The History and Future of VR

IF THERE’S A human being who knows more about virtual reality than Kevin Kelly, I’d sure like to make their acquaintance. Kevin was WIRED’s founding executive editor in 1992 and has long been our Senior Maverick. But he was experimenting with, reporting on, and writing about experiential platforms long before WIRED existed. Which is why Kevin’s was the first number I dialed after visiting the (until now) mysterious startup Magic Leap in suburban South Florida. Who better to write our cover story on Rony Abovitz’s provocative “mixed reality” technology—digital overlays on the real world—than a man who helped define the way WIRED and everyone else think about new media?

DADICH: When did you first encounter virtual reality?

KELLY: I believe it was in 1989 when I walked into Jaron Lanier’s lab—he coined the term. It’s possible it had already reached my ears via the Well, the pioneering online forum we had run since 1984.

Did you think that it would actually take 25 years to get to the cusp of widespread adoption?

No. I thought it would take five years at the most. Turns out the technology was just not cheap enough. Sort of like watching movies over the Internet in 1989—it was easy to imagine but too expensive.

People have been speculating about Magic Leap for a while now. Were you surprised by what you saw?

No. I was only surprised they didn’t want to talk scientifically about how their version works.

In your story Ernest Cline says that he thinks people are actually going to build the Oasis, the virtual environment in his novel Ready Player One. Do you buy that?

I think there is a very high probability; I’d be surprised if the movie studios did it. It will be the Chinese or someone like that. The Chinese are going to embrace VR wholeheartedly.

In 1989 you thought it’d take five years for VR to go mainstream. Take another guess—when does something like Magic Leap become as ubiquitous as smartphones?

Fifteen to 20 years.

OK, but we keep our noses pointed at smartphones all day right now. What’s going to happen to human interaction when we’re all wearing VR goggles?

Mixed reality has fewer inherent dangers than VR, but driving while immersed may become a problem. One thing we cut from the story was Jaron’s observation that we’re all going to put on VR while we ride in our robo-cars. I made the prediction that by 2025 the total bandwidth to our cars will exceed that to our homes. But switching off your VR in a car emergency may be problematic.

How do you want to use it? What are you looking forward to?

Not games. But I will pay big bucks for really good teleconferencing VR/MR like I saw demonstrated at Magic Leap. For most purposes—work, visiting, play—the avatar was as good as being there.

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