What Janet Murray and PopSci Forgot to Mention

Recently I’ve been digging into Janet Murray’s classic Hamlet on the Holodeck. The book is quite interesting even though it is now over a decade old. Obviously Murray would have a lot more to say about World of Warcraft and Second Life, but what she has to say about MUDs still stands true for this modern software. The most interesting bit of criticism that I think gets lost in these ideal representations of the future, such as those imagined by PopSci’s Future Of on the Discovery Channel, mainly the problems of cost, scale, and integration.

Essentially, tech like the Virtusphere may look really cool (and it’s kind of embarrassing they can’t debut it for something more interesting than an FPS game), but it’s not going to come to the home any time soon. For one thing, there’s the problem of space: the Virtusphere simply takes up too much space in the home and can only be used by a single user (even the Holodeck appears to have been civic and likely booked for group or individual use rather than something you’d find in every crewman’s quarters).

We’ve been talking about virtual reality for more than two decades now. Computers have improved immensely in this time frame, but the cost of doing VR is still too high for it to become ubiquitous. Much of the technologies Murray mentions (Imax, video rollercoasters, virtual reality, 3D movies) have had very limited impact and are usually limited to theme parks or specially built theaters. I find it interesting that 3D film in particular, which was around for such ‘classics’ as Jaws 3D (1983) and the Virtual Boy (1996) is finding a new resurgence through the likes of James Cameron’s Avatar and Wii Head Tracking. The fact that 3D film has been on-again-off-again for over 20 years doesn’t make me expect it will be around to stay, but the ‘halfway tech’ of 3D glasses has potential through its low-cost, add-on nature.

I find technology like the Switchables from MIT to be MUCH more interesting. This technology is small, it’s portable, and it’s (hopefully) cheap. The devices have small LCD screens, are connected to each other through infrared, have accelerometers to detect movement, and sense the presence of other devices to interact with them (the only thing that seems to be missing is a small webcam). It’s the type of technology the folks at Wired identify as “good enough tech” or that Gumpei Yokoi identified as “lateral thinking of withered technology” (of which the Game Boy and the Wii are epitomes). In PopSci, they demonstrated a music dj program and word games on the Switchables, giving plenty of opportunity for games, creation, and learning. I suspect the hardware would really get off the ground if this technology could be built for extremely cheap and was treated as open-source hardware like the arduino (there is no way even the brilliant folks at MIT could be as creative as hundreds of hardware hackers). It is technology like this that has the potential for the greatest impact because of its low cost and portability as well as its ability to turn users into creators.

As much as we might want to have technology that reproduces the holy grail of new media, the holodeck, I think it is beneficial for us to step back and ask ourselves who we are making the technology for. Do we want a holodeck that has to be booked for group use or do we want something small, portable, and available in everyone’s living room? These are two scales of technology, with the former relying primarily on spectacle and group experience, and the latter more individual but also potentially ubiquitous. Both scales have potential and importance to society (humans love group spectacle), but I tend to side with the technology that is most accessible.

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One Response to “What Janet Murray and PopSci Forgot to Mention”

  1. jafish Says:

    In addition to being of two different scales, I think the individual technologies are also a different frame in terms of how they influence perceptions of reality. Most of the individual tech falls under “Augmented Reality,” which has in its name a less-ambitious but more achievable vision.

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