You Couldn’t Create a Worse Ad for the Metaverse if You Tried

Friday, November 11th, 2022

On this Veterans Day, I wonder what people who’ve seen real-world combat will think of Oculus founder Palmer Luckey’s new virtual reality headset. The device is designed to kill its wearer if they die in the game they’re playing. Personally, it makes me a little sick.

A VR headset with explosives which trigger when a player dies in a game.

This real-world device which should not exist is an homage to hardware described in the Japanese fiction “Sword Art Online”. Therein, players are trapped inside a virtual world that can only be escaped by winning the game. If the player dies in the game, or if anyone tampers with their real-world hardware, the player’s headset kills them real life. Fun!

Luckey’s blog post details the project further:

You want NerveGear, the incredible device that perfectly recreates reality using a direct neural interface that is also capable of killing the user. The idea of tying your real life to your virtual avatar has always fascinated me – you instantly raise the stakes to the maximum level and force people to fundamentally rethink how they interact with the virtual world and the players inside it. Pumped up graphics might make a game look more real, but only the threat of serious consequences can make a game feel real to you and every other person in the game.

That last line, emphasis added, really what jumps out at me. Has Palmer Luckey ever actually read a book? Or seen a movie? Humans have the marvelous gift of imagination, and it has the ability to make things feel real, even when they’re not. The constant threat of death is not required to make something enjoyable nor immersive. It is certainly not the only way.

Luckey went on, hopefully sardonically:

The good news is that we are halfway to making a true NerveGear. The bad news is that so far, I have only figured out the half that kills you. The perfect-VR half of the equation is still many years out.

Oh, well, at least we’re halfway there. It’s good that we got the important “kill the user” part out of the way first.

At this point, it is just a piece of office art, a thought-provoking reminder of unexplored avenues in game design. It is also, as far as I know, the first non-fiction example of a VR device that can actually kill the user. It won’t be the last.

As a piece of art or a conversation starter, this certainly provokes a reaction in me. As I said, however, that reaction is one of nausea and revulsion. I most certainly do not want NerveGear, and I question the mental health of anyone who does.

See you in the metaverse.

Don’t count on it.


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