Holodeck: Holy Grail or Hollow Promise? Part 2

Warren Spector continues his column on why a Holodeck probably won't work for the games industry

The following is a continuation of Warren Spector's fascinating post from yesterday. Please go read Part One before you continue here. Enjoy!

Pitfall #3: All costs and problems aside, does anyone even want the full-on holodeck experience?

Just to get it out of the way, I'd argue that VR and AR at least have the potential to enhance the power of immersive experiences. The holodeck promises to add little to that and will, I fear, end up being something no one really wants.

People think they want open-ended simulations of entire worlds - I was just at San Diego Comic Con a few weeks ago and I guarantee you there were lots of people in the gold, blue and red tunics of Starfleet Command who really want a Holodeck to call their own! (True confession? I had a near-biblical internal battle to resist buying one of those gold tunics myself...)

The big problem with Hdeck development is... well, there are a ton of hardware and software issues. But I'd argue that the real problems are conceptual - solvable, maybe, but requiring a radical rethinking of what an Hdeck can and should be.

""Being" is great, but without something to do, it's kind of an empty existence. That's true in the real world and equally true in a virtual one"

Specifically, read up on the Holodeck and, with very few exceptions (notably Janet Murray, mentioned earlier) the dreamers dreaming about it seem to think it's enough just to be in a virtual world. There's a belief that convincing geometry plus deep simulation plus AI plus rules equal a satisfying experience:

"Look, I'm at Gettysburg!"

"I'm riding a horse on the Scottish moors!"

"I'm living on Tatooine!"

Or (you know it's going to happen...) "I'm in a porn flick!"

All of those experiences sound fascinating - seductively so. And seeing the Holodeck on Star Trek, with all the boring and technically challenging aspects edited out in classic Hollywood fashion, makes full immersion look great. But in actuality, I suspect most people would find open-endedness to have, at best, limited appeal.

And, not to be too facetious, let's not forget that any time the Holodeck appears in a Star Trek episode you can pretty well be assured it's going to malfunction. It's a wonder anyone wants to take such a risk in the real world. But many do want to leave our world for a more adventurous or emotionally compelling experience. Let's think about the nature of the Holodeck experience, then.

Pitfall #4: What do you do in a Holodeck?

"Being" is great, but without something to do, it's kind of an empty existence. That's true in the real world and equally true in a virtual one.

And there's perhaps the biggest conceptual problem with Hdeck thinking these days. There's an assumption that solving the hardware and UI problems is all we need to do. There seems to be this idea that simulation alone is enough. Create a compelling virtual world... add virtual people, animals and things... add players.

Bing, bang, boom! People will flock to the machine that lets them be a lion for a while or visit the pyramids in the comfort of their own home.

Clearly, in my mind at least, it isn't enough to go somewhere or be something. You have to do something. And VR can make the doing cool. I get that. But Holodeck? Maybe for training purposes. Maybe for visiting a long ago place or meeting people and personalities long gone. But for entertainment? I'm just not sure.

The problem with most of those who view the Holodeck as Holy Grail is that they downplay, deny or, usually, don't even consider the need for a "mediator" between hardware and fleshware. But someone has to create the software that guides the experience.

I can think of very few people thinking about the role of the "designer" responsible for bounding the Hdeck user experience. Too few are thinking about what it takes to channel users in virtual directions that make sense, that are interesting, that aren't just... well... being.

The Holodeck as "grail" gets a lot of press and occupies a lot of mindshare. The Holodeck as experience, as an opportunity simply to be somewhere or be something, that generates a lot of buzz, too. But the Holodeck as medium - as something goal-oriented and challenging and worth spending significant amounts of time with (time that could be spent in other pursuits)? That's not getting much attention at all.

You read about Holodecks in military training exercises... in practice surgeries... in virtual travel. But I'd argue that most, if not all, technological advances become commercially viable and "mainstreamed" when used for entertainment. And that means we need to think about the verbs of play, of storytelling, of action as much as, or more than, we need to think about graphics and controls. Those are critically important and may or may not be solvable. But for solutions to be meaningful, we need to think through the potential of the medium and begin trying to understand the role of the mediators who will make user... no... player experiences meaningful, too.

A fully-simulated world with no goals, no narrative, and no purpose is a lot of work for nothing. Aimless wandering is the enemy of fun. And without a "creator," all you have is aimless wandering. Players must find their own fun, something they're demonstrably not very good at doing. Well, let me soften that statement - most players aren't good at making their own fun.

