Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Future! ...We're totally, totally BONED!

I was watching “When We Left Earth : The NASA Missions” today when I suddenly remembered a bit of trivia.

The computers aboard Apollo 11 (the moon-landing mission spacecraft) had less raw processing power than a modern pocket calculator.

At first this seems like one of those ‘urban myth’ type stories that can’t possibly be true. However, the more you think about it, the more plausible it seems. For example, in 1969, calculators were indeed giant ‘desktop’ machines that required a large AC power supplies… and the first real ‘pocket’ calculator didn’t hit the market until three years after the moon landing.

Oh, and adjusting for inflation, the cost one of those pocket calculators in 1971 would buy you a top of the line laptop today.

So, even if NASA had been on the absolute bleeding edge of technology when they built the Apollo 11 craft, you’re still talking ‘very large suitcase’ when you talk about something with the processing power of a pocket calculator. Considering the size of the craft, it becomes totally believable when you consider something with the processing power of a 1995 laptop would have taken up several floors of a building in 1969.

Anyway, The reason I’m talking about this is because it just shows the sheer speed at which technology is advancing. I have a copy of the Guinness Book of Records from 1995, and was surprised to read that the world’s fastest processor at that time ran at 250mhz. Considering my computer today is twelve times faster than that and is considered slow…well, you see what I mean.

Of course, this led me to start speculating about what technology is going to be like in another ten or twenty years…and it’s kinda scary.

Being a big gamer, the first thing I thought of was applications for games.

“It’ll be awesome!” I thought. “We’ll probably have our own personal holodecks!”

Of course, I don’t mean ‘Star Trek’ style holodecks with solid holograms etc. However, an ultra-light head-mounted display that projects an image directly onto your retinas matched with a body-suit fitted with servos and motors amounts to the same thing. My point is that it’s no totally beyond the realms of believability.

Then, the more I thought, the more I realized that this is a very, very, very bad idea.

Ok, bear with me for a moment and imagine that the year is 2028. I don’t know exactly how it would work, but imagine that we’ve perfected ‘holodeck’ technology so that we can run games and simulations that are absolutely indistinguishable from reality. It doesn’t matter how this work, whether you’re thinking of a body-suit like I described above or a helmet that uses radio-waves to directly stimulate parts of your brain. Let’s just accept that the technology’s been invented and it works.

Anyway, I was imagining how cool it would be to play games like that

…then I remembered the time I levitated a good six feet in the sitting position when that fricking flaming zombie unexpectedly charged out of the industrial oven in ‘Resident Evil 4’. Then I remembered the hair on the back of my neck standing up and feeling my skin crawl as I explored the haunted house in ‘Vampire: The Masquerade’.

Basically I realized that sometimes you can get too real.

You see, we haven’t got to true photo-realism in gaming yet. We’ve got close, but you’re never going to sit down in front of any game available today and mistake it for live-action. Even when we do get to that point, it’s not going to be a really big deal in this context, because you’re going to be looking at it on a screen.

The screen gives us that safety-buffer. You’re not totally in that world because you’re looking at it through a window. There’s also the added buffer that in most games you’re controlling a character from a third person perspective. In a ‘holodeck game’ there’s no character either, it’s just you.

Sure, every gamer can remember times when a game has made them jump, or played a game that’s been genuinely scary or creepy, but imagine this:

There’s a few parts in Resident Evil 4 where you hear a chainsaw start up and you instantly begin to worry. That sound means a very tough bad guy is about to jump out at you from somewhere, and if he gets too close, he’s going to chainsaw your head right off.

Playing that game alone, in a dark room, is genuinely scary.

Now imagine being in that world. It’s so realistic it’s literally indistinguishable from real life. That same bad guy jumps out at you, only this time he’s not on the other side of a screen…he’s right there. You’re not mashing buttons, you’ve literally got hold of his forearms, desperately trying to push him back while the chainsaw blade roars at you less than an inch away front of your throat. It’s so realistic that you can feel the wind from the chainsaw blade, smell the exhaust and feel the muscles on the bad guy’s forearms straining as he desperately tries to murder you.

That’s not ‘jump in your seat then laugh about it with your friends’…that’s ‘evacuate your bowels and have a heart attack’.

Well, that just sounds silly! You’d know it was just a game, right? It wouldn’t be scary if you knew you weren’t in any real danger! Also, if things get too much, you could do something to just end the game, right?

Well, that’s another problem. Think of it this way. Ever been through a Haunted House at a theme park? You know you’re not in any real danger, you go in knowing that people are going to try to scare you…but it doesn’t stop you squealing like a little girl when something catches you off guard.

Yeah, it’s scary, but it’s also a lot of fun! Surely a scary holodeck game would be the same way, right?

Well, that’s the critical difference. Movies and today’s games are fun because they work on the concept of tension and release. Think about it. What’s the first thing you do when something in a movie makes you jump? You look at the person next to you and smile and laugh. The movie or game builds tension, makes you jump and then, in essence, throws you out of the experience for a quick breather.

The problem with a ‘holodeck game’ is that you wouldn’t get ‘thrown out’ of the experience or be able to release that tension. Something would jump out and scare you, and you can’t laugh and turn to your friend, or even just cover your eyes or hide behind the sofa… because that threat still needs to be dealt with.

