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The future world of “Ready Player One” has already begun

The future world of “Ready Player One” has already begun

In the movie “Ready Player One,” residents of Columbus, Ohio, in 2045 can escape to a virtual reality nightclub.

But residents of the Bay Area in 2018 can already escape each Friday to a virtual reality nightclub called the Rust, which runs on technology built by a San Francisco startup called High Fidelity.

There’s nothing today that approaches the pervasiveness and sophistication of the fictional VR world Oasis depicted in “Ready Player One.” But local technology companies are laying the foundations for fictional worlds like the one made popular by Ernest Cline’s 2011 science fiction novel, directed for the screen by Steven Spielberg and released Thursday.

Online (though not VR) worlds like Second Life, run by San Francisco’s Linden Labs, and IMVU of Redwood City are attracting millions of users who socialize, conduct transactions and even get married. Other online worlds, like Roblox and Minecraft, attract millions of young people who create and play games.

“We have a real economy so people can do various things and get paid for it, whether it’s creating a product or providing a service,” said Daren Tsui, CEO of IMVU, which has about 3.5 million monthly active users. “These are just baby steps toward this ‘Ready Player One’ vision where we’re trying to re-create society in a virtual sense.”

In the movie, Columbus citizens don virtual reality headgear to escape a dystopian world to interact as computer-generated avatars.

In reality, several companies, including Facebook, Linden Labs and High Fidelity, are “racing to perfect social VR,” said Jeremy Bailenson, a Stanford communications professor and founding director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab.

By using avatars, the companies are trying to replicate the real world’s “complex dance of social interaction in terms of the micro-movements involved in tightly coupled nonverbal behavior,” Bailenson said in an email. “We have a lot of work to do in order to get there in VR.”

At High Fidelity, co-founder Philip Rosedale is developing technology for a similar online world accessed through two types of current-generation virtual reality headgear, the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive.

High Fidelity, founded in 2013, plans to offer local students and teachers virtual field trips to Egyptian Queen Nefertiti’s tomb starting next month, using high-resolution images shot at the real tomb.

During the field trip, students become avatars, but they can see and hear each other, along with their teacher and a tour guide. The company recently outfitted a studio on Howard Street with about 20 VR stations for the tours, which it hopes will become a model for other virtual experiences that others can build and operate.

One DJ from Montreal discovered High Fidelity and has been conducting virtual dance club gatherings every Friday since February.

“What we’re trying to do with our own technology is focus solely on those cases where being together with other people is what makes it magical,” Rosedale said.

Rosedale has a long history with virtual worlds. He co-founded Second Life, which launched in 2003 and still draws about 1 million visitors to a world that exists completely online.

Last year, Linden Labs started developing Sansar, another virtual reality world. So far, Sansar has created a virtual gallery used by the Hollywood Art Museum, an environment celebrating NASA’s Apollo space missions and an experience based on scenes from “Ready Player One.”

Last month, Bailenson participated in an hour-long interview as a Sansar avatar to promote his new book about VR, “Experience on Demand.”

While “Ready Player One” is calling attention to current virtual worlds, the movie isn’t going to be a “magic wand” that jump-starts sales of VR equipment, which is still too expensive for most consumers, said Debby Ruth, senior vice president of global entertainment and media at the research and consulting firm Magid.

“Sansar is quite exciting, and there are interesting companies in social VR that I think will help,” Ruth said. “But the virtual world needs to develop more content. And it needs to be a lot easier to use.”

Gartner research analyst Brian Blau, who has watched the industry develop for decades, said a “Ready Player One” world will still take years to develop.

“We’re already living in some type of digitally augmented life, with proliferation of wearables and the impact of digital technology on many aspects of personal or work time,” he said. “It will take years or decades before we rely on head-mounted displays on a full-time basis for those interactions.”

And even then, Bailenson warned against living too much in virtual reality.

“I don’t know a single colleague in the VR space that would advocate for more time spent in VR than outside VR,” he said. “In my lab, we have a 20-minute rule where we advocate limiting VR to 20-minute bursts.”

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