MMO cafe in Bejing I visited in 2013
News that China already has an install base of 10 million virtual reality headsets reminded me of a conversation I had with Palmer Luckey last year, when I was starting to write my article on VR for Wired. Because as it happens, back then he sort of saw this news coming:
While VR is among the most hyped technologies among affluent tech enthusiasts in the West, Luckey told me last Summer, we may find that people in developing nations will embrace it the fastest.
"If you’re talking about Chinese workers or people who are living in Africa, I think the threshold is a lot lower," he said. "It could be a lot of the early adopters are the people who have a greater incentive to escape the real world."
We talked about how 3-D fantasy games are tremendously popular in China, with hundreds of millions fervently playing many hours a day in tiny apartments or cavernous Internet/MMO cafes (as above). When VR goggles reach the cost of a mid-priced smartphone, it’s easy to picture them strapped to tens of millions of Chinese faces, displaying the pixelated semblance of beautiful locales while blocking out any view of the smog-choked sky.
Palmer Luckey even speculated that as virtual reality grows in popularity, some Chinese will have jobs in technical support centers for VR companies, partly to subsidize their own virtual reality use after work:
When VR becomes mass market, much of the technical/customer support will be handled by call centers in the developing world. For people in those call centers, he said, “You can work 8 hours a day in VR gear”, and then use them for recreation in their spare time. That way, Palmer Luckey told me, you'd have people who exist just for the virtual world.
“What happens when VR becomes a dominant platform, are you basically going to have VR gold farms?” Luckey asked rhetorically, saying it's a topic that's come up in the Oculus office. (He meant like China's cottage industry and prison labor system of "harvesting" gold in MMOs like World of Warcraft, then selling it back to wealthy players.)
We discussed China's Great Firewall and censorship in general. Won't the Chinese government just start censoring VR content, or perhaps require mandatory viewing of virtual propaganda?
“You can imagine situations where government can control and persuade people," Luckey allowed. However, he went on, it’s one thing for the government to censor the Internet, but can the government really censor VR experiences depicting a free society? He thinks it's possible people in China and other authoritarian countries will learn about dissent from other VR users living in democratic regions, and form what are basically MMO-type guilds which translate principles of dissent.
“This is a new thought for me right now so bear with me," Luckey went on. "What happens when economically, to compete [with the rest of the world], Chinese workers have to have access to VR, [since it's] a technology that's become economically indispensable?” Then, if I understood him correctly, VR might be the means of achieving a more democratic society -- or at the very least, experiencing virtual versions of one.
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