Virtual Reality in Pop Culture: Reading List

We Read It All So You Don’t Have To (But You Should)

Virtual Reality is a brutal but ridiculously rewarding medium— there’s nothing quite like stepping into a virtual space you’ve constructed from sweat and code and knowing “thousands of people are visiting this place too”. Because it’s such a fast-moving medium, you need to really design forward to build something people will want to use. Case in point, my company, Sprawly just released a VR search engine and browser for the GearVR that I originally started working on about 2 years ago. At that time I was getting the now silly-seeming question “who’s gonna strap a phone to their face?” so often that I felt the need to write a whole article about it.

The truth is, building something great is not enough. To build something people love, your designs need to connect with something in your audience. In the mobile world, material design has taken over the landscape because it’s contextual physicality lets users instantly connect with and understand interfaces. The problem is that VR has no context in the real world, so in order to design for it you need to understand it’s imaginary context, you need to examine the pop-cultural zeitgeist of VR that has churned holograms and avatars into the world for the last 20 years.

We’re all nerds at Sprawly, but we wanted to become hyper-experts in cultural expectation of future interfaces so we read and watched VR-related media, all of it.

Here’s our recommended reading list for getting up to speed on Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and Mixed Realities.

Snowcrash is pretty much THE book about virtual reality. It’s the story of Hiro Protagonist (no really) as he navigates a grimy world where VR has replaced the internet. This book features so many groundbreaking ideas it’s tough to catalog them all. Written in 1992, Stephenson divined perfectly how anti-social people wearing cameras on their faces all the time would be, how important giant interactive online mapping systems would be, and one that hasn’t come to pass: realistic facial expressions on avatars will be the turning point for immersive worlds as business platforms. Concepts: metaverse, avatar, google earth
Rainbow’s End is semi-obscure, but it is to Augmented Reality what Snowcrash is to Virtual Reality. It’s the story of an elderly guy who is brought back into society after spending a decade as an Alzheimer's outcast only to find a bewildering mix of real and virtual entities interacting with him on a daily basis. This book deals heavily with the idea that social engineering is as powerful or more powerful than brute force hacking, and how in a world where people constantly commune with AR versions of their friends/families/business associates, this can be a dangerous thing indeed. Concepts: mixed-reality, belief circles, ubiquitous computing
Ready Player One made a huge splash when it came out in 2011 for it’s quirky combination of 80’s nostalgia and believable economics and entertainment driven virtual world OASIS. The VR world is free for everyone but has tiered access, a fact which gives some citizens greater ability to hunt down the ‘Easter eggs’ that it’s creator has hidden. This book is a joyus romp with an edge. It serves to remind us that as the world grows darker, virtual realities become increasingly attractive. Also, don’t ever forget your 8-bit heritage. Concepts: tiered access, VR education, multiverse
The Sprawl Trilogy (Neuromancer, Burning Chrome, and Mona Lisa Overdrive) are pretty much the origin of the whole cyberpunk genre. Denizens of this world interface with vast abstract corporate data tomes via a neural interface that straps on to their head and produces a ‘shared hallucination’ that looks like something out of Hackers. Gibson predicted the internet, russian hacking rings, and that we would eventually come to think of wireless service quality like we do the weather, now if only we could get cheap neural interfaces that don’t require brain surgery. Concepts: the matrix, AI’s as equals, uploaded personalities
Vurt is a totally bizarre, but awesome jaunt through a British dystopia that feels like A Clockwork Orange took something to mellow it out. This one is more about the emotional turmoil that can be caused when spending lots of time ‘in-world’, some things seem to be able to cross between the virtual and the real, or is the narrator just losing his mind? Who knows, but it’s so fun. Concepts: VR as a drug, grip on reality
Surface Detail is part of Ian M Banks’ preposterously forward thinking Culture Series, which actually discusses VR fairly frequently, but this book focuses on it almost exclusively. Once they achieve immortality, the advanced races of the universe all eventually invent an afterlife in VR because there just isn’t enough physical space for everyone to live forever, but now they’re even running out of hard drive space. Concepts: inevitability of VR, simulated afterlife, virtual proxy war

Stay tuned, up next: Virtual Reality in Pop Culture Movie Watching Guide!

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