(And before anyone brings up Minecraft, that's a very different animal, a sandbox game that's all about creation of content. The tools are there specifically to make creation easy. The Holodeck, as usually envisioned, is about exploration and unguided experience.)

Once the novelty of full immersion wears off (and I believe there's only so much "being a tiger" one can take before the thrill is gone), goal-orientation will be critical. The goal might be "save the princess" or "kill everything that moves" (god forbid to both). Or the goals can be "operate on this sick guy" or "terraform this planet." But you need goals to make a fully simulated world worth exploring. You need player constraints. You need something specific to accomplish.

And you need all of those things in a form that can't be as well expressed without all the rigmarole of headsets and treadmills and power gloves. At this time, I can't think of any experience that would be improved by a Holodeck. Not one.

Prove me wrong. Seriously. I hope someone can. Because, you see, I'm not all that psyched about the Holodeck, per se. What I am psyched about, and always have been psyched about, are the immersive possibilities VR and AR offer.

Surprising Revelation #1: I'm a Fan (Believe It Or Not)

As I wrap this up, and before the knives come out, let me be clear about one thing: I'm a longtime and enthusiastic supporter of all things VR.

As far back as 1994, I was producing first-person games that supported the leading VR devices of the day - remember Wings of Glory? Uh. Okay. How about System Shock? Even if you remember the games, you may not remember that in them we supported pioneering VR headsets like the Forte VFX-1 and Cybermaxx (which we sometimes referred to as the "Cyberbrick" for its weight and ergonomic... ahem... issues).

Back then, the head-tracking was serviceable, but the optics weren't close to being even "serviceable." And there was the weight (best measured in tons, if memory serves). Plus there was the unfortunate tendency to overheat once in a while and, you know, burst into flames. Seriously. I couldn't make that up.

Despite all those shortcomings, I saw an amazing future for such things and wanted desperately to be a part of it. Really feeling like you were in another world, seemed like the Next Step For Gaming. Looking around to see your friends and allies was incredibly cool. Keeping an eagle eye out for enemies? Oh, yeah!

But, back then, you couldn't read any text... dealing with menus was a nightmare... you still had to deal with keyboards and mice to interact... the weight of headsets back then was headache inducing and nose-crushing... and, as I said, there was that pesky fire problem.

"Is this, as I fear, just another false alarm, like the now (thankfully) fading reemergence of 3D movies, TV and games?"

I've heard that the Oculus Rift solves some or all of these problems. (If nothing else, it better deal with the fire issue!) But I haven't seen it, so I can't really say. I'm certainly hopeful that the issues above have been resolved in the last 20 years but, well, this is my dubious face. (If anyone wants to give me a demo, I'm totally up for it, by the way.)

What does the future hold?

Damned if I know! But here's my foolish attempt to divine what's coming:

VR? Sure. If what you're after is a more immersive but even more isolating experience than ever before. And don't forget you'll have to stand for hours to experience much beyond what a large screen monitor offers. I wouldn't say VR is "standard stuff" but it's not so far off from the 3D worlds we've been building for decades to bet against VR having a large and growing place in the gaming world.

AR? Also sure. Being out in the real world with virtual overlays sounds great. Once in a while. AR is one of the most interesting thing going on in games right now. The potential is there to do amazing things - things no game today, yesterday or in the foreseeable future has been able to do. The fact that no one knows with any degree of certainty what an AR game should look and play like is a bonus - the possibility of failure is huge. Who wouldn't want to mess with something like that?

A fully immersive, alternate world-creating Holodeck? That's a solution in search of a problem (and a solution that brings a host of its own problems along for the ride). My gut tells me we should just leave the Holodeck to Star Trek. 

But let's assume all the problems of VR, AR and the Holodeck can actually be solved.

Is this the time VR is here to stay? Is AR the next big thing? Is the current flush of enthusiasm for these things really the first significant step toward the Holodeck?

Or is this, as I fear, just another false alarm, like the now (thankfully) fading reemergence of 3D movies, TV and games?

Look at the history of 3D in media and you see a clear pattern - 3D is hailed as the savior of movies, for example, every 30 years. The 1890s, the 1920s, the 1950s, the 1980s and, recently, the 2010s, what do we see? You betcha! 3D is back! Every time the film business needs a creative jolt or finds itself threatened by some new medium or business model, roll out 3D and rake in the bucks. For a while.

