In “Virtual reality a new frontier for religions,” published yesterday on Hypergrid Business, I argue that massively popular virtual churches, place of worship and spiritual communities in Virtual Reality (VR) will be developed with next-generation VR systems.
The article includes quotes from Christopher Benek, Lincoln Cannon, and Robert Geraci. All three are persuaded that new VR systems with immersive interfaces like Facebook’s Oculus Rift or Microsoft HoloLens could revolutionize online religion and make virtual churches accessible and appealing to multitudes of believers, and I totally agree.
A few years ago I participated in the development and launch of one of the most beautiful works ever done in Second Life – a complete life-like reconstruction of the Basilica of San Francesco d’ Assisi, based on detailed plans, satellite imagery and hundreds of high resolution pictures. The sim was used for public events organized by the city of Assisi and guided walkthroughs. It wasn’t used as an online Church for virtual services though – I remember that the idea was suggested to the ecclesiastic authorities but they didn’t really consider Second Life as a viable option for e-religion. The Church authorities were remarkably prescient: soon after the launch of the sim Second Life went out of fashion, and the virtual Basilica disappeared.
There have been intense debates about just why Second Life didn’t live up to the high expectations of the years 2006-2009, when it was all over the press as the Next Big Thing that would soon disrupt and take over online communications. My favorite theory is that Second Life is too difficult to use and not immersive enough for mass adoption. These two factors seem separate, but they are linked.
Virtual reality rendered on a small laptop screen, only navigable with legacy mouse and keyboard interfaces developed in the 70s – which most of today’s Internet consumers never mastered anyway – isn’t the virtual reality imagined by Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash) and Ernest Cline (Ready Player One). What Stephenson and Cline envisaged is a fully immersive 360-degree real virtuality that users can navigate and control with intuitive head, body and hands motion and voice commands, just like they do in real life.
It has often been said that immersive VR permits suspending disbelief and just “being there.” But it’s difficult to suspend disbelief when you struggle to remember – Ctrl-Alt-This or Shift-Alt-That? – awkward mouse and keyboard commands. On the contrary, in the Metaverse of Neal Stephenson and the OASIS of Ernest Cline, the user interface is as easy to use as in real life, because it’s copied from real life.
Now next generation devices like the Oculus Rift headset and the Leap Motion hand movement sensor promise to deliver just that: fully immersive interfaces to sophisticated virtual worlds, which users, even casual consumers, don’t have to “learn” because they work just like real life. The new interface devices are much more complex, technically, than the old, but the users don’t have to know the details – do you really know how a mouse works? – and can dive right into immersive virtuality.
The new project of Second Life creator Philip Rosedale, the next-generation VR platform High Fidelity, currently in alpha testing, will support the Oculus Rift and other immersive interface gear. Leading business and technology experts are betting that next-generation virtual worlds will become hugely popular. Of course words talk but money walks, and the best demonstration of the once again rising expectations about virtual reality is the two-billion dollars acquisition of Oculus VR by Facebook.
More recently, Microsoft announced their new Augmented Reality (AR) headset, the HoloLens, which adds holographic projections to the user’s field of view. The device, to be launched later this year, can be used like Google Glass for simple annotations like street directions, but it can also be used as an immersive interface to virtual worlds. For example, NASA and Microsoft have teamed up to develop OnSight, a new HoloLens powered by data from the Curiosity rover, which will enable scientists to work virtually on Mars together.
I think now is the right time to launch a very ambitious project to build a Virtual Turing Church in cyberspace, which will apply the lessons learned in previous (mostly) failed attempts and build on the impressive recent advances of VR technology to create a real virtual place for spiritual seekers.
Images from cyberloom.