I met a young scientist once, who told me about how the company he worked for mined 70s sci-fi for ideas for ideas to work on. "Scientists aren't naturally creative thinkers like that," he said. "We work things out. Sci-fi authors have a lot to answer for."
Science fiction has always presaged the advent of actual technology, and taught us how to think about it before it comes. A century before the Apollo Space Program, Jules Verne had flown a rocketship to the moon; 40 years before the iPad, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey imagined touchscreen tablets in every bag and briefcase.
Now, the next big war in tech is coming, and it has once again been predicted by science fiction: the curious subgenre of the 1980s known as cyberpunk, which deals with the technological blurring of the lines between individuals, machines, and mega-corporations. With Google Glass, Sony's recent announcement of a virtual reality headset, and Facebook's $2 billion purchase yesterday of the company that makes the VR headset Oculus Rift, it's clear that the cyberpunk era is now here, three decades after it was first predicted by novels like Neuromancer and Snow Crash. A cyberpunk tech war is coming. Not for your pocket, desktop or living room, but for how you experience reality.
Last night, Facebook announced that it was purchasing Oculus VR, makers of the virtual reality gaming headset Oculus Rift. In a statement on the purchase, Mark Zuckerberg said that Facebook was getting ready for "the platform of tomorrow" where "you can share unbounded spaces." "Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face--just by putting on goggles in your home," he wrote.
Readers of cyberpunk know the platform Zuckerberg is proposing well. It's the Metaverse, the virtual reality Internet first proposed in Neal Stephenson's cyberpunk masterpiece Snow Crash. The similarity is no accident: John Carmack (Oculus's CTO and the creator of some of the world's most advanced 3-D gaming engines over the last 10 years, from Doom to Rage) has stated in the past that Snow Crash and other cyberpunk novels have inspired much of his life's work. He says that Facebook's expertise will "avoid several embarrassing scaling [crises]" in bringing a Metaverse of millions of simultaneously connected users to life.
But Facebook is not the only company betting big on cyberpunk.
Last week, Sony unveiled Project Morpheus, a prototype headset for the PlayStation 4 that would allow players to fully immerse themselves in 360 degree virtual worlds. The Matrix allusion in the codename is surely no accident. Inspired by the Oculus Rift, Project Morpheus would allow PlayStation 4 owners to explore their video games just by physically moving their head; thanks to integration with Sony's PlayStation camera, Project Morpheus would also potentially allow players to interact with in-game objects just by reaching out and trying to touch them. In other words, it's The Lawnmower Man: virtual reality.
Yet even as Facebook and Oculus are behind the first serious push to make virtual reality viable since the early 1990s (when virtual reality was briefly promised as the next big thing, then fizzled out), Google has taken inspiration from another killer tech from cyberpunk: augmented reality, which in novels like Snow Crash turns hackers into techy "gargoyles" perpetually jacked into the Internet who can access information on people or things just by looking them. The result is Google Glass...
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