Ready Player One & Emerging Haptic Technologies

I read Ready Player One last year at the recommendation of my siblings. Through not the writing was average, I found the premise to be highly intriguing. Set in a dystopian 2044, children and adults alike retreat from reality to a world where they can be anyone and do anything, achieved through the use of haptic technology.

While the book came across as a less-technical Snow Crash, the movie felt like The Sims on steroids. There is a strong possibility the world I saw on that screen will closely mirror our reality within the next fifty years.

At eleven years old, my introverted and bookish younger self discovered The Sims computer game. Up until that point I hadn’t had much exposure to video games, particular though navigating the life of someone else. Unlike the stories jotted down in my journals, this one actually came to life. I was hooked.

Much has changed in the eighteens years since the original release of The Sims. First-person shooter games are more realistic, including responsive controllers which emulate recoil. And virtual reality is coming to a head.

I recently listened to a 2016 interview of Kevin Kelly on the Tim Ferriss Show on AI, Virtual Reality, and The Inevitable. Kelly believes that AI will be disruptive to our future, in the same way as the Industrial Revolution changed so many paradigms in the 18th and 19th centuries. I suspect those new technologies were viewed with suspicion, but gradually accepted and integrated over time. Today, I believe a faction of the population views AI as an incredible tool for both work and please, while another group vehemently oppose rapidly unfolding unknown. Technology, they might say, is evolving too quickly for us to understanding the long term implications and consequences. And perhaps that’s true.

If we look at the near-future world of Ready Player One, society is greatly divided. The poor live in “the stacks” and have limited access anything more than basic necessities. Indeed, even schooling has been limited to the virtual OASIS simulation. On the other hand, the wealthy live in city sky-rises and afford the most current and high-tech simulation systems and accessories available, including full-body haptic suits.

Haptic technology, as referred to as kinesthetic communication, recreates the sense of touch by applying forces, vibrations, or motions to the user. In short, the mechanical simulation allows one to move their physical body in ways that allow interaction with a virtual reality. In Ready Player One, the haptic suit also recognizes and simulates emotion so that a real-life shy smile might be projected by one’s character in the simulation.

Interestingly, several universities are researching affecting computing: an area which aims to restore a proper balance between emotion and cognition in the design of technologies for addressing human needs. I find the area of affective computing particularly intriguing for two main reasons. Firstly, emotional resonance leads to a sense of connection; if AI closely mirror humans, we may trust their intentions and have faith in their mission. Conversely, that same relatability could be our downfall; if the technology falls into the wrong hands, affective computing may be used to manipulate and control.

I believe that we must welcome new technologies as inevitable advances forward, interjected with periodic backsliding. However, I also feel that we must be responsible with these technologies, especially with the increasing number of hacks that affect personal data. Though I am eager to explore the world of virtual reality myself, there is also something a bit unsettling about the whole thing. If someone else can manipulate what I experience through my five senses and emotional responses, is it possible to become so immersed in that alternate reality that we lose track of what is real and what is not?

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