Similarly, VR seems to make an appearance every ten years or so - in the 80s, the 90s and now the 20-teens... This latest appearance seems at least marginally tied to the current chaos in the games business, making the growing enthusiasm for such things seem even more like the movie model.

In movies, 3D has never stuck. It comes, it goes, the glasses and projection systems get marginally better, Hollywood and the press go wild. Then nothing. Audiences don't care.

I'm betting it's the same thing with VR/AR and Holodecks. Rather than being the time such things stick I tend to think this is just another moment where media history repeats itself. The craze will last a while like a raging brush fire, then fade into nothingness.

Now for the big twist ending to this column:

I truly hope I'm wrong about everything I've said here. I hope someone - maybe one of you reading this - can prove me wrong. I now turn the stage over to you to do just that.

See you in cyberspace!

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Latest comments (18)

How can you write an article on the future of VR and not have used or experienced the Oculus?

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Todd Weidner on 1st August 2013 4:15pm

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Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 8 years ago
Seriously, I have Zero interest in product like oculouse rift, 3D or any awkward,exhausting, interfaces and peripherals. I posted these links so you guys can see what I mean. Not only do these setups make you look like a moron when you play games, it isolates you from everyone else and the world around you. Its a more immersive in a sense but i find them to be very isolated lonely expiriences, judging from the videos. Second the setups are bulky, awkward and look pretty damn expensive. I cant see how this is a practicle, fun way to approach gaming. maybe fun the first few hours, like anything new, the novelty of it can only last so long.

I dont say anything about holo decks because I see no technology for the forseeable future that can emulate the expirience depicted in star trek. The closest thing is virtual reality, and from what Im seeing it does not look cool. And the biggest problem is being able to displace yourself in this virtual world. Even a holodeck is limited in the space it would be in.

Part of making a game good is its accessablity, it needs to be easy to get into, if I have to strap on, set up stuff, configure, calibrate and set even more stuff up and then start the game, sign in, set up loads of different hardware togethe, then configure online multiplayer, search for users, players, servers... blah blah blah.... anyway, it makes it hard to even start a game.

These opinion are solely my personal opinion. Alot of these concepts like AR and microsofts illumi-room, sound great on paper, but I hardly can see a real world practicle or fun use for them.

I see these videos and I cringe thinking that people are persuing this as the future of gaming.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Rick Lopez on 1st August 2013 7:55pm

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Jakub Mikyska CEO, Grip Digital8 years ago
My simple, yet 100% accurate, rule of thumb on new technologies is "Does something like this appear in sci-fi?" If it does, it will become popular. Cell phones? Yes. Kinect-like devices? Yes. Tablets? Yes. 3D TV? No. Virtual reality headsets? Not really, maybe a little. Augmented reality? We'll see, but my bet is "Oh Yeah".

A true "holodeck" could work. It is not something you build into your living room. But an entertainment hub somewhere in a large shopping center. Like going to the cinema and having the best possible and the most intensive experience. It shouldn't replace more traditional ways of gaming, just like cinema does not replace watching films on TV.
But it must be true holodeck... no awkward devices on our head, but true holograms. With safety protocols turned on ;-)

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Jakub Mikyska on 1st August 2013 5:18pm

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Show all comments (18)
Kristian Roberts Senior Manager, Nordicity8 years ago
Respectfully, no.

I can see no compelling reason why a holodeck cannot drive a narrative experience. Indeed, the standard use for a holodeck in the ST universe it the "Holo-novel" which is inherently a story-driven experience complete with player constraints (see: Dixon Hill, Data being Holmes, Bashir and O'Brien in the Battle of Britain, and so on). Further, there is no good reason why a sand-box approach to a Holodeck would be any less compelling than any existing sandbox (or 4x) game.

Sure, it might get old being a Roman general after some hours, but so it is with Rome: Total War.

Another key feature of the Holodeck that Mr. Spector seems to dismiss (see comment re: Minecraft) is that he assumes that there are no user controls in a Holodeck experience. Rather, in many cases players seem to be able to amend the experience while in play (for example, turning a character into a cow at an opportune moment).

