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We can’t have real virtual reality without a sense of touch

We can’t have real virtual reality without a sense of touch


If I can't throw a snowball in it, it's not a Holodeck

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The moment I read that Facebook wanted to "effectively build a teleporter" by 2025, I knew my week was about to go downhill quickly.

If Facebook were actually working on a teleporter, that would be fascinating, if bizarre. But according to Business Insider, chief technical officer Mike Schroepfer just told reporters at this week's Dublin Web Summit that he wants the Oculus Rift to become "a device that allows you to be anywhere you want, with anyone, regardless of geographic boundaries." Early steps include "closing the reality gap" by showing people themselves and others, realistically imitating the environment, and letting people create their own worlds.

Look, these are big, interesting problems in virtual reality. And I've talked a lot about the unnerving sense of presence that VR can evoke with video, audio, and motion control. But describing these advances as a step toward a "teleporter" is like saying that finishing the Second Avenue line is a step toward turning New York's subway into a Hyperloop. No matter how good headsets get, we're far from what I consider one of the linchpins of immersion: touch. And that's still a huge deal that we're not talking about nearly enough.

It's too early to even fully imagine closing the reality gap

Artificial touch is a staple of science fictional VR, but it's something researchers aren't yet close to cracking. The same day Schroepfer made his "teleporter" comment, Palmer Luckey admitted it would be "a long time" before you'll even be able to feel a fuzzy couch in VR. Both Luckey and Oculus chief scientist Michael Abrash have consistently reminded people that we're at the very beginning of virtual reality; they think in half-centuries, not years or even decades.

Right now, VR has taken so long to arrive that it feels like we've earned the right to say it puts us at the top of a skyscraper or the bottom of the ocean, even if we're really just describing an uncanny shorthand for these experiences. In this months-long buildup to the first wave of consumer headsets, though, we're at a weird point where people might actually start believing us. And talking about teleportation promises a specific kind of near-lifelike experience — a promise that is very unlikely to be deliverable within ten years.

Unfortunately, a surprising amount of VR rhetoric elides the huge problem that is touch, treating it like a nice extra feature instead of a key to the whole experience. It's implicit when anyone suggests that VR sporting events or vacations could be close enough to give people a decent facsimile of the real thing, or in anything that pitches itself as a "Matrix" or "Holodeck." I always get a little wistful trying these things, because I truly want a Matrix and a Holodeck to exist. I want to be in a reality-bending martial arts fight or on the streets of Victorian London. I just can't quite pretend that I'm doing it with my eyes and ears alone.

VR concert recordings, short films, and video games are great and totally unique experiences. But qualitatively, they generate the kind of pleasure I get from beautifully detailed films and video games. When I say I use books to escape to other worlds, or that a game captures the spirit of a specific place, I don't mean they're literally substitutes. Whenever someone talks seriously — not just as shorthand or marketing fluff — about VR giving you the equivalent of front row concert tickets, I start wondering if things like touch, heat, humidity, and other intangibles are just some extra sense I've hallucinated.

Am I just hallucinating an entire sense here?

Here are the first things I remember about my favorite concert: the way the stale air felt like a blanket. Sweat plastering my hair to my forehead. The rolling motion of the crowd when everyone's favorite song came up. Spending 15 minutes afterwards scrabbling for my friend's lost glasses while an overenthusiastic teenage mosher bled on my boots. Pouring out into the cold streets along with everyone else, exhausted and hoping the trains were still running. It feels almost insulting to talk about "being there" without all this — like playing a CD in surround sound and claiming that's a concert, too.

Saying true virtual reality is only half-baked without touch makes me feel like a huge killjoy, or like I'm constantly moving the goalposts for VR creators. In the next few months, the first consumer headsets will (theoretically) start shipping, and it's hard to sell a mainstream product by telling everybody that it's sort of good enough for some things. It makes sense for the industry to narrow the focus to what the technology can already do, not what we wish it could do.

But from an enthusiast's standpoint, most of us have some kind of fantasy about what VR could be someday. Trying to shoehorn it into today's tech will break our dreams. Of course I'm moving the goalposts. It's time for them to change. And while we're waiting, let's go ahead and put a moratorium on the word "teleporter."