Virtual Reality: Two Months in
It has been almost two months since I received my own VR device: The Oculus (now Meta) Quest 2. A few years ago I used a PlayStation VR at a friend's house, but that was only for a handful of hours, and nothing other than Beat Saber.
I would say it has been one of the greatest investments I've using the money I got from my full-time job. Thanks to economies, I'm not able to just get a powerful setup to have PCVR, which means the Quest 2, with its price range, becomes very enticing (as in, orders of magnitude more enticing). The amount of things and experiments I can do with it justify the cost, and several times a day I've been having even more ideas on what to do with it, it's great.
Because of all of this, I'm now also considering financing my PCVR setup, but that's for the long term (as in, “2-3 years” long term to save enough, if something more pressing doesn't happen by next year).
This blogpost will condense various takes I've had over the months regarding various topics related to VR.
The limitations of Standalone
The Quest 2 is, for all intents and purposes, an Android phone with a big screen, 4 infrared cameras, weird lenses, wild speakers, and buttons! Fucked up! It's absurdly impressive work by the Meta engineers. I believe that the future will be in this standalone space, because you can drive the price down, and cheaper tech means more adoption of that said tech.
Currently (December 2021) a Valve Index costs 1000 USD, then you need a powerful PC to achieve smooth VR, and for me, currency conversion and shipping costs mean that it's too much of a risk for me. The Quest 2, on the other hand, is 300 USD by itself. Sure, import taxes bring that value up a notch, but it's much less risky of a purchase for someone in my situation. And now I just need the “powerful PC” part, since I can use something like Virtual Desktop to play SteamVR games in the Quest 2.
This is not to say the Quest 2 is perfect. It is a phone, and so, performance takes a big punch. If you compare PCVR experiences and their equivalent Quest 2 ports, you can smell the optimization (without that smell box!! It's a fucking smell box).
You can remove your connections to Oculus's servers, but in the end, that turns the Quest 2 into a PCVR headset, and while that's a viable plan for me, who wants a PCVR setup in the future, I do not think that is a useful answer to the large amount of Standalone VR players that will begin to appear in the future, see this market forecast, and Steam's hardware survey, of which Quest 2 has the majority with 36.32% (November 2021 Hardware Survey data).
If what we want is to release ourselves from Meta's shackles, I think the only way to do it is to root the Quest 2, and start to develop custom system software. While the former is a hard endeavour, the latter is an even harder one. You would need to: – Reverse engineer the Qualcomm Snapdragon XR2, an SoC which does not have public documentation, and I don't want to talk to Qualcomm to find out if I need an NDA or not. – Write your own SLAM system to counteract Quest Insight – God, the hand tracking data (it's just a neural network, for sure, but oof) – Possibly need to reverse engineer VrApi, that might change as Meta wants things to use OpenXR, but I can't find reliable sources for that one. – Oh god how do we get APKs from the Oculus Store to run on the headset – And a lot more that I don't know of!
There still should be the ability to root so that those reverse engineering efforts can begin. The whole point of the Quest 2 is in the hardware it's giving and some amount of a social platform, but if you jailbreak that hardware, you jailbreak the value of the headset. Enabling freedom while making Meta lose money with the headset (source for the business loss).
Metaverse projects and the point of VR
Right now, there are around 10000000000000 metaverse wannabes, I'll categorize them into 3 areas: – VRChat – Horizon Worlds – The rest (Rec Room, AltspaceVR, etc)
I am of the opinion that VRChat is the only one that will have any kind of foothold in the future because of one singular thing the others don't have: Personal Identity. I have talked about this topic before with many others, but in the other platforms you have a “style picker”-style screen which you have seen in many other games, like The Sims, while on VRC you can have just about any 3D mesh (within the limits, of course). That allows for a much greater array of possibilities compared to the other platforms, and in turn, generally better social interactions. A close friend of mine says that when she's talking to me in Rec Room (when we were trying it out), it felt like talking to a manufactured avatar, but switching back to VRC, she reported it felt like having a conversation with me, Luna, even though I was appearing to her as a completely different being.
I'm not sure if other people would experience this slice of VR differently, and I might have biases on identity exploration due to being transgender and doing such myself, but if someone wants to be a cute anime girl or whatever else they want, they should be encouraged to do so, and being a permutation of a humanoid avatar without legs is not really unconstrained enough to do such experiments with.
VRChat and Geocities
Practically all of the worlds and avatars in VRChat are created by users. The VRChat company provides the client and server infrastructure, and sometimes partnered worlds, for which I don't know the actual creation process of.
You can draw direct parallels from that into how Geocities worked. It was free user content hosting servers, and then someone else came with the web browser, but it was raw, random creativity by other people, of which you had to dig through and find yourself.
Though, Geocities died of unknown reasons. I was too young to have gone overseas in internet space, and the country I'm in didn't really have any sort of Geocities-esque movement, we were diving in by the millions by the time FAANG already became an information behemoth.
One guess I can make, which also applies to many other platforms, is the cost versus revenue math. You are giving people infrastructure for free, and how do you plan to pay for that infrastructure? It isn't even known if YouTube is properly profitable for Google, but AdSense pays for it all. Will something akin to that happen in the VR space?
To take a more positive light, even though I feel a lot of worry in the infrastructure side of things, I don't feel as much in the actual content generation ecosystem. Likely because platforms like Patreon exist, which enables a far easier donation scheme than back in Geocities days. Hell, even Neocities, the spiritual successor to it, is backed up by either donations or a small 5USD/mo plan.
My wanted VR future
Disclaimer: The “My” in that title is on purpose. You might disagree with what I said in here, in any front.
While I don't usually love to think in long-term timelines, I have some wishes here and there.
- VR should be brought to more people, and it's why I can see the bet on standalone VR because it is a great driver for that.
- Metaverse being owned by people, not profit motive. VRChat is not that, as they are a startup and own the entire infrastructure of itself.
- Can federation solve this? I don't know. I feel disillusioned by it nowadays, you can probably get the benefits by being centralized, but structured like a worker-owned cooperative.
- I don't think blockchain will save us because of the complexity of the technical hurdles while centralized systems bring development speed and other things, but this could be written in more detail on another blogpost.
- Full-dive VR is not something I directly want in the current state of things, it requires us as a society to think differently about technology, because in virtual, anything is instantly copyable compared to meatspace.
- There's also the whole “write-based BCI” which brings an avalanche of ethical discussions, which, again, can be developed in a separate blogpost.
I think VR is neat. Its neatness should be defended.
Here's a fun music track: Dom & Roland – Imagination