In sum: if you don't want your Holodeck Warren, I'll take it.
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on why a Holodeck probably won't work for the games industry
I love the way that the "elephant in the room" is sidestepped - the serious issue is that VR may not be good for the consumer scene but us in the commercial game scene may find this the next big thing (Arcade 2.0)!
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Jed Ashforth Senior Game Designer, Immersive Technology Group, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe8 years ago
"My simple, yet 100% accurate, rule of thumb on new technologies is "Does something like this appear in sci-fi?" If it does, it will become popular...Virtual reality? Not really, maybe a little."
There are many examples but one extremely well known one of course - did you forget The Matrix?

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Jed Ashforth on 1st August 2013 5:08pm

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Jakub Mikyska CEO, Grip Digital8 years ago
@Jed: By virtual reality I mean headsets and awkward devices on your head. Matrix is beyond that... on the same level as a holodeck - there is not obstruction between you and the game. If this level of virtual reality is achieved, then "yes". I will edit my post to make it more clear what I mean.
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Wayne MacDonald Prop Artist 8 years ago
Technically the Matrix is accessed by jamming a long needle into your brain. I'd say that's at least as uncomfortable as a headset!

Jokes aside I'd not write off the holodeck somewhen in the future, give artists and designers new tools to play with and they'll constantly surprise you.
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In the coming book "The Out of Home Interactive Entertainment Frontier" -

- we discuss a number of the concepts for a public-space entertainment system that could achieve a level of 'Holodeck' experience. Systems such as VRcade and Scaele-1 Portal are just two examples of this move towards this approach.
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Brook Davidson Artist / 3D design 8 years ago
@Rick Lopez

I honestly think you judge these things way to quick. With the way you talk about it, even if it became popular and became the thing in gaming, you would probably still ignore it. For some reason, I feel like you just simply do not get it. Your ignorance is what causes you to not understand. Try it. Then we will see if you have the same opinion.

@Jakub Mikyska

Is anime not included? Because I can point out the entire .hack series. By any standard it's still considered sci-fi. Also, what about sci-fi books?

The other thing i have to point out is VR is VR. Which way you do it depends on technology. This technically mean every sci-fi media that pertains to VR technically counts. Just because it doesn't look exactly 100% the same or is achieved in exactly the same manner, doesn't mean a damn thing. If it could be achieved exactly like it is done in the movies, we wouldn't be struggling with making it, now would we?

100% accurate? In what world? Your own? I would like to see you bring a study based on this to a science conference and see how well it does because i am sure the scientific community would love to hear it.
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Luke Child8 years ago
Personally I see the holodeck experience (in the short term) being confined to a sort of seaside arcade experience. Once it has advanced however to a more star trek esque reality, then I believe its uses as entertainment in a gaming fashion will become outdated; uses would be more scientific/technical.

I believe that the more likely eventuality would be a virtual reality in the form of the matrix, .hack or my favourite sword art online. My reasoning is that, aren't holodecks extremely limited as entertainment? After all you wouldn't be for instance able (I believe the article said you could no idea why) to 'become' a tiger that would require the physical human body to change which is beyond holographics.

What I'm trying to say is that holodecks would be limited by realities constraints, no flying/anti gravity for instance; whereas virtual reality isnt and as a technology would be superior and therefore a better option as entertainment. (That isn't even mentioning console like portability and ease of access - no warehouse)

That is presuming of course that VR is developed at a matrix level before holodecks reach star trek level.
(Used phone to type so sorry for any misspellings or bad layout)
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Mark Hardisty CEO & Founder, No Yetis Allowed8 years ago
Back in the early 90's, I worked at Virtuality, producing gaming experiences for Arcade VR machines. These were the clunky, "wearing a bucket full of bricks on your head" experience headsets that Warren alludes to in some of his article. Here are a couple of memories that I think are pertinent to this conversation, even though this was 20 years ago:

1 - The time we plugged a headset into Wolfenstein 3D. It was MUCH easier looking around with a mouse than with a headset. The immersion that 'being in the world' gave did not compensate for the lack of movement that a mouse allows. - If in any competitive nature, VR (via a headset) puts a user at a disadvantage over somebody using, say, a simple mouse. A mouse gives the user superhuman abilities in the gaming world, whereas a headset, well, gives you the same ability as you. In competitive multiplayer (that was performed online, not in a big 'holodeck' room) the mouse user would dominate.

