The Unfulfilled Promises of Virtual Reality


Above: Cyberspace in 1982, ala TRON

In 1991 Michael Benedikt gathered 50 attendees at the first International Conference on Cyberspace in Austin, Texas. Cyberspace was not, at the time, synonymous with the internet or the world wide web the way it often is now – in 1992 Bruce Sterling described it as the “place between phones,” and “a vast flowering electronic landscape.” Come 2003 and things didn’t quite pan out the way the early poets predicted. In an interview with GAIN 2.0, Benedikt lamented:

“… cyberspace—that wonderful, phantasmagoric three-dimensional alternative reality imagined by William Gibson—was not actually shaping itself on-line as I and many others thought it surely would. What Mosaic, then Netscape, then Explorer delivered was mostly the content of your local drugstore newsstand, but worse: delivered more jerkily, more shallowly, and more resolutely two-dimensionally—like paper flyers blown against the back of the computer screen… To this day, only advanced intranet gamers have a foretaste of Gibsonian cyberspace: a real-time, shared, virtual space seamlessly mixing useful data, personal presence, and real-world, real-time connection.

Neal Stephenson didn’t coin the word “cyberspace” – William Gibson and Neuromancer are credited with that – but Stephenson’s novel, Snow Crash, is a stellar example of the “cyberpunk” vision.


Snow Crash describes a virtual world that would make Benedikt proud (if it existed), and was a major factor in the popularization of the Sanskrit term “avatar.” Its hero, snarkily named Hiro Protagonist (now the Gamertag of J Allard), navigates a completely physically immersive virtual space ("The Metaverse”) which he can mold to his liking with his decidedly 1337 hacking skills.


The internet today has grown to similar lengths, sans the immersive virtual space. Whether or not it’s impressive to the fathers of the cyberspace concept, the internet relays massive amounts of data, and has a very real effect on economics, public opinion, and day-to-day life. But gee Mr. Writer, what does it all mean for gaming?

Ugh, Second Life. I didn’t want to, but I had to bring it up. It’s not that it’s the best MMOG out there, far from it, but its open-endedness, if clunky, makes it a good example of the cyberspace concept and its relation to virtual reality.

Second Life is no Snow Crash Metaverse, but it does apply many similar concepts. It’s a shared, malleable experience. And what is virtual reality, after all, if you’ve no one to share it with? In what “reality” are we surrounded by artificial characters? MMOGs like Second Life represent a major step toward the realization of the cyberpunk vision.

As for the future, the number of MMOGs which currently exist or are in development is massive, and the genre’s growth doesn’t seem to be slowing. What began as text based D&D clones has evolved, and continues to evolve at a heavy clip.

Enhance the graphics, physics processing and apply less rigid rule sets and something approaching the poetic visions of cyberspace begins to emerge. It may not be where the internet in general is heading (why complicate the ruthless efficiency of HTML?), but it is certainly a more fun and exciting way to interact online, and gamers seem to be the most willing to explore the possibilities laid out by the cyberpunk genre.

On the next page: Augmented reality, and what to expect in the foreseeable future…


  • w40kfanatic - October 10, 2009 3:02 a.m.

    This really sumarizes my dreams. i would LOVE VR, and i know that someday we will achieve it. ill just have to be patient i guess. also, i would expect the device to be a full body suit, similar to a mix of ODST armor from halo, and snake-eyes from g.i. joe.
  • Garry333 - August 30, 2008 2:39 a.m.

    eXistenZ sucks ASS!!!!!! It's the lamest piece of shit movie I've ever seen.
  • GamesRadarTylerWilde - November 24, 2008 8:49 p.m.

    Go watch Videodrome, Dead Ringers, and Naked Lunch.
  • Frostfire - July 27, 2009 12:23 p.m.

    Making predictions for the next 10 years may be difficult but i think its safe to assume that for those of us that die of old age its not only possible but very probable that well see a large part of this dream come true.
  • skarysly - January 24, 2009 4:15 a.m.

    great article, u've done a lot of research on a subject that interests me most. I'm always fascinated with everything that messes up our perceptions, and VR is a main one, still theoretical as it may be. Thank you for that.
  • distefanor - January 21, 2009 10:32 p.m.

    i cant wait for VR!!!
  • Seabread - July 6, 2009 12:58 p.m.

    funny coincidence. i just watched eXistenZ last night for the first time in ages... and it's not gotten any better with age. too many twists and turns and the whole organic console thing freaks me out. urgh!
  • Spectre86 - January 26, 2009 7:29 a.m.

    Closest thing to virtual reality i have ever felt was the Trimersion HMD controller. The way it was set up made it feel so real, and I am sorry, but nothing feels as badass as being the master cheif and gunning down a group of grunts. sadly, the company died (confirmation on death of 3001 AD?) and the product is expensive as hell (it was my friends that i used), but they had something that I hope to be the start of what would eventually turn into a true cyberspace. I plan to get a new laptop here soon and FEAR 2, so i will look more into the Trimersion just so i can see how long it takes for me to piss myself from alma or a spirit of some type.
  • skarysly - January 24, 2009 4:18 a.m.

    I'd say by 2272 u will be able to have a virtual life while ur body is sustained in a capsule and a mad/genius scientist decides to have fun at your expense for eternity by torturing u :) FO fan :)
  • cart00n - January 22, 2009 5:22 a.m.

    Great article. And eXistenZ? Awesome flick.
  • Antennas to Heaven - January 22, 2009 1:59 a.m.

    Good article. I'd prefer more research-based articles like this one were put on Gamesradar, because they always turn out to be interesting.
  • gorillaman23 - January 22, 2009 1:14 a.m.


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