Of Aristophanes and Oculus Rift

Kenny Brechner -- March 31st, 2016

Books provide the best point of reference regarding the advent of virtual reality headsets. That is not a surprising observation coming from a bookseller, of course, but the development team of Oculus Rift, the first virtual reality platform on the market, feels that way too. Ernest Kline’s Ready Player One was required reading for everyone involved.

It is vital, I think, with the advent of new experiential mediums, to consider both their nature and their potential for displacement of current mediums. After all, as Aristophanes well observed, there is only so much room in the bathtub. Those of us who are big readers know that the time for reading must be zealously guarded. Time spent on immersive mediums such as social media or TV watching comes at the expense of reading time. Virtual reality’s core nature is to be a completely immersive experience, and we can assume that its nature will extend into both time and space. It offers a giant opportunity to displace reading as a means of experiencing shared imagination simply by its appetite for consuming time.

Virtual reality and reading have many elements in common. Both are portals for people to engage with created worlds. The central difference is that reading is an active experience. Language is a subtle, quiet lever leaving our minds to do the work of producing images and narrative dimension. Apart from providing a more intense form of gaming Virtual Reality takes the inherent quiescence of received images and adds dimensionality and other sensory experiences to augment the passivity of the experience.

I have a pronounced ‘now more than ever’ feeling about reading books, and with the release of Oculus Rift, and the pending release of Sony’s Play station VR, that feeling is elevated times 10. It doesn’t matter how good or how stimulating Virtual Reality is; nothing is better, or more important to us, than the active exercise of our own minds. If using a GPS causes our directional sense to atrophy, what degree of atrophy does a virtual reality platform provide? The answer to that question lies in the pages of science fiction books.

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