2 - Teaching the user. As these were arcade machines, we were producing arcade experiences that would last roughly 3 - 5 minutes. That gave us only a short amount of time to teach a player who had never experienced VR before. There were many instances of watching people walking into a virtual wall for 5 minutes (to be fair, the wall at that point would be 1 flat colour, due to the lack of texture maps (very early 90s!)). Not the best use of 3. We eventually started doing games on fixed paths that the player would traverse along. So, even with a device that screamed 'free roaming', we had to include limitations due to user ability.

3 - QA was a nightmare. I remember testing a game for about 3 hours. Although it was a lot of fun (believe me, it was still a new and unique experience to wander through a blocky, virtual dungeon swinging an joystick that was represented as a sword in the world) - by the end of the 3 hours, removing the heavy headset, it felt like my eyes were bleeding and my neck was the size of a bulls!

4 - There was still a romantic, sci-fi magic to everything (even though it was VERY clunky). It did seem 'like the future', but the reality was something different (bleeding eyes and bull necks). Luckily, there weren't any burning headsets like Warren described.

Hope you found this early 90's insight into the world of VR interesting.
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Jakub Mikyska CEO, Grip Digital8 years ago
@Brook: I wrote that the "sci-fi rule of thumb" is mine and I presented it as an opinion that you are free to disagree with. I don't know much about Anime, so I cannot comment on that.
From my perception, VR headset could be useful for more professional uses... a better interface than a screen and keyboard. But I simply cannot recall VR headsets being used on large scale in sci-fi for entertainment purposes (which this article was about). They either go "Full VR" in the Matrix style, or holodecks.
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Chris Payne Managing Director & Founder, Quantum Soup Studios8 years ago
@Rick Lopez:
Part of making a game good is its accessablity, it needs to be easy to get into, if I have to strap on, set up stuff, configure, calibrate and set even more stuff up and then start the game, sign in, set up loads of different hardware togethe, then configure online multiplayer, search for users, players, servers... blah blah blah.... anyway, it makes it hard to even start a game.
Imagine a form of entertainment where you had to organise physically meeting other players IRL, go to a special site, wear special clothing, use custom equipment, train to get any good at it, risk real-life injury and need a shower afterwards. I give you..."sports". Far too much faff IMHO, it'll never catch on.
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Taylan Kay Game Designer / Programmer / Marketer 8 years ago
I think the true Hdeck experience will happen more in the style of Inception than Star Trek. Direct neural interfacing would solve most of the problems mentioned here: full sensory engagement, full interactivity, sword swinging for hours or running for three miles in your three yard room, etc. We do all that and more, every single one of us, every night, in our dreams. Our brains are the best VR machines that there ever were and will ever be.

Of course we are still far away from high res, two-way neural interfaces but I really think THAT is the unavoidable trajectory of human technology interactions.
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Petter Solberg Freelance Writer & Artist, 8 years ago
@Rick: Well, reading a book can be a pretty isolated experience, but I wouldn't say lonely. Usually I read a book when I just want to be on my own and have the luxury of not having to pay too much attention to the world around me.

Furthermore, the current displays are limited. I agree with you that games have to be accessible. However, the problem with playing on a game on a simple screen, is that it is often far from accessible, even though it's pretty simple to set up, even for non-games. The reason is that a person who is unfamiliar with games have to be able to translate what's going on onscreen. You're sitting outside looking in at this world, but the navigation is all but natural. Most non-games I know never make it past this point: they just don't 'get it', because they are asked to do something the don't normally do in order to simulate natural movement.

In my opinion, that's the single most important thing about the Rift. You're not on the outside looking in, and though you can't actually move around like you would in a normal world, at least you can look around just like you're used to in a real environment. It brings down another wall, and to me it has nothing to do about creating another gimmick, it's just trying to get games to where they should have been ages ago. Just like the touch screen makes you use your fingers more intuitively as opposed to using something like a mouse, which was a peripheral designed from compromise, the Rift can potentially take away another hurdle. However, in the future, being able to see through VR glasses would be ideal as it would at least limit the feeling of isolation.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Petter Solberg on 5th August 2013 1:21pm

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Craig Page El Presidente, Awesome Enterprises8 years ago
But the holodeck doesn't need good games to be a success, the wii has shown you can get by on gimmicky controls alone.
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Murray Lorden Game Designer & Developer, MUZBOZ8 years ago
Someone give this fine man an Oculus Rift to try out, please. Oh, and make it an HD.
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