I’ve been excited about virtual reality for a while now and today I finally get to do a whole show on it! Rob Morgan explains what VR and augmented reality are, how the technology impacts writers and storytelling as well as discussing what the future might hold for gaming, education, retail and VR socializing.
** Sorry for the delay in posting this! I was cycling through Croatia last week and forgot to schedule!! **
In the intro I talk about finishing my draft of Deviance and also my next non-fiction book, How to make a living with your writing. It’s been a big word count month so I talk about how my writing routine has changed. I mention the brilliant Masterclass course with James Patterson – I have so many pages of notes from it. Plus, I talk about some exciting new audiobook developments.
This podcast episode is sponsored by 99 Designs, where you can get all kinds of designs for your author business including book covers, merchandising, branding and business cards, illustrations and artwork and much more. You can get a Powerpack upgrade which gives your project more chance of getting noticed by going to: 99Designs.com/joanna
Rob Morgan is a game writer, narrative designer and voice director. Rob is currently developing stories and writing scripts for upcoming virtual reality titles across multiple genres.
- How Rob moved into VR and gaming. Rob did literature at University and then moved to a digital agency. He did some work with a Sony augmented book and game – the Wonderbook, which led into a project with JK Rowling – Wonderbook: Book of Spells. Then Rob moved into working on virtual reality projects.
- Defining augmented reality vs virtual reality. VR basically obscures your normal vision and replaces it with a helmet/pair of screens; replacing your normal vision with pixels. It has sound and haptics (touch) and smell are under development. Augmented reality is another layer on the existing world – superimposing onto your vision e.g. directions on top of the road that aren’t necessarily seen by other people. This is already here with how we use smartphone apps like maps, Google Glass and more. For authors, doing a map of your fictional characters around a neighbourhood or have monsters pop out as you walk around. There are all sorts of possibilities.
- Virtual reality is on the cusp of being mainstream commercial. The first VR headsets will be for sale in 2015. Some of the options: Oculus Rift (now owned by Facebook), Samsung Gear, Sony Morpheus, Steam VR, Microsoft Hololens … and cheaper smartphone options like Google Cardboard.
- The aim of VR is getting to something like the Holodeck on Star Trek. They didn’t use it for just gaming, they resurrected stories and experienced more nuanced entertainment there. All types of content creators are excited about VR. They want to tell a compelling story that people want to be immersed in.
- The technology is growing fast in the games industry, but is also about doing more social entertainment for families, as well as education, retail and social networks. The applications will be used in multiple industries. Examples in education (medics); doctor’s surgeries, example in retail from Westfield malls; social meetups in VR world High Fidelity.
- On bookstores and VR applications for authors and publishers. Telepresence through VR for book launches would be fantastic. Retailing in a VR bookstore may not be the optimal use of the technology. [See my article here on what I think about VR for publishing] It’s not worth developing these VR retail spaces as publishers – it’s more interesting to think about VR experiences for people, ways to immerse readers in stories.
And remember, whatever the technology, storytellers and content creators will always be needed!
Transcript of interview with Rob Morgan
Joanna Penn: Hi everyone, I’m Joanna Penn from thecreativepenn.com. And today I’m here with Rob Morgan. Welcome Rob.
Rob Morgan: Hello. How are you?
Joanna Penn: I’m great. It is very exciting to have up on the show. Just a little introduction. Rob is a game writer, a narrative designer and voice director. He is currently developing stories and scripts for up-coming virtual reality titles across multiple genres. And today we’re talking about virtual reality. And regular listeners will know how excited I am about this. So Rob, you are highly anticipated on the show.
Rob Morgan: Well, I hope I don’t disappoint.
Joanna Penn: Well, you can’t because we’ve never talked about this before.
Tell us just a little bit more about you and your writing background and how you got into gaming and VR.
Rob Morgan: So I studied literature at university, and didn’t really fully expect to get into games, partly because I didn’t really know how that was possible. There was such a thing as a person who wrote the stories for games at the time, but you could count the number of people who were professionals at that job on the fingers of one hand. Now, there are a fair few more, but still, it’s quite a small niche within the industry. But of course the industry expanded hugely in the last few years.
