (Speaking of the nagging spouse – if the spouse starts nagging online as well, the time one spends online would be further limited, because of the drastic drop in experiential quality.)

Sure, this is an anti-climax – the future of the internet in 3D virtual worlds getting limited by mundane issues like work and screaming kids. But one reason why the speculation of futurists often fail – they forget the mundane issues. Reminds me of the many books from the 1980’s that predicted what the year 2000 would be like – they always have flying cars.

It’s 2007, and I don’t see flying cars coming anytime soon. I don’t see a 3D internet taking over either.

So, how about the Matrix, where your brain interfaces directly to the Net? I’ll try to explore that in a later post.

Update:

Here’s the next post, part 3: “Why the Matrix Will Not Happen“.

The Future of Internet Is Virtual Worlds. Or Is It?

Posted in 3D, all posts, future, internet, rss, UX, web by coleman yee on February 17, 2007

“The future of internet is virtual worlds. Or is it?”

That was the topic of discussion in one of the sessions at the recent Web 2.0 Unconference.

The discussion leader Douglas Abrams defined a virtual world as a fully-immersive 3D environment that is shared by everyone and used for interactions in areas like entertainment, communication, and commerce.

Basically, the internet will become primarily 3D, instead of 2D as it is today.

He believed that the internet will eventually become a 3D virtual world (or worlds), simply because of the richness of information that 3D is able to communicate, as compared to textual, visual, or video information.

He’s wrong.

His is a common mistake – the same mistake that people years ago made when they predicted that TV would kill radio.

But I’m running ahead of myself.

The internet as we know it now is mostly what I would call “informational” – where people access content. This could be for knowledge (reading up a wikipedia article or my blog *ahem*) or for entertainment (reading my blog *AHEM*).

Currently, while the content is mostly in the form of text (like wikipedia and my blog again), there are other forms of content, including audio (podcasts, webradio), still visuals (photos, illustrations), and moving visuals (video, Flash animations).

Besides the informational, the internet also has a large experiential element. These are interactive elements or environments, where the interactive experience is the goal itself, and not a means to an end. These would include Flash games, simulations, and so on.

What do we get when web designers fail to distinguish the informational from the experiential? Flash-based websites that are a pain to navigate. Sure, surfing Flash-based informational websites is certainly a “richer” experience, thanks to pretty animations and sound effects, but when the information I want is best represented by text, don’t give me any animations along with it. Let alone a 3D experience.

Here’s another example – RSS feeds. I can go to a news site or a blog to read the informational content, and experience the look and feel of that site as well. But why do many people eventually move to reading the same content from RSS aggregators? Yes, the convenience, but many of us are eventually only interested in the informational content, not the experiential.

Virtual 3D worlds are better suited for the experiential, much like Flash. Because they are experiential in nature, they are great for the user to experience something, like exploring a new environment, playing an immersive game, or having social interactions with others. Thus 3D worlds are certainly here to stay, since they are best for certain types of the expriential.

Now if a user wants the informational rather than the experiential, and a 3D environment is given, it may not be pretty, especially when the novelty of 3D wears off. Remember those horrific Flash sites you tried to navigate through? The horrificity of 3D will be worse in an order of magnitude, thanks to the additional third dimension.

So are virtual worlds the future of the internet?

No, it won’t. Unless…

Only unless the experiential overtakes the informational on the internet in the future.

Will that ever happen? I hope to explore this in a later post.

Update:

Read part 2 here, or jump to part 3, “Why the Matrix Will Not Happen“.

Addendum:

Kevin posted a video of the discussion. The quality of the discussion wasn’t great, so it may not be worth watching.