Ernie Cline is running 20 minutes late.
Finally, he finds a parking spot and slides in his 1982 DeLorean, its sides emblazoned with the Ghostbusters logo and a license plate that reads ECTO88. Virtual reality and gaming buffs might recognize it as protagonist Wade Watts’ car from Cline’s breakout novel Ready Player One.
“It’s bad form to show up late in a time machine,” he says. “What’s your excuse, dude?”
Ready Player One was published in 2011, when lifelike virtual reality still felt like a distant conquest. It imagines a dystopia where most of its characters live in poverty and see the OASIS, a vast world accessible through virtual reality goggles, as an escape from their true reality.
Cline began brainstorming Ready Player One in 2001, when he asked himself what would if happen if Willy Wonka was a video game designer. James Halliday, the eccentric billionaire who offers up his fortune to whoever solves his geek-tastic 1980s-inspired treasure hunt in the OASIS, is one part Wonka and one part virtual reality pioneer John Carmack. That makes Watts Charlie Bucket.
A Mass Consensual Hallucination
Back in 2001, consumer virtual reality was just a dream that had been dead since the early 1990s. Cline had to turn to the military to see a modern version of it. He drew on science fiction classics like Snow Crash and Neuromancer to build out his vision of the OASIS metaverse. Like the OASIS itself, Ready Player One is built from a mashup of previous cultural works.
“(Creating the OASIS was) very easy when you’re just thinking about the future of video games,” Cline said. “When you’re out on the internet now, it’s not a 3D space, but it kind of is. Websites are like planets. There are virtual realities popping up to serve different fanbases. Can you imagine Hogwarts? If you could teach different classes in that setting, how much more engaging it would be?”
The OASIS abruptly came within reach in 2012, when Oculus announced the Rift headset on Kickstarter. Founder Palmer Luckey built the first versions in a trailer in his parent’s driveway as a teen. Like Watts, who uses his knowledge of ’80s video games and movies to solve Ready Player One‘s puzzles, Luckey was a kid with the time and passion to do something many others thought to be impossible.
Cline was invited to the company’s headquarters, where he finally got his first taste of modern VR. He remembers snow falling around him in the virtual world as the Oculus team stood nearby. He could see that it would change everything.
It’s funny talking to Cline about virtual reality. He’s such a diehard gamer that he almost doesn’t seem to care about virtual reality technology itself. For him, it’s more an obvious progression for gaming. To him, humans have been creating online worlds for themselves since the very first video game consoles, when two friends could sit next to each other and interact on a screen. We have always been seeking to immerse ourselves in alternate realities; this is just the ultimate form.
“Up until now, our whole experience has been through a two-dimensional screen,” Cline said, continuing:
This is not the human experience. The human experience is 360 degrees, and all your senses immersed. Role playing games are a simulation for all the stuff we’re wired up by evolution to do, which is hunt and form teams and tribes. It simulates all this stuff you’re hardwired to do, but you don’t do it. You sit in a car or in a cubicle.
One Virtual World, Or Many?
There’s no doubt that gaming will have a place in virtual reality. Oculus was born in pursuit of immersive video games. But will there be an OASIS, an alternate world where Earth’s people congregate in the form of avatars?
Cline thinks so, but he is uncertain if it will take the form of one all-encompassing galaxy like OASIS. He pointed to media libraries like Amazon and Hulu, which would make a lot more sense as one giant service. But maybe it would be too much power to concentrate access in the hands of one company. The whole point of Ready Player One is a battle between OASIS advocates like Watts and a mega-corporation battling to gain control.
“If it’s one place it has a lot of power, the way Facebook has a lot of power, the way Google has a lot of power,” Cline said. “If the whole world is there, it has a lot of value. If there is a truly free … virtual world that is democratic and free, that’s the one that will prevail.”
No matter what the metaverse looks like, we are apt to find ourselves there someday, whether it is to access a classroom or play a vintage gaming simulator with a friend across the world. And like (spoiler alert) Watts’ friends Art3mis and Aech in the OASIS, we will experiment with new identities. Cline said people already do this today—they go online and explore how people react to different representations. They cast off the body their parents gave them and assume something new, even if only for a little while.
“Video games in virtual reality, it’s all changing the course of human evolution right now,” Cline said. “It’s changing how we interact, and communicate and collaborate with everyone all the time.”
At the same time, Cline described leaving his home state of Ohio and realizing that his “weird childhood” wasn’t so weird. He might have felt geeky and awkward as a kid, but there are people around the world who felt the same way. We’re not as strange as we think, and there is a new virtual landscape to help us explore that.
Photos of Ernie Cline by Signe Brewster for ReadWrite; photo of Oculus Rift by Sergey Galyonkin