After I left uni, essentially I joined a little digital agency, where we hustled for digital work. And I ended up doing all sorts of things: designing websites, running social networks. I was a social network consultant back when it seemed every company had to have one of those, and then we ended up doing some work for Sony PlayStation when they were developing an augmented reality book title.
So this was a game which came with a physical cardboard book in the box and you interacted with the game by using the book. The book had effectively bar code markers on, which were detected by the PlayStation’s camera. And so by turning the pages, the camera could see that you had turned the page. It could see were the book was, and it could animate effects onto the book. It was a project called Wonderbook. And I joined Sony as an editor, and ended up writing material for use in the early prototypes.
And then the format ended up attracting the attention of JK Rowling. And so we developed title called Wonderbook, Book of Cells where she, JK Rowling wrote a load of original Harry Potter material, all new stuff. And my job was to adapt that material in and write additional material to go into this game, which made the player the center of the experience, and they were a wizard of Hogwarts. And they were learning how to cast spells by using their controller as their magic wand and interacting with their spell book, and it was a great piece of technology.
So I ended up going from editor to the game writer on that game, and then we did a squeal called Game of Potions which was similar but with lots of nice physical objects which would appear on the book that you could kind of pour big, kind of, cauldrons and mix chemicals, and it was loads of fun.
Then I ended up working on some virtual reality. PlayStation had been secretly working on a virtual reality headset. I wrote the dialogue for the demo, which announced its existence to the world. And from that point on, I’ve been in virtual reality primarily in the past year writing projects for different hardware headsets, i.e. for different companies but basically drawing on the fact that I’ve done some original story telling work in virtual reality to then develop it for other headsets and other companies.
Because the point being that relatively few people have done original story telling, or really any kind of original work for virtual reality. Most things that you see currently are, kind of, what we call ports i.e. they’re games which have been released on a previous system, and are just being adapted over into virtual reality as a proof of concept. But now we’re in a period where people are developing brand-new games. The fact that I had VR experience, I’ve been able to translate that into getting more VR experience, essentially.
But people ask me a lot when I do talks, “How do you become a game writer?” Unfortunately, the answer is always as complicated as the one I’ve just given because there’s no established career ladder, really. There aren’t any courses that you can do yet specific to being a game writer. So people who are game writers now have tended to kind of fall into it or muddle into it. It’s improved really now. I’m trying to help professionalize the process, but it’s still kind of – but I feel very lucky to have the opportunity to be a game writer in the first place, because I always, always loved games. I just didn’t know that virtual existed.
Joanna Penn: You mentioned augmented reality there as something with a physical book, and then also virtual reality. I wonder if you could just explain to people who may not have seen either of these things.
And certainly I talked about VR at a speaking thing I was at, and someone put their hand up and asked, “What is VR?” So we’re still not at the point where people understand what these terms even mean.
Could you just kind of define them, and give examples?
Rob Morgan: So virtual reality is the easier one to explain. Something is virtual reality if it is designed to completely obscure your normal vision and replace it with something new and virtual. So the way that it’s normally seen is in the form of some kind of space helmet in the way that we’ve been seeing in fantasy since the ‘80s.
But virtual reality largely takes the form of a screen or a pair of screens, which is the real breakthrough that has been developed in the last few years, which go over the eyes, which essentially occlude or block out whatever you would normally be seeing and replace it with pixels. And you usually have sound as well in order to provide as immersive an experience as possible and as a partner to lots of the virtual reality development that’s happening now.
People are working on other senses. There are people who work on hacktics, which is a way of inducing the sensation of touch, so that’s kind of a partner technology. The core of virtual reality is always the idea that if you put a screen close enough to our eyes, you can make us see something that’s completely new and replaces the existing world with a virtual one.
The difference between that and augmented reality is that augmented reality is quite a slippery term, but generally what it means is that it’s like a layer. Augmented reality means that you are experiencing reality. You might be seeing normally or hearing normally the way your environment around you actually is, but your experience of it is augmented in some way by digital technology.
So the way that this is typically imagined is through something like Google Glass, which superimposes effectively a screen onto your vision, but transparently, so that you could be walking down the street, and instead of seeing street signs, or instead of seeing adverts, which are physically painted onto a wall, instead, a piece of technology digitally projects it in a way that you can see, but someone else might be seeing something different. So for me, augmented reality could mean just as easily something that exists only in audio, for example. Or even just something on apps, smartphones handset.
