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Captain's Log - Virtual Reality, Writing, & Altered Carbon

Captain’s Log

Virtual Reality & Writing


Author Christian Kallias


Virtual Reality

Captain’s Log – Stardate 71619.2

I've been watching Altered Carbon, and while I could write a full post about it now, I'd rather I take the time to assimilate the show first. Suffice it to say that if you haven't watched it, and are on the lookout for a great Sci-Fi series, then I would recommend checking out Netflix's latest binge hit. The production value and most of the cast is great; there's action, thrills, plenty of unneeded nudity (doesn't add anything to the plot), and a good dose of mystery. It's possible I'll dedicate next week's Captain's Log to the show and do an informal review. Right now, though, if you haven't seen it, stop what you're doing and watch the first episode. Chances are you'll be amazed at the details of this world and how aesthetically beautiful the show is (read masterpiece in that department).

One of the subjects that Altered Carbon talks about (it encompasses so many concepts, at times it can get hard to follow every little detail) is VR (Virtual Reality). So that's what I'm going to discuss today, VR, my first experience with it and how I might use the tech for my books.

In 2013, I was still employed as a System Engineer, and my first book, Earth - Last Sanctuary, was so far off on the back burner that it might as well have resided on the planet Hoth at the time. One day at the office someone from another company came in and asked if someone from our team was interested in learning about using Nvidia Graphic cards in VMware servers. In a nutshell, virtual machines tend to be poor in graphic performances unless the server has a powerful graphic card, which can then lend access to its virtual machine. But that's inconsequential to the story so let's not delve into that.

Virtual machines were a huge part of my job, and I was always interested in the latest tech, so I volunteered to listen to this person who was presenting the solution in the nearby office. After a good 20 minutes, once the presentation was over, my eyes drifted to the side of the conference table and saw something that I recognized immediately. "Is that an oculus rift?" I asked. The presenter smiled and confirmed it was, and then asked if I wanted a short demo. You can imagine what my answer was: "Hell, yeah!"

Minutes later the headset was in my head, and I saw a demo of the solar system, where I traveled from planet to planet. The demo was running on the DK1 (the first development kit), and the screen used in that particular headset was low resolution, but the effect of being thrown into an immersive world was already there. Then he ran Half Life 2 in VR, and my jaw dropped. I had played the game on a flat screen, but now when I entered a room, I could just turn my head and see everything, look at the ceiling, and feel like I was there. Long story short: I was blown away.

I talked with the representative for another 30 minutes, not caring whatsoever that I was on the clock and not doing any paid work. By the end of this conversation, I had learned how to acquire an Oculus Rift DK1 myself, and as I was starting to form a bond with this person, he proposed that I borrow the headset for a weekend, which I did. I used the headset, and one demo was a Villa in Tuscany by the sea. There was nothing to do but move around the house, go on the balcony, or walk in front of the house to look at the sea, and seabirds fly by. Staring at the sea and hearing and seeing the birds fly by, even in low-resolution, was just mind bending. I immediately felt a wave of calm wash over me, and it made me long for my parent's house in Greece, also situated very near the sea. In a matter of minutes, I was in a meditative state, at peace, feeling like I wasn't in my messy apartment but on a holiday trip in Italy.

I tested all the demos I could test; scary horror games that made my heart race, to more abstract constructs of flying in nothingness surrounded by geometrical shapes with music in the background. Even though I hadn't written for a long time, one of my first VR wishes, after hoping there would be space shooters so I could experience being a pilot onboard a starfighter engaged in a crazy dogfight (fast forward a few years and there are many such games), was to be able to create a virtual apartment that would be located either in space or by a fantastic calming vista with a desk somewhere in it where I could sit and write my books, being inspired by the virtual world unfolding around me. I was taken away by VR immediately, and today I've owned or tested most of the platforms available to the public, from the google cardboard to the current Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear VR (I own both).

A little over a week ago, I've done just that. While playing around with Oculus' latest home software that starts automatically when you put on the headset, I started setting up my apartment to my tastes, but there was only one thing I cared about, and that wasn't the color, shape , or position of the couch. Instead it was the external environments. And one of them is deep space, with a solar system and planet buzzing around. They move too fast to be a real cycle, but seeing them pass in front and behind each other and the sun, had as much of a calming effect on me as the Tuscany sea view, if not more.

Fiddling around with the new interface, I accidentally brought my own Windows 10 desktop as a movable window in the virtual world, a bit a la Minority Report, really. And you can grab the window and put it anywhere you want. And, then, you can do the same with single apps too. So I grabbed Scrivener (the app I use to write my books) and stuck it there at the end of my apartment that has an entire wall open to the stars, suns, and planets.

I couldn't believe it; I could write in VR. The caveats? You don't see your hands or the real world keyboard, but I did find that this mattered little, I type so much every day that I almost never need to look at it anyway. So I started writing a short story (I'll tell you more about it in March, but I can already give you two clues. Chase and Academy. I started writing that dogfight scene while having the universe in the backdrop. The experience is amazing, and I can totally see myself write in VR for hours. It can get a little tiring, and if the temperature in the room isn't ideal, then the lenses of the headset might get steamy from perspiration. Also, the screen tech of the current Oculus, while leaps and bounds better than that old crappy DK1 I paid a small fortune for, is still not perfect, you can still kinda see pixels if you look for them, and it gets tiring after a while too. But even with these "issues", I have found that it's very interesting and incredibly immersive to write in VR.

Whether or not this will end up just a gimmick for fun, or if I'll actually introduce VR into my writing process, remains to be seen, but it made me realize we live in a world where technology is advancing so quickly, that the time between what you wish for, and the time for the technology to catch up and deliver it is getting shorter by the minute. When I saw Star Trek in my 20s, all I wanted was a holodeck experience. And while VR isn't quite to that level, it's not that far off either. In fact, only last week I played a Starfleet Captain trying to win the Kobayashi Maru simulation in the first mission of the VR game Star Trek Bridge Crew. Being in the captain's chair and pressing the red alert button (or ordering it vocally) is quite something too, and I'm sure Trekkies all over the world with VR headsets are having a blast doing just that.

VR is pretty new, but already its potential is growing every day. Soon we won't have to go the doctor physically, we'll just have the consultation at home, and we can meet people that are on the other side of the world. As with all new technology though, it raises a slew of ethical questions and how the tech can be abused or how badly it can impact our civilization in the long run. We're already slaves to our phones, checking our social media feeds so often that if we were to time travel 15 years and told ourselves what the world was today and where we spend our time, our alternate self would be like "Get out of here!" But it's clear that social media has changed how we live and how we interact as a species, and VR probably will too. One of the big questions that many authors have addressed in books, including my friend and indie author Jasper T. Scott, is what happens when VR becomes so immersive that we don't realize we're in VR anymore, and what will be the incentive of living in the real world if VR can bring about all these dreams of ours at a push of a button? We're indubitably heading there, and I think we need an answer to that question before we face it in real life. I'd love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

Until next time, it is time for me to take my leave. Setting a course for the next adventure (my dorky way of saying open Scrivener and start writing) and engage!

I wish you all a fantastic day.

Until next time,



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