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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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Warren Spector


Warren Spector is a veteran game designer best known for his work on System Shock and Deus Ex.