When you want to talk about the idea of augmenting our reality or experiencing reality in a slightly different way to the other people around you. If you’ve ever walked down the street while following a map on your smartphone, you’re already kind of augmenting your experience of real world with additional digital information. The reason people are excited about augmented reality is that theoretically, further down the technological line in a few years’ time, it may be ubiquitous part of our experience of reality. That’s how people kind of imagine it.
So in the same way that smartphones have become a ubiquitous part of the way we experience reality, people can imagine a future in which a merging of digital and reality can take place where the downside might be that it becomes difficult to tell what is and what isn’t real when you walk down the street because the adverts that you see on the side of a car or on a building might be digitally projected via your system, or it might be really physically there.
But the great advantage of that is you can create merging digital and fictional…merging real and fictional elements. And that’s what excites me as a writer, the idea that you might be able to create an adventure in your own neighborhood where there really are monsters around the corner to befriend. Or you can make a scavenger hunt without actually having to have the physical objects in the place.
If you’re familiar with geocaching, that’s a similar idea. It’s the idea of a scavenger hunt which doesn’t have all the overhead of actually having to bury something, because you just find it in the place is the caller of the experience. In the same way you can imagine augmented reality allowing us to have really in-depth compelling theatrical experiences.
Because the first writing I ever did was in theater, that’s why it’s exciting to me. You can have actors performing actions in what appears to be the real world, but the actors don’t have to be there. You don’t have to pay an actor to stand on a street corner and do his bit every half hour, because instead, people can just come along and see something that you digitally left as a digital fingerprint on that area of the world. That’s what’s exciting about augmented reality to me.
However, the key thing to bear in mind is people are talking about virtual reality a lot now because we’re on the cusp of it being commercially viable. People are soon going to be able to buy headsets which really answer the promise of virtual reality. Augmented reality is a few more years further down the line, because it involves smaller pixels essentially. If you want to try to trick the eye into seeing something that it can’t distinguish from the real world around it, that requires a level of technical sophistication that we’re not quite at yet. So virtual reality is where it’s at right now.
Joanna Penn: Which is fascinating. And, of course, you’re wearing glasses. I wear contact lenses. I see that you could be wearing Google Glass with the tiny little thing on. I’m interested in when we’re gonna get the contact lenses, because I’m super into doing that, because I already stick my finger in my eye every day.
But maybe you can give us an overview of the tech. Because I’ve mentioned Oculus Rift on the show.
Where are we? I mean, you said we’re about to hit the mainstream, but what does it look like right now?
Rob Morgan: So essentially what happened a couple of years ago was that Oculus was a small company. And it’s one of those typical Silicon Valley dream start-ups, where it’s founded by one incredible genius called Palmer Luckey. He’s kind of the biggest celebrity in VR.
Essentially, Oculus came out of nowhere with a prototype which suddenly got people talking about virtual reality in a way they hadn’t in 10 years, because there were a few aborted experiments in commercial virtual reality a few years ago, in the ’90s in terms of there were a few people who might have bought it, but ultimately, these were things that in no way were able to trick you into feeling the experience was real. The pixels were too large. When you put the thing on, it was too clunky. The virtual worlds that we were able to create a decade ago were just not sophisticated enough.
Suddenly Oculus represented the fact that a lot of technology had all come into maturity at roughly the same time: lens technology, digital screen technology, and miniaturization which allowed these helmets to be much more comfortable than they ever would have been before. And processing power to create virtual worlds that are sort of populated by polygons, which are covered in textures which are sophisticated enough, but they look reasonably real, to the point where people were suddenly talking about Oculus as this thing that yes, virtual reality is a thing now. It’s real. It really can make you forget that you’re not there.
So Oculus was kind of the big player, and everybody was waiting for whatever they did next. And then there were kind of a rash of announcements of other companies that were according on similar things. So there are a number of smaller companies who are working on various virtual reality projects. The biggest one post-Oculus was last year when Sony announced that they were producing something called the Morpheus.