In a movie, the bad guy jumps out and you scream and cover your eyes. In a game you jump that think about what buttons on the control pad to press to fight the guy.

In a holodeck game, the guy jumps out…and you don’t cover your eyes or look at a friend and laugh…you don’t even start thinking about what buttons to press. You’ve just got a chainsaw wielding maniac running towards you that has to be dealt with.

As for just ending the game…well, that’s another problem.

How exactly do you end a holodeck game? There’d have to be a code-word or gesture or something, something distinctly out of the ordinary because you wouldn’t want to accidentally end your game every time you scratch your nose or say hello to someone.

So let’s say that I’ve programmed my holodeck to end the game when I say ‘rumplestiltskin’ and clap my hands twice.

Now imagine your worst fear. If I’m playing a game and open a door and suddenly have a few thousand gigantic hairy tarantulas fall on me and start crawling all over me (and remember, this would be as realistic as actual reality)…I’m going to do one of two things. I’m either going to freeze solid through sheer terror…or scream until I blow my throat out.

That’s what it boils down to. Imagine yourself facing your worst fear…when you find yourself suddenly falling into a pit filled with cobras…are you going to have the presence of mind to say ‘Rumplestiltskin’ and clap your hands twice?

Ok, by now a lot of you are thinking “Okay, horror games would be awful, but what about the…you know…good stuff, wink, wink.”

Well, to be honest, that facet of this technology scares me a hundred times more than playing ‘Resident Evil : Holodeck Edition’.

Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) said “…The Holodeck will be mankind’s last invention.”…and you know what? Truer words have never been spoken.

Considering that today there are kids dying from spending 40 straight hours playing World of Warcraft because they forgot to take a break for food, water or to use the bathroom… can you imagine what things would be like with Holodeck technology?

Let’s look at an imaginary case study:

Imagine a guy called Bob. Bob is 20 years old. Bob isn’t the best looking guy in the world and lives in a shitty apartment and has a crappy job.

Bob, however, also has his own personal holodeck.

Inside Bob’s holodeck, he’s not a 20 year old guy with a crappy job, crappy apartment and a skin complaint. Instead, he’s got the body of a Greek god, lives in a palatial water-front mansion and has forty or fifty absolutely gorgeous supermodels with zero inhibitions for company.

In this fantasy world, everyone knows Bob and thinks he’s the greatest guy in the world. He can never set a foot wrong, can never make a mistake and can go anywhere and do anything he likes.

Long story short, in real life he’s a spotty loser with no friends or social life. Inside his Holodeck he’s a car-racing, playboy test-pilot rock-star surrounded by women who think he’s a god.

Which begs the question…what possible motivation is there for Bob to ever leave his Holodeck?

Well, at first this sounds stupid. He needs to leave to eat, and he has to work… even if only to pay his power bill for his Holodeck. What about a social life and companionship? Getting ahead? Having a life?

Let’s go through these one-by-one shall we?

Food, Why? Bob doesn’t need to eat good food, he just needs enough to keep himself alive. Something he can wolf down in the five minutes between getting home from work and plugging in for the night. Why spend money on good food when he can live on Ramen Noodles and ‘eat’ steak and lobster whenever he likes inside his holodeck?

Holodeck food may have no nutritional value whatsoever, but it’s free and is always absolutely delicious.

Well, what about

Work? Everyone wants a better job for more money, right?

Not so. After all, what does Bob need extra money for? He can get anything he likes in his Holodeck. A plasma screen TV might cost a couple grand in real life, but in his fantasy world he can create a 300 inch screen with a snap of his fingers. Real world possessions have no meaning to Bob, because the real world is just a place he visits so he can eat and earn enough to pay his power bill. His ‘real’ life is in the Holodeck.


Hardly! Why go to the time and effort to cultivate friendships with real people who’ll never measure up to Bob’s fantasy creations? On his Holodeck, Bob is surrounded by people who don’t judge or argue with him because they all think he’s great, all the time.

Holodeck friends worship Bob and do nothing but tell him how awesome he is. They never need rides to the airport, help moving and never getpissed at him.

Ok, but everyone needs a boyfriend/girlfriend, right?

Nope and nope. A real-life girlfriend has needs and imperfections. Why date that average girl-next-door when he can go home, step into his holodeck and create any woman he wants who will absolutely worship him…and have absolutely no qualms whatsoever with having a threesome with him and Jessica Alba? There’s no messy breakups or divorces either. If he gets bored of one girl, he just swaps her for another. All the fun, none of the work.

Sad, isn’t it?

My point is that Holodeck technology would be like rubbing a lamp and getting a genie that grants unlimited wishes. Who’s going to continue with the struggles of daily life when you can live in a consequence free utopia?

Just something to think about.


amanda said...

yeah, i'm not gonna lie, i didn't read your blog. I just was thinking about you. I do word searches a lot, and wondered how well you do those since you can read a page in 30 seconds. lol. and I miss chatting with you, stranger. get back at me. I hope you're doing well, love manda

Sunny said...

Yeah- Virtual life could totally suck you in and ruin your life if you let it.

I think Holodecks would be a totally bad thing.