Sci-fi books on AR & VR

3 books I recently took on holiday with me had a focus on augmented and virtual reality. Apart from the times I’d discovered a new writer and spent months reading their back catalogue, this was the first time that I’d taken such a specific focus in my personal reading. 95% of what I read is science fiction anyway so this wasn’t too big a departure for me, but with the increase in examples of mixed reality experiences with products such as HoloLens and the explosion of interest in apps such as Pokémon Go, this was a good amount of time for me to invest in what science fiction authors thought could be enabled through mixed reality experiences.

Halo VR

Also, it made for interesting conversations on the beach and at the bar and I met some really interesting people and had brilliant conversations as a result. Try it next time you go away, pick a topic, get into it, make it part of your conversation.

A note on these reviews:

I’ve written this trying not to spoil any of the plot lines – I’m looking at this from a technology perspective, hope that works for you.

Down & Out in the Magic Kingdom – Cory Doctorow

A tale of the ethics of ‘the like’. In this story, the actual technology wasn’t really addressed in detail (as in how it was worn, what it looked like – in fact if anything, it was absolutely invisible instead, it was only referred to as some sort of internal implant) but the story here was more focussed on what the impact on social interaction and society could be if we were all able to see how much someone was, essentially ‘liked’. It doesn’t mention likes specifically but talk about a social currency called Whuffie.

Whuffie is (as I understood it) seen as a ‘score’. So when you look at someone (everyone) you see their score – think of it as reputation as a currency. Whuffie is visible (via AR) and those who have low Whuffie are essentially invisible in society and possessions can be received and taken based on your score, there’s a great line when one of the characters hits a real low…

“When I got down to the Contemporary’s parking lot, my runabout [car] was gone. A quick check with the handheld [phone type device as he’d lost his biometrics, read the book, it’s worth it] revealed the worst: my Whuffie was low enough that someone had just gotten inside and driven away, realizing that they could make more popular use of it than I could.”

Ok, so not a massively AR/VR technology story, but a great tale of how society could fundamentally change if we were all connected and permanently online, enabled via an AR interface. Pokémon Go is a brilliant example of how this sort of thing isn’t necessarily a stupid proposition.

Ready Player One – Ernest Cline

So this is a story of virtual reality taken to the extreme. When the immersive world becomes the real world that people learn in, work in, play in and spend most of their time – outside of the VR world reality is painted as a disturbing and mostly hopeless society which is falling apart. The storyline does echo a bit of Peter Steiner’s cartoon ‘on the internet, no-one knows you’re a dog’ as players meet in virtual worlds, hiding some of their physical attributes which might in this current day and age hold people back – it’s an interesting comment on society in that respect – SPOLIER ALERT – disapointingly, none of the characters are actually dogs.

Brilliantly, the novel also addresses the technical aspects of VR, with details on how headsets work, descriptions of haptic suits and fully immersive VR rigs. The scary thing about this story is that I could actually see this happening. I heard they’re making a film of this this year, and that makes sense, it could be made into a great film (I hope Blompkampf is directing it) but be assured, it’s a great book and I suggest you read it before the film comes out.

Rainbows End – Vernor Vinge

I’d not read any of Vernor Vinge’s books before so wasn’t sure of what to expect, but I think he’s my new favourite writer. Given his math and science background it’s not surprising that this book expertly considers the technological advances we would need to create, overcome and (more importantly) democratise in order for the future vision that Rainbows End exists within in order for the story to be believable.

It started off not being about the technology and I almost put it down (I’ve never not finished a book but often think about not finishing a book) but instead about how the sort of scenarios which could be enabled in a world where all objects are networked and augmented reality is commonplace. As the story moves on, Vigne introduces his theories around what sort of technology we need to make this future vision a reality.

I loved this book, it considers the ethics of a ubiquitously connected society, how smart clothing can enable gesture recognition, the impact of remote presence at events, how the effects of instantly accessible deep technical information on any object or being can impact human society and much more, all wrapped up in a brilliant story. Read it.

Coming next…

I’m currently re-reading William Gibson’s Spook County, as part of its storyline covers the notion of ‘locative art’ where you have to be in a specific place to view 3D ‘art’ or experiences, one of the more perverse examples being to visit the scene of River Phoenix’s death and be able to explore the scene with a dead Phoenix lying on the pavement outside the Viper Rooms. Whilst that’s a disturbing concept, I like the artistic endeavour and it resonates strongly with the whole Pokémon Go craze.

Oh, and if you think this stuff is actually science fiction…

There’s a tonne of manufacturers trying to build portable kit that’ll accelerate these sort of experiences into our lives both in terms of VR, AR and MR. These are real and you can buy them now.

It’s not a band wagon. It’s the future.