To be honest, all of these things look very similar. It’s another helmet which holds a screen in front of your eyes. This was significant because Oculus had kind of come out of the DIY personal computer community and out of that aesthetic, and people were really waiting to get very hardcore games, by which I mean very in-depth simulations. People were looking forward to the kind of games on Oculus which would let them play very, very in-depth flight simulators, for example, or very in-depth combat simulators.
The fact that Sony then produced something which was meant to be a much, much more domestic product, a much more commercial product, it’s gonna come in at a lower price-point. The Morpheos is supposed to be the technology that will introduce virtual reality to the living room, and to the family, and to a family gaming, and a family entertaining experience. By contrast, the Oculus at the time everybody assumed it was going to be kind of a gamer in his or her bedroom kind of experience. That all changed when Facebook acquired Oculus.
And still we don’t know quite what that means, but what it probably means is that – that happened last year. What it means it that two major players at the time were probably both going to be branching out and making virtual reality something which wasn’t just about throwing grenades and shooting guns at people. The most obvious implementation of the technology that occurred to most game players. Because you see through somebody’s eyes. There are lots of games that are already like that, and most of those games involve shooting people.
Instead, it became clear that the companies involved were very excited about more in-depth stories, about doing things which are more entertainment based, more social.
It is the fact that Sony were involved meant that they weren’t just going to be relying on hard-core game experiences. The fact that Facebook were involved meant they were going to try to turn virtual reality into something that is socializable, and something that is more entertaining for more people than just a kind of niche thing experience.
Finally, the third big development was that Valve, through their Steam format got involved to produce a headset, which is being made by HTC, the mobile phone company. And this is significant because Valve were once just a production company. And then they basically became sort of the Amazon of video games by developing a digital distribution format which is a program that you install on your PC, and you buy your video games through it. It’s called Steam.
You buy your video game and you download it, and Steam manages your whole experience, and theoretically, it does all the troubleshooting for you. It does all the match making, if you want to play it online, it’ll find your friends for you. And it’s been an enormously successful format, and it’s made Valve a lot of money. And it’s clearly them deciding to become big business players in games, rather than just creative game developers is what led them to the idea of developing their own virtual reality headset.
And they’re doing interesting things with their technology. They’re creating a system of small beacons they call lighthouses, which you sit around your living room, and which essentially can track you as you move around, which allows you to create not only a virtual simulation of a room that you’re seeing in front of you, but it also allows the system to keep track of where you’re standing in that virtual room, and kind of shift it around you, and intelligently shift the terrain, so that you don’t barge into your own coffee table.
Joanna Penn: That’s the Holodeck!
Rob Morgan: Yes. Essentially. That’s the dream. The thing is, with all of these virtual realities, everyone is striving to get towards the Holodeck, which is what’s exciting for me because we didn’t see a lot of people playing hard correspond games or gaming simulations in the Holodeck, partly because Star Trek didn’t really want to show you a load of people playing games.
What they used the Holodeck for was for stories. They recreated the greats of literature. They played around with interesting characters, and they had romances, and they had soap operas. And that’s what’s exciting to me, because right now – initially, it seemed as though virtual reality might still be the preserve of gamers who wanted to have very specific kinds of experiences: combat experiences, simulation experiences. And now the technology is good enough.
The companies that are interested in VR are branching out. Everybody’s excited about VR. Film production companies, everybody wants a piece of it. And to me that says that there are really, really exciting projects coming up, which are more about the fiction than about the sensation of shooting someone or being there. They’re more about telling you a really compelling story, which you’re truly immersed in. And that’s what’s really exciting about VR and why I think we’re going to see some really, really cool projects over the next few years.
Joanna Penn: Right, well we’ll come back to writing for that, but I want to ask you also about the education space, which I read that Facebook were interested in. The fact that education is being reinvented. People won’t go to universities. They already do courses online, but in VR, you can actually be there with a class. So education will be one, and then the social side.
I wonder about high fidelity and that kind of social experience online. What do you think about the education and the social space and not just the gaming?
Rob Morgan: I think there’s a lot of potential. I think that socially speaking, there are already implementations and apps effectively, which allow you to watch a movie in a cool space. So one of the things that I really like about VR, particular mobile VR – so there’s another format which I haven’t talked about, because it’s sort of, it’s bubbling around in the background. It’s called the Gear VR, and it’s made by Samsung.
You use a phone with it, so it’s very, very portable. So it’s an empty box that you strap to the front of your face. And you put your phone in, and the phone screen is what generates all of the graphics, so the thing has some lenses in, but essentially inside of this box, your phone screen splits itself in half and projects things straight into your eyes.
So it’s not as graphically powerful, but it is very portable. What’s exciting about that for me is that if you have that on a plane you can watch a movie in IMAX effectively, in IMAX scale rather than on the tiny screen in the head-back in front of you. Because you put this mask on, and suddenly, it can put you in an entirely new environment.
Now it gets even more exciting when you think imagine if you could socially sit in this virtual cinema and look next to you, and see somebody that you wanted to see the movie with, even if they’re on the other side of the world. And they’re in virtual avatar form, and you can throw virtual popcorn at each other, and make fun of the movie, and you can have a social experience. That’s really cool.
And I think you could easily imagine something similar happening with lectures, with anything where presence is important.
Now the open question is, there are lots and lots of occasions where presence is very important, but when it comes to education, that’s not the whole story really, because we can definitely imagine that we might feel happier watching a movie with friends if we can make our friends virtually present. Then great, that’s a bonus, and there’s definite use case for that. We can all see how that would you useful. When it comes to lectures, it may be that a more effective educational experience would not be one which focuses on virtually putting you there and instead it focuses on clearly communicating the information at clearly as possible.
So I think we need to be a little bit cautious in thinking that the answer to what does a virtual reality university look like is to recreate the buildings, and the chairs, and the rooms as clearly as possible, because when you get right down to it, that is not part of the core functionality of a university. The point of a university is the information that floats around within it. It’s not about creating the premises.
So at that level, I think virtual reality can, for example, show us a 3D model of the universe in a way that you can interact with, which would be incredibly helpful to students. Or it could give you a physical model floating in front of you, and an apparently physical model of a human heart, or the entire respiratory system, whatever it is.
Educationally speaking, the tools that virtual reality allow you to teach with could be really, really amazing.
And in particular for kids, because if you imagine any experience which is going to put them in some virtual trenches of the First World War or it’s going to put people onto a ship sailing to the New World, in terms of education simulation, it’s as broad as you can imagine, absolutely.
But I think the key thing to keep in mind is that it’s got to be about the information or about the experience, rather than the experience that’s actually important to the learning experience or the social experience. So you’re not particularly bothered if you’re in that virtual cinema with all of your mates. You’re not particularly bothered what color the chairs are or how comfortable they are, because you’re not really sitting in that chair, whereas in terms of delivering great content, that is the kind of thing that teachers are already doing, and really VR just gives them a bunch of new tools to do it.
Joanna Penn: Now it’s interesting, and I know when I heard you speak at the London Book Fair, you talked about that you didn’t like the idea of the virtual bookstore because of exactly this reason, whereas I kind of come from a different angle, which is firstly most people don’t and you said, why recreate something that’s already kind of perfect when you can go into a physical bookstore and my kind of thinking is most people don’t live near a physical bookstore.
Rob Morgan: Yes.
Joanna Penn: So in terms of online shopping, and also things like my vegetable shopping right now is all done on a cell phone and I would love to do my vegetable shopping in VR, where I could find things that were more serendipitous in a browsing shopping experience that wasn’t on my phone.
Where do you see the shopping experience going with virtual reality? And in particular in terms of books, where would do you see that?
And books as the content of books, not the physical necessarily object?
Rob Morgan: With VR, what it can do is give you the experience of being there. And that can be absolutely amazing. In terms of, if you’ve never been to a perfect book shop, I suppose we’re quite spoiled, aren’t we?
Joanna Penn: We’re in London.
Rob Morgan: I know what the perfect book shop looks like definitely. And there would definitely be a lot of value in someone recreating that as a virtual experience. I know, for example, if you want to talk about a signing or a book launch, that’s something where telepresence through VR could be incredibly helpful because everybody could have a front row seat to a signing or a reading in the same way that everybody could have a front row seat to the opera via virtual reality.
Now in terms of actual retail, it’s not that I don’t see the appeal of having this exhibit of the perfect book shop. What I wonder is whether the shopping interface of virtual reality would be better and more useful than a 2-dimensional interface of the kind we’re familiar with on Amazon.
Now it’s possible that this is a lack of imagination on my part, because I’m sure that someone is going to come up with an incredibly badass… You know, you swipe things around, and you have virtual shelves in front of you and you can swipe through all of your vegetables. I’m sure that that is probably coming, it’s just that… And similarly with a book shop, you can swipe through things in order to see the range of books available. And like you say, have an element of serendipity in the shopping.
Amazon and other online book retailers, like any other book retailer, they try to sort of simulate serendipity by showing you things that are tangentially connected to what you’re buying.
So there is definitely a fun and very intuitive shopping experience somewhere in there to do with having a spatial metaphor, and going back to spatial metaphors of shopping where you might scroll through shelves rather than just clicking on links. But I don’t think that’s the same thing as recreating a book shop with a high level of fidelity, because you’re talking about something which has a layer of abstraction. So the shelves aren’t really shelves. The shelves are digital thinks that you can scroll through. So although I think there’s definitely… There’s a whole matrix of possibilities there.
What I don’t want to see is particularly book companies spending a lot of money on developing a really, really rich and realistic virtual book shop and kind of thinking that that is the right use of virtual reality for them because I don’t think that’s the answer.
And I don’t want to see publishers or retailers spending money that they could be spending on books and authors instead spending it on a very, very flashy shop front that isn’t actually that usable, because if you think about it, a virtual simulation of reality is going to have all of reality’s problems plus its own problems, and the thing about reality is it doesn’t have a particularly good interface.
So in terms of finding the book that you want in a book shop, the perfect book shop is like a rickety run-down book shop where everything is all higgledy-piggledy. It’s not perfectly mathematically lined up, everything is in order book shop. Even if it was a perfectly mathematically lined-up, everything is in order book shop, depending on the level of reality in your simulation, are you going to have to physically bend down to look at the books on the lower shelves? And isn’t that rather inconvenient?
When you compare it to buying books on Amazon, which removes as many barriers between yourself and purchasing as possible, they’re very good at what they do, and they’ve designed a very effective shop front.
I think that there absolutely is going to be a revolution in the way that we sell things once people are very, very accustomed to the idea of wearing a virtual reality helmet.
It’s just that right now, I think we’re several years away from the point where anybody is going to put a special hat on to sit in their living room to go and buy their books when they can do it on their phone. So though I would love to see a virtual museum of the book shop where you can visit the virtual book shop, I’m not convinced that that is a particularly useful way of selling books.
Joanna Penn: No, I agree. When I think about these things, I think about having book launches in the Paris Catacombs and –
Rob Morgan: Absolutely. And I totally think that could happen with your purchase of the book or with your purchase of a ticket you get a free book. You get the ticket when you buy the book and you can be virtually present at the book launch and see the person-
Joanna Penn: Or you and I would do a podcast interview somewhere really cool. It wouldn’t just be on Skype type of thing. So I see just like a different way of doing all the stuff we already do.
But just talk about what you see the role of writers. So we’ve got fiction and non-fiction authors who are listing to the show.
Rob Morgan: Because I work in games, those are going to be some of the first things we see coming out for virtual reality, which are virtual reality specific. So there are a bunch of things which are essentially existing content which you can experience through virtual reality. So you can watch a film on a larger screen than you could physically fit into your flat, if you sit in virtual reality you can watch the film.
Similarly, I’m really excited about a book reading virtual reality format where for example, you can put your virtual reality helmet on and it will display the page of the book for you and just float it above you or float it in front of you at the perfect reading distance, so you don’t have to physically hold the object.
You can literally lay back and bask in the reading experience, and it might even be able to track your eye movement and shift the page up as you reach the bottom of the page.
I think there’s a perfect kind of truly immersive reading experience format that might be coming along. I would love the ability to sit on a beach wearing what’s effectively a big pair of sunglasses, and then the book just kind of scrolls itself up at the perfect speed in front of me. So there’s a lot of existing content that is being written or being developed in the way it always has been, which we’ll see kind of almost a new kind of existence on virtual reality.
In terms of writing things or creating things specifically for virtual reality, I think it’s going to be a few years before we’re out of the earlier doctor phase, experimental phase. Right now, I think we’re still working out the rules of having a good experience with virtual reality. I talk about these rules a lot, and I talk to game companies about how to optimize their virtual reality experiences.
