December 2003, Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire, England. David Hart and Allistair Mitchell come forward to show the world that the greatest myth of all time is not a myth at all.
They let the press photograph a 30 inch tall jar filled with formaldehyde, inside the liquid preservative rests a baby dragon. The story accompanying the find was that Hart found the jar in his garage. It had been saved from destruction by his grandfather, a porter at the Natural History museum where German scientists had placed the dragon in the 19th century.
The story made worldwide headlines. The initial reaction around the globe was simple, expected, and completely irrational: Is it real?
What is the reason for this reaction? It goes back thousands of years. The dragon dates all the way back to one of if not the first civilization that had writing, the Sumerians. It appeared in their artwork and cuneiform literature such as the epic of Gilgamesh, a pre-Bible text including documentation of a great flood. All over the world cultures developed their own version of dragons. China, Great Britain, Japan,Vietnam, India, Europe, South America and others all had their own dragons.
Something in us wants these creatures to be real even now, many centuries after their existence has been disproven. Why? In mythology and modern entertainment dragons are both great friends and insurmountable enemies. If you can befriend one you can ride it into the sky and go to unimaginable places. If it is your foe the only way to defeat it is to locate a weak spot in the impenetrable scales.
Like all forms of entertainment dragons have been a part of video games from the beginning right through to Dragon Age, The Elder Scrolls, Spyro, The Witcher, and Dragon's Dogma. They all had their own approaches to the creature. Remember when an update to Skyrim sent the dragons flying backwards? I got to see it first hand and it was hilarious. It reminds me that we are constantly trying to get the dragon right, to find what it is that makes it connect to mankind, to discover what it is that makes us still search for them and put them in our creations. It is a chimera of known animals, mythological creatures, fears, hopes, ambitions, fantasies, and somehow is still apparently a kind of holy grail of archeology even though we have no evidence of them.
The dragon has been right in front of us all this time and yet completely out of reach. We cannot touch them or ride them or examine them. In the hobby of gaming we love our dragons but they are still unreachable on our screens.
The search for another myth also began in a garage. A young Palmer Luckey, who describes himself as self taught, pulled together scrap parts from failed experiments in virtual reality and all by his lonesome solved a problem that corporations had spent millions of dollars trying and failing to do: create a working VR head mount that fools the brain into thinking it is elsewhere.
E3 2012, Luckey's product called the Rift was on the floor of the show after receiving software support from industry legend John Carmack. You have to figure that at that E3 virtual reality wasn't on everybody's list of serious wishes. Like the dragon though, when someone came forward to said they'd seen it, people took notice. They too wondered, Is it real? Scaleform's Nate Mitchell was among those taking notice. In June he spoke to Time magazine's Victor Luckerson:
“Basically Palmer [Luckey] had a bunch of circuit boards, and a bucket of cables and wires, all this stuff tangled up. He set it up, plugged it in -it took him a little while, and I was sitting there being like, Is this really going to happen? Is this going to work?” Mitchell then looked inside the box himself. “There was no interactivity, nothing moving, but it gave you the sensation that, wow-there's a world inside this box.”
From John Carmack, the man who invented 3D gaming, to high level industry professionals, the Rift was suddenly being taken seriously. The impossible dream of our age that gave birth to whole genres of cult sci fi movies, cultural phenomenons like The Matrix, and personalized entertainment worlds offered to Star Fleet members via Star Trek's holodeck all seemed once again within reach after decades in research and development dustbins.
Things have changed since that first E3 appearance. The Oculus company, still a small force of true believers backed by Kickstarter money, was bought by Facebook magnate Mark Zuckerberg for a cool 2 billion dollars. Now there's a nice office for the employees, a lack of money trouble, Palmer Luckey holds founder status, and John Carmack quit his job at legendary id software to come on board with Oculus full time. The aim is the same, create worlds in a box that fool our brains into thinking we are there.
Until the Facebook purchase Oculus had been laser focused on creating a viable gaming device. They saw the realization of the great myth of virtual reality as an entertainment device. Zuckerberg had no intention of changing that but he clearly saw this as a different kind of animal. In his mind it would also be a revolutionary social communications device where people can meet and communicate eye to eye without traveling any distance, where a shared space can be used. Want to meet up on mars for a chat? He wants you to.
Like the dragon, virtual reality is seen many different ways by those from various vantage points. There are as many ways to view it as there are people in the world. If Virtual Reality becomes a real reality, we will receive it the way the creators want us to, at least at first. In the lore of the dragon we find that the beast is a hoarder, although he has no use for it, he steals vast caches of gold and rests upon the pile. There he defends his gold, his prize that can only be freed from his clutches by his destruction.
In the real world of technology and business the way to defeat is to compete. To get the treasure beneath the creature and access to its secrets someone must create a competing product. Once that has been done all of the possibilities that virtual reality has in gaming, social networking, and any other creative endeavor that can be imagined will be readily exploitable since the technology isn't owned by just one entity. Recently we have seen such a product making headlines, it is Sony's Project Morpheus. In a recent interview with The Guardian Sony Computer Entertainment CEO Andrew House spoke of the Rift, shedding some light on Sony's plan for their similar technology.
"With Oculus we saw this groundswell of game development that didn't necessarily have a monetizable or a business option, but [developers were] so passionate about this space that they were doing this essentially in their spare time. It struck that me that if there's a variety of game developers showing interest in this space then it's probably time to jump in and see if we can play a part and give them the tools they're looking for."
No monetizable or business option? That sounds like a place to start a search for a way to make money within a dubious technology that is going through yet another resurgence of public interest. Even Sony is starting to believe in the possibility that the the long awaited dream of VR is on the verge of breaking that line between mythical and real.
Remember how PS4 got its original boost pre-launch? It was from top developers who Sony brought on board to help in the development of the PS4 hardware. Sony wanted them to take part it in it, to enjoy working with it, and to be able to make the best games for it.
If the Rift wraps up the PC space with its gaming and social market then Morpheus could be the go-to VR hardware for console gamers. If it has the kind of quality software that only Sony studios can produce then it might even bring PC gamers on board a console for the experience.
There is a race to make this modern myth real, to perfect all latency issues, fall in sync with the inner ear, trick the brain, defeat motion sickness, and finally to make the world inside the box place everyone wants to be. When they succeed, when the X-ray of their baby dragon comes back positive, we could either embrace this new reality or we could fear the giant fire-breathing monster that it could become. The Rift and Morpheus will either become small, steadily successful peripherals that are the stepladders to true virtual reality or they will fall like all those that came before. What happens could be based on whether or not we choose to believe in what seems impossible.
When David Hart and Allistair Mitchell's baby dragon was X-rayed, it was of course revealed to be a clever hoax. So far dragons are still impossible. Palmer Luckey has a basic idea behind his product that should keep you dragon fans dreaming:
“I think people have always wanted to experience the impossible.That's one of the reasons games have caught on. They want to actually do things themselves, have a say in how that world works, instead of just watching someone else do it.”
When virtual reality happens, how long do you think it will be before someone creates an interactive world with dragons in it, dragons that are almost real to us?
We will soon reach a point in the gaming industry where we will be confronted with products born from a garage that somehow look legit, promise the impossible, and make worldwide headlines. When that happens, people the world over, whether they are watching a report at home or bringing the visor up to their eyes for the first time will ask the one thing we will always ask of our dragons: Is it real?
Source: Grossman, Lev. "Head Trip." Time 15 June: 38-41. Print.