Let’s face it. The internet pretty much sucks in comparison to how William Gibson described it in Neuromancer (1984), his cyberspace-defining novel. Between porn, tweets, online tax filings, and iTunes updates, the internet as it exists today is a far cry from the neon-shaded full dives as sci-fi pitched it.
Still, there is hope for an internet that completely submerges the user in beautiful data. The future is long, and the internet is not yet firmly set in her ways. With internet browsing coming along for virtual reality, many internet experts believe that the net could undergo a metamorphosis.
One such expert, Casey Yee, who is designing the WebVR application for Mozilla, told me that “an immersive VR web will look nothing like what we see today.”
But wait a minute. In order to fully appreciate the full extent of VR’s transformative potential, it’s useful to know why the internet exists in its current format in the first place. The lineages of modern browsers, whether you surf with Chrome, Safari, or Firefox, all trace back to a design that originated over 30 years ago with Netscape, or even further, possibly.
As the the majority of content on the net in the 90s was text and images, the browsing experience adopted the analogy of books, as one kind soul explained it to me. Ergo, the early web had “pages.” Links directed you elsewhere, similar to footnotes. And don’t forget to bookmark. It all starts to sound pretty dry in that context. And yet the shape and dimension of the net are much richer and Gibsonian than its bookish interface would have you believe.
“the internet was always this living thing that’s growing in a geometric way”
“I’ve sat in data centers with the air condition blowing, sliding computer boxes in, and hooking up the cables, literally building a part of the internet that joins this hive of other machines,” said Anthony Batt, c0-founder and EVP of the VR studio Wevr, as he describes a Matrix-like army when asked what the structure of the internet looks like. “To me, the internet was always this living thing that’s growing in a geometric way.”
If immersive technology becomes commonplace, which granted is a big if, many of the people I spoke with believe that VR will merge and become one with the net. This will do big things, like allow us to more natively appreciate the contours of cyberspace, which both overlap with the real world and compose their own cyber-shapes. “Being able to express the entire depth of the web, and to visualize it, opens up a huge amount of creative possibilities,” said Yee of Mozilla.
And this transition and sea change seems almost a foregone conclusion, as the classic web page layout just doesn’t make sense inside a virtual environment.
As of now, the VR internet is still young—prenatal, so to speak. The metaphors for the new cyberspace have not been sussed out yet. Some VR browsing experiences, such as TumbVR by Thomas Balouet, which turns Tumblr into a gallery space, presents the net as ordinary building spaces. Janus VR, meanwhile, utilizes portals for links, much like in Valve’s Portal. It also, I might add, allows users to saunter around the web in the guise of Frank Hill, or a human skeleton.
Batt, a realist, sees things differently. He anticipates a more traditional browser experience that enables people to freely slip in and out of full-body engagement as the need arrises. “At some point, there is a resting place, similar to your current desktop, though it may have three-dimensional depth,” he said. But to be honest, it’s a safe bet that none of these ideas will stick.
“brain-swimming through the consensual hallucination”
Another huge question mark is how people will navigate this nebulous and unimagined interconnection of virtual spaces. “If you have this big headset on, you’re probably not going to be able to see your keyboard,” said Karan Singh, co-founder and chief tech officer of Janus VR, the aforementioned VR internet browser startup. “And if you did see it and were typing on it, it breaks the illusion of reality.” Another drawback, he said, is that a keyboard and mouse occupy your hands, when you obviously should be reaching out and touching the virtual internet.
Singh rattles off the usual suspects for futuristic methods of control: hand gestures, voice commands, head positioning, eye movement, emitting mind images into MRI machines. “It could be a visual interface. Today, when you are looking for cat pictures, you type in ‘cat,’” said Singh. “But in the future, you just imagine something that looks like a cat, and your thought gets imaged using this futuristic video-out, and it’s able to do a search.” While this seems incredible, Singh points to lab experiments where scientists have been able to capture recognizable images from human brain activity.
That is to say, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that our grandchildren’s grandchildren will be brain-swimming through the consensual hallucination one day. But where will they be going, and what will they see? The one certainty, or near certainty, is that the immersive internet will surround them. “As people wear headsets more and more, the internet is going to want to show up in 360,” said Batt.
Given the complexity and enormity of the net (a zettabyte is a ballpark figure), it will also certainly sprawl out further than the mind can perceive. “When I’m looking at NASA photos, and they’re saying ‘look, there’s ten thousand galaxies,’ and all I’m seeing is what looks like space gas and dust and dots. That, to me, is what the internet looks like,” Batt said.
“If you zoom up on it, at some point, it starts to render itself as cards of content. Actionable things to do: open, close, play, enter data. They take form in my field of view. It probably looks flat. But, like, zooming way out, it just might look like universes.”