Would you rather be immersed in this - or Facebook? Photo: Getty
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I'd rather stick my head in a whale's blowhole than play Facebook's Oculus Rift

Facebook don't want to make great games. They want more users, more metadata and more adverts. Whatever the Oculus Rift could have been is now dead.

I’m not angry at the guys at Oculus Rift for selling to Facebook. Two billion dollars is top hat and monocle money. No amount of nerdy enthusiasm can repel capital of that magnitude. So it goes.

What does this mean for the Oculus Rift, though? The word "dead" is a good starting point. Whatever the Oculus Rift was or might have been is now dead. A device that was shaping up to be the most radical advance in video game technology in a generation will instead now become some sort of Facebook thing. Just the idea of it makes my flesh crawl. The Oculus Rift allowed players to feel a level of immersion beyond anything a mere screen could offer. I’d sooner shove my head into a whale’s blowhole than be immersed in Facebook. And I don’t even really know what would be in a blowhole. I’d chance it.

The problem is that when you take something that was designed to be a high-end piece of gaming hardware and make it something for everybody, you’re killing the heart of it; you are killing the ambition and the pioneering nature of it. Oculus Rift was potentially a leap forward in game technology, not just a step. Sure, it was a leap forward that only a few people would be able to make at first, those with the necessary computer hardware and so on, but that’s how technology starts, the enthusiasts pick it up and it grows outward from there. It’s not elitist so much as it is a process. The average consumer doesn’t want to be a beta tester or a guinea pig, but enthusiasts love it. So developments take time, but they usually end up working out fine. The Oculus Rift for its part could have become the next big thing had it been allowed to grow organically like everything else does. Sure it wasn’t going to be universally popular right away, but barring some sort of insurmountable flaw popping up it looked like a sure bet for success.

 

A prototype of the virtual reality headset, Oculus Rift, in January 2014. Photo: Getty

Had the Oculus Rift succeeded it would have dragged games technology with it, expectations would have raised, progress would have happened. Home computer hardware would finally have had a reason to step up after years of competition with consoles they haven’t tried to be state of the art in almost a decade. Humanity would have finally unlocked the achievement ‘Virtual Reality Is A Thing Now’ after decades of frustration.

Thus Facebook coming in at this stage feels like it could be a very bad thing indeed. The Oculus Rift isn’t a finished technology yet. It needs better screens, it demands such a very high frame rate in applications that games have to be very simple or else the computer running them has to be hugely powerful and it can cause motion sickness in some people. There is a long way to go even before it becomes a ubiquitous device for video game enthusiasts, let alone the general public. So if Facebook does shift the goal of the Oculus Rift from starting out as a minority interest technