I first heard about VR in the late eighties. I seem to recall a few items popping up in the media around the same time–a profile of Jaron Lanier in Rolling Stone and a piece in CADalyst magazine, a trade publication for engineers and architects, about William Gibson. I just did a little Google digging and can pinpoint that issue as coming out in December, 1989. My father, a civil engineer, subscribed to CADalyst at his office. I remember reading that particular issue and getting excited about cyberspace. Around the same time, I was enthralled/bewildered by Gibson’s classic Neuromancer. Virtual reality was just around the corner!
Except then it wasn’t. VR sort of disappeared for twenty-five years. The nineties VR mini-boomlet failed to register with me. Virtual worlds like those represented by The Matrix existed resolutely in the realm of science fiction.
Now we’ve woken up in 2016 to find, to our astonishment, that virtual reality exists. Technology finally caught up to the dreams of the late eighties (and if you want to get more technical, a couple decades further back).
From a business perspective, those attempts in the nineties at developing VR hardware and experiences failed. I think there’s another way to look at it. I’d argue that the development of VR adheres to an artistic process more than a business process.
The process of creating a work of art goes through various stages. The first stage is inspiration. I’ve found that inspiration involves a sudden and acute sense of possibility. An idea appears that seems pregnant with potential. That’s really what the eighties and early nineties VR visions were all about.
Then that sense of possibility ran into problems. The display technology wasn’t where it needed to be. Early VR experiences made people motion-sick. All this tech was expensive. Meanwhile, the nineties began delivering a stream of digital marvels. E-commerce! Napster! Social networking! I, for one, forgot about virtual reality.
What was really happening, I think, was VR was taking a nap. Artists often describe a period of frustration and seeming inactivity that happens after inspiration. It doesn’t seem like much is actually happening during these fallow periods, but they’re actually critical to the artistic process. This is the period when the subconscious starts working out solutions. Stephen King refers to his “boys in the basement,” the subconscious forces that work out his novels in a place beneath his conscious awareness. The ancient Greeks called them the Muses.
And it’s not just artists who’ve observed this phenomenon. Mathematician Henri Poincare, in the nineteen-twenties, described working on problems that left him stymied. After butting his head against his equation, he’d give up and move on to the next thing. Then he started to discover that oftentimes the solution to a former problem would suddenly appear in his mind, fully formed.
The re-emergence of VR reminds me of that process, but on an artform-wide scale. It’s as though for the past twenty-five years, our collective unconscious has been trying to figure out a way for VR to work. The convergence of various technologies, including smart phones and the coding languages Unity and Unreal Engine that are used to render 3D environments for video games, converged to give new life to an old idea.
I think it’s more accurate to say that the companies that “failed” to deliver VR in the nineties are a critical part of VR’s success, because they identified the problems that needed solving. Now VR as a whole enters an exciting new phase, that of the rough draft.