This post is part of CSI’s Thoughtful Optimism and Science Fiction project. To learn more about the project, visit http://csi.asu.edu/category/optimism/.
Near-future science fiction is notorious for its inaccurate predictions – from Blade Runner’s Replicants to the Back to the Future hover boards that people sarcastically mention at New Year’s parties. However, Kim Stanley Robinson’s dark political adventure Red Mars (1993) is spot-on with its predictions about virtual reality (VR). In 2026, Robinson’s colonists run weekly simulations of their aerobrake into Martian orbit, simulations that are “so sophisticated there was little visible difference between them and the real thing.”
Compare this to today’s Oculus Rift. The Rift is a set of head-mounted displays that immerse the user in a computer-generated reality. Comments about the latest prototypes have been strikingly similar to Robinson’s descriptions. Video game industry insider Dave Oshry, after testing the most recent Rift prototype, had this to say: “Everything was perfect. The fidelity, the latency, the scale, the presence. It was the first time I truly felt like I was in VR.” The Oculus Rift may still be a bit primitive compared to Red Mars’ image synthesizers, but Oshry’s words are certainly evidence that we are on our way.
It’s important to note that the Rift isn’t the only big VR project currently on the horizon. The Rift is meant for gaming, and even in that field it’s got impressive company. Gaming giant Valve recently conducted a public test of its VR device, and it’s just as impressive as the Rift. A few weeks ago the U.S. Navy unveiled Blueshark, a program aimed at using VR technology like the Rift to remotely control entire ships. Even the medical industry is taking full advantage of the technology, with doctors at Chalmers University of Technology using a simulated arm to treat patients with phantom limb pain.
The VR you see in Red Mars is meant for training purposes, but it’s becoming clear that VR will be used for much more than that. Robinson got the technology right, and its potential is far beyond what is seen in Red Mars. By 2026 we may not have the Martian colony Robinson envisioned, but we’ll almost certainly have the VR and some incredible uses for it. So while Red Mars sometimes takes a depressing stance on the human consequences of future technologies, there are also reasons for optimism.