October 7, 2022

Legendary programmer John Carmack, co-founder of id Software of Fate fame and consulting CTO of Facebook’s Oculus VR, said it would be a “positive thing” to build a virtual reality world “where people want to go back to their headsets.” Carmack ominously compared virtual reality to the rise of the internet, saying: “I think it’s going to be kind of the way the web has slowly taken over, where you’re the frog in the pot of water that’s slowly getting warmer.”

Carmack described virtual reality as a superior experiential alternative to reality in an interview with Lex Fridman on the latter’s eponymous podcast published last Thursday.

Carmack dismissed characterizations of a possible future with the increasing ubiquity of virtual reality as “dystopian”. He said “the whole point of VR” is to create a superior digital alternative to physical reality.

There was a moment we were asked to come up with [a response to the question]: “What’s your take on virtual reality?” and my suggestion was that it should be better inside the headphones than outside. It’s the world as you want it, and everyone thought it was dystopian. Like, “Oh, are you going to forget the world outside?”.

I don’t have that mindset. … If you can make the world better inside the headphones than outside, you’ve just improved the life of the person wearing the headphones [and] can wear it.

There are many things we simply cannot do for everyone in the real world. Not everyone can have Richard Branson’s private island, but everyone can have a VR private island, and they can have the things they want on it. There are many of these kinds of competing goods in the real world that VR might just be better at [providing]. We can do a lot of things like that that can be very, very rich.

So yeah, I think it’s going to be a positive, this world where people want to go back to their headphones, where it can be better than [reality]. Someone who lives in a tiny apartment can have a palatial situation in virtual reality. They can have all their friends from all over the world come and visit without everyone getting on a plane and meeting somewhere and dealing with all the other logistical hassles.

Carmack predicted that the growth of virtual reality would resemble that of the rise of the Internet, using the metaphor of the slow-boiling of a frog to illustrate what he predicted would be the growing prevalence of virtual reality in an expanding range of spheres. The future ubiquity of VR, he predicted, would be through incremental progress as opposed to a single tipping point:

I think it will be kind of the way the web has slowly taken over, where you’re the frog in the pot of slowly warming water. Having lived [the rise of the Internet], I remember when it was shocking to start seeing the first website address on a billboard, when you say, “Hey, my computer world is infecting the real world. That kind of spreads.’

Still, when you look back and say, “Well, what made the web take off?” It wasn’t a big bang moment. It was a bunch of little things that turned out not to even be relevant now.

It’s not because one thing evolves exponentially. It’s because we have hundreds of little sigmoid curves that overlap one another, and they just happen to keep adding up so that you have something exponential at any given point, but none of them were the critical thing. There were dozens and dozens of things.

Carmack made several references to the 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crush – from which Facebook drew inspiration for its new company brand, Meta in which the Internet of a future world evolves into a metauniverse based on virtual reality.

Facebook was purchased Oculus VR in 2014. Carmack noted that the company spent $10 billion in one year for the development of virtual reality and its transition, with projections of more annual spending in the future.

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