So a writer now who is thinking about getting into virtual reality, I would want to talk to them about really often very simple things like bearing in mind that your user is going to spend some time getting comfortable within the thing. So don’t launch right into your experience, give them a bit of warm up time.
In terms of giving people tips on what to look for, or how to go about getting virtual reality projects off the ground, well I don’t know how helpful my advice can be.
But I certainly would say that it’s worth bearing in mind that just being on virtual reality is not in itself the same thing as being relevant. So you can’t just buy relevancy by developing something for virtual reality. Virtual reality is really going to be a perfect fit for lots of projects, but if it doesn’t make sense for your experience to be delivered to a user that way, being straight into the eyeballs, then it’s not necessarily the right thing to develop and spend your money on.
Now in terms of getting excited about it, I honestly think non-fiction implementations are going to be the really exciting things what we see first outside of the gaming sphere.
So the idea of having a model solar system that you can simply hand to a student, they can explore to their heart’s content, and they can physically, through an interface that feels physical, they interact with this model solar system, and they can simulate all this, so they can tweak things and watch things spin out of control. That’s incredibly exciting. That’s the experience that I’ve been waiting for since I had Encarta CD-ROM as a kid.
And actually I think that anyone who has access to high-quality digital models of anything, particularly anything anatomical, anything scientific, anything biological, if they can put those into a virtual reality space, that is inherently interesting, and it has incredible educational potential. I think that’s the kind of relatively small outlay project that we’re gonna see a lot of early on. And that’s what we’re going to see as the big kind of benefit and the value adds that publishers and writers can bring right now is that they can expertly develop that kind of really, really exciting model, or that kind of really exciting interactive, explainable experience.
In terms of fiction, it’s a bit more complicated because it’s been dominated by video games for a little while. Not perhaps as long as the video game industry thinks it is. And, of course, there’s a whole separate conversation to be had about writers who are fiction, print writers right now, if they wanted to get into the games industry, that’s a complicated and a rather mysterious process. And like I said, I don’t necessarily have particularly helpful advice to give on that front.
I think if you’re a writer, and you’re excited about VR, then what I’d say is definitely think about it and try out the headset, and see if you’re excited about it for the right reasons.
It’s totally exciting in terms of we might eventually be able to have this incredibly in-depth experience. It’s just that we’re not there yet. So try out the headset and we’re not quite at the stage where you can simply go to a company and pitch them an idea for your virtual reality experience. But if you’re a publisher, then there are definitely people who would be excited to put out your educational experiences into.
Joanna Penn: And I’ve been doing this podcast since 2009, and things change awfully quickly, don’t they?
So just to put you on the spot given that I expect to be doing this for another six years, when do you reckon we’re going to have something like the Holodeck?
And when are we going to have cool contact lenses where I can have augmented reality? If you were to pick years, are we talking two years? Are we talking five years? To me, it seems like more of a two-year to four-year kind of window right now.
Rob Morgan: The contact lenses one is actually easier. There are people working literally on that technology. And I think we’ll see something which is not completely implausible or uncomfortable and can help you find the directions to the delicatessen while you’re walking down the street, because you’re wearing digital lenses. I don’t know, eight to 10 years. That’s not the same thing as it being a ubiquitous technology, but I think there will be some people with those and you won’t be able to tell who they are.
Joanna Penn: That would be me.
Rob Morgan: Sure. The Holodeck, like a true Holodeck, bear in mind that they don’t wear a piece of technology when they go in, there’s nothing on their eyes, and kind of the Holodeck simulates the same thing for different people. i.e., it’s not like it’s shooting light into your eyes specifically, it’s not targeting you. It’s creating an object, or so it seems. A virtual object that you can swipe your hand through. But that’s essentially trying to make light behave in a way that light doesn’t really do. And we can create floating holograms in space, but the level of sophistication there I’m less familiar with because that’s really getting into holograms which I know very little about to be honest.
But honestly I reckon Holodeck we’re a lot further away from. Actually strange as it seems, the idea of a screen that’s small enough it can sit on your eye is not that unfeasible right now, whereas an entire room which looks completely indistinguishable… You can virtually make appear indistinguishable from another room without the use of wearing anything in terms of technology or having anything on their eyes, anything on their ears, nothing. That is a fair bit further away. However, we have no idea what might come along down the line, so I’d optimistically put 2035 as the number on there.
