This feels like the dawn of man scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Big, dramatic music rumbling as we wrap our hands around a new tool that will help define who we become as a species. If VR is the experience of humans sitting around their first manmade fire, the software that builds it are the stones or sticks or whatever was used that made that spark possible.
I’m not going to waste your time regurgitating the history of computer programming, (here’s the wiki page for that), but just for a little perspective, the first computation device was the abacus, which we think dates back to 2500 BC in Sumeria. Pretty impressive how far we’ve come.
Anyway, when I entered the VRLA expo this past weekend, it’s clear that a certain level of mastery has been wielded by the creators of these experiences. There’s a Walking Dead game where people are strapped in and holding a plastic shotgun that does what I imagine to be serious damage to virtual zombies. There’s AMD’s Paranormal Activity experience which had a large area zoned off to wander around, I was flying a Pegasus at one point, and the experiences go on and on.
As fun as all the expressions of this technology are, it’s the tools that create this technology that really fascinate me. There’s Unity, Unreal Engine, Mettle Skybox, EON Reality and according to my google search, several others resources for building a virtual reality experience. One of the displays that really got me thinking was Side Effects Software’s Houdini engine. Hopefully you remember a little gem called Sim City 2000.
That’s what I was instantly reminded of when I saw the Houdini engine on the screen, minus the natural disasters and fusion power plants. The way Houdini works is you’re designing with tools that can build all the elements of the environment you want to play in. As it was described to me at VRLA by Deborah who teaches Houdini at Gnomons: “It’s not like you’re making a chair, you’re making a tool that makes many different kinds of chairs. So it’s really about systems creation.” From what I understand, it’s not in a place yet where like the Unity store, people are sharing assets with each other for modification, but that seems to be an inevitable aspect of their trajectory as the act of sharing benefits the platform as a whole.
The awesome part about this to me is what’s coming once the technology to design virtual reality becomes simplistic enough for your average enthusiast to build their own world. When the tool is as ubiquitous as Adobe, what endless possibilities will cover our eyes? When I can design a world and then explore it, how far away am I from being able to live in it?
Before I get sidetracked on a reality versus virtual reality tirade, the point of my initial excitement remains in easily digestible VR software being distributed en mass to the throes of creative minds whose eyes light up at the idea of building a world they can explore for themselves. And with VR getting more and more immersive, the level to which our exploration experiences will consume us is as fascinating as it is frightening.
I opened up Unreal Engine in an attempt to get started. I’ll be the first to say that I have no idea what in the world to do.
Same goes for Side Effects’ Houdini. I’m sure with a little tinkering and conceptual understanding the doors of potential will slowly start to open. Until they do though, I’ll keep staring at a screen with too many options to know what to do with. How I get from there to something that resembles Maui, where I can fly, eat fresh mahi mahi tacos, hold my significant other, drink, play games with my friends, breath clean air, not experience a system of greed and injustice that is tearing apart the fabric of civilized society and so on, is not quite clear to me yet. However, when we get to that point, we’ll likely look back at this era with the same reflective lens that watching those apes discover the bone triggers in us now, we’ll just be observing it from a movie theater, on a street, in a city that we may have designed ourselves.