Virtual reality has been a twinkle in the eyes of nerds for several decades now but only recently has the technology reached the point where it’s practical for general consumption. I personally think virtual reality will be short lived. A few decades from now we will have the capability to take it to the next level. Some techies are calling it fully immersive virtual reality or FIVR, a virtual reality that taps directly into our sensory nerves, bypassing the sensory organs and sending data directly into our brains. It would eventually support all five senses; visual, auditory, smell, taste and touch. It would be like the movie The Matrix, completely indistinguishable from reality. I decided to call it Artificial Reality to differentiate it from virtual reality. Scientists have already figured out the “encoding” of the auditory and optical nerves. There are already implants like the cochlear implant and artificial eyes that can send very low resolution black-and-white images into the brain. Sight and sound will probably be the first implants, since there are only two nerves each. Smell and taste will follow and researchers will probably create a library of smells and tastes and release them as a Source Development Kit or SDK. I think touch will be the most difficult, since it has a lot more nerves spread throughout the body. Scientists would probably have to place an implant at a bottleneck like the brain stem. At first the implants will be technological, then nanotechnology, then nanomachines, genetically engineered parasites and eventually we’d probably just genetically engineer our species to be born with organic implants that use molecules already available in our bodies. The implants wouldn’t just be cutting off signals from reality, they could also be used for Augmented Reality, by blending signals from reality with artificial signals received from a mobile device. To control our actions in the virtual world, we could use EEG sensors like the Emotiv Epoc. It could start off as an EEG net implanted under our scalp and of course, more advance equivalents will be invented. Eventually, we’d just genetically engineer our species to be born with organic “mind reading” sensors.
If we have Artificial Intelligences that create custom 3-dimensional avatars and personalities for each individual, we could have our all-knowing AI sidekick inserted into reality, so we can interact with it like an imaginary friend. I think it’s a guarantee that we will have this capability by the year 2100 but 2050 wouldn’t surprise me since the evolution of technology is exponential. It’s insane to imagine all the ways that this technology could profoundly change our society. There are just too many possibilities! If all the jobs are being done by AIs and we become a welfare state with too much free time on our hands, we could exist in any fictional world we want, even a Harry Potter universe. Once theoretical physicists have solved all the mysteries or maybe a super-AI will solve them, we could have a virtual universe with its own laws of physics, that players have to figure out, in order to invent new technologies, while in a cold war with another player faction. If we are immortal and unemployed, we will have an unlimited source of fictional universes to explore.
I have played with several game engines, like the Unreal Engine and Unity 3D. They have evolved a lot since the days of the Half-Life 2 engine. The trend is that more and and more is being automated; procedurally generated terrains, motion capture, etc. Game engines will inevitably be married with Artificial Intelligence and give birth to the Artificially Intelligent Game Engine or AIGE. AIGE will allow players to walk around the virtual world and give verbal commands to an AI, that creates the 3-dimensional universe. It could even lead to a new therapy machine. The AI could “mind read” the patient and create a feedback loop between generated content and the subject’s anticipations. The possibilities are endless.