Earnest: Science fiction can enhance Oculus and other virtual reality products

Chad Earnest

Science fiction certainly has captivated the minds and imaginations of individuals for many centuries. From Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey just as a couple of honorable mentions, displayed what would have been crazy technological innovations that are now quite plausible and accepted. Arthur C. Clarke in the early 1960’s predicted the internet and personal computing revolution that was to come.

With that in mind it is reasonable to see that tech companies, such as prominent innovators of virtual reality technology like Oculus are looking to science fiction writers for guidance in creating better products. One particular instance of this is Oculus’ fascination with Ernest Cline’s own book on the possibilities of virtual reality titled Ready Player One (2011), which is promptly handed out to new employees as a ‘required’ reading assignment. Besides being assigned reading like anytime before your Sophomore year of college, employees at Oculus are gaining valuable insight into creating a sort of derived vision of different technologies that are present within that particular story. This excellent New York Times article details more about Oculus’ doings as well.

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Besides the effect that science fiction has on naming items such as the Microsoft HoloLens, which has to be an obvious reference to Star Trek’s Holodeck, there is a legitimate concern for using fiction to guide real ideas in a real world.

This grounding principle is referred to as ‘design fiction,’ which attempts to take technology in science fiction novels and extrapolate that particular piece of tech into something feasible by today’s standards. One notable, but kind of gimmicky use of this principle was a direct result of Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report,” which demonstrated a new type of operating environment and medium for interacting with a computing system.

Now referred to as “Spatial Operating Environments”, Oblong Industries has created new ways of presenting in an enterprise setting with Mezzanine, which resulted after the operating system g-speak was demonstrated a few years back. The idea of operating objects on a computing system from a three-dimensional point of view came directly from the use of design fiction, which now has its presence in the Leap Motion Sensor (this thing is finicky) and the better executed g-speak operating system and Microsoft’s HoloLens. And this is just one revolutionary technology that resulted from a science fiction narrative, not counting the countless others that have resulted from such studies.

Science fiction and design fiction has excellent footing in the tech industry, education and more recently, the space industry. Particularly in the case of NASA, who has been pushing science fiction as a means to bring more individuals to pursue a STEM based career paths. Be it through publishing partnerships that would allow for NASA to implement scientific accuracy into future science fiction novels, or by simply referring to Star Trek in its studies and designs, NASA is attempting to inspire future explorers and inventors.

The IXS Enterprise, or a plausible ‘faster than light’ ship was showcased a couple of years ago by NASA. The specific intention of such was to motivate individuals to pursue a career in a STEM based field, and what better way to do so than to look to theories and ship designs straight out Star Trek.

Although science fiction narratives can provide seemingly cheesy and far fetched visions of the future in certain cases, it is those far fetched ideas that technologists and engineers alike look past and extrapolate upon.

The amazing technology that has come out of science fiction narratives over the years is monumental, and those who envisioned such technology in the first place such as Arthur C. Clarke, are the true visionaries of our technical world. It’s only logical to look to those who don’t rely on purely convention, but rather have the foresight and ability to take one technology or series of technologies to a new and unexpected realm.

The final frontier is right at our doorstep, the key is to study what envisions it the best: science fiction.

Collegian Columnist Chad Earnest can be reached at letters@collegian.com, or on Twitter @churnest.