Within our lifetimes, I would not be surprised.
Joanna Penn: When I look at my great auntie who recently died at 96, I said to my husband, I reckon our old age is going to be a lot cooler.
Rob Morgan: Yeah, absolutely, and we’ll have seen such an unbelievable amount of change, as I’m sure your auntie did as well, but just an astonishing amount of change. To be honest, trying to put a number on when any of these things might develop is a thankless process, because technologies advancement will always make a fool of all of us anyway, so…
Joanna Penn: But what doesn’t change – what makes me so hopeful about the people listening, and you and I…
If you are a creator, and you create stories or information, whatever the format is, whatever the technology is, you will always be needed and wanted.
Rob Morgan: Absolutely. Content is absolutely key and probably more so in virtual reality than anything because what I say to games companies is virtual reality, the idea of putting somebody in a virtual experience, what gamers who are interested in VR talk about it a lot is presence. And this is the idea that you feel like you’re really there, and this is a whole unbelievable complex of different factors that our brains do automatically all the time, and we’re really sitting in a place. We have all sorts of little checks that we do just normally, whereas if you put somebody in a virtual environment, immediately a lot of those things, no matter how real it looks, there are a lot of those things still telling us that it’s not real, which means that presence and immersion are actually kind of fragile.
The idea of putting someone in a virtual environment, and wanting them to forget about the outside world, and be completely immersed in the virtual world means you really can’t slip up even once, because the minute you see or feel something, you might not even be able to put a name to it. It’s not like watching a cat stuck halfway through a wall or something. It could be as simple as talking to somebody and they don’t make the kind of eye contact that you’d expect them to make when you’re talking to them, because they’re a virtual construct.
It’s unbelievably complex and extensive to make a virtual environment which can trick the human eye and ear because we’re incredibly sophisticated at spotting fakeness. The human brain is really, really good at that. But that’s why for me content is so important because it’s so almost impractically expensive to create a virtual world which is so realistic that you forget that you’re not really there.
The far better answer is just to tell a sufficiently good story, that the user is on your side, and they don’t want to remember that they’re not there.
Suspension of belief.
They want to be there, so the fact that it’s not perfectly, perfectly real doesn’t bother them quite so much. Because they’re immersed. You can get an emotional immersion which is much cheaper to do than a virtual visual immersion because that requires unbelievable amounts of mathematics and ongoing academic studies into exactly how the human eye behaves and exactly how our eye contact behaves while we’re making conversation with people.
There are plenty of things we don’t understand, but we can spot when they’re not real, whereas if you just tell a really good story, everybody can get into that and can forget that they’re not there.
The thing is, people who work in print have been immersing people in fictional worlds for thousands of years using nothing more sophisticated than ink on the page.
The fact that we now have all this technology which can create very plausible images right in front of the eye and trick us into thinking that we’re there doesn’t mean that we don’t need to tell a story once we’ve got the player in that place. Actually, the story is even more important. Because if they don’t have anything to emotionally engage with in the new virtual environment, they’re going to lose interest in it really, really quickly, because any virtual environment is always going to be slightly less interesting than reality.
But stories are more interesting than reality. And that’s why they’re so powerful and why they’re going to continue to be of enormous value even in virtual reality, particularly, I think, in virtual reality.
Joanna Penn: Fantastic, well this has been so interesting Rob. Tell people where they can find you online.
Rob Morgan: So I have a website at gamestory.co.uk. I’m on twitter @aboutthislater. And I’m a jobbing writer, so I’m always doing something usually in games or now in interactive experiences, augmented reality hopefully, there are some projects coming up. And I tweet about virtual reality quite a lot and the way that that technology is developing. Unfortunately, because of the games industry, most of the things which I’m currently working on are things which I can’t talk about. So I tend to announce, “Oh, this game that I finished working on six months ago is now coming out and now I can talk about it.” Which is just the way games work. So yeah, that’s where you can find me or I do a lot of talks, so I’m bound to come up sooner or later.
Joanna Penn: Brilliant, well thanks so much for your time Rob.
Rob Morgan: Not at all. Thank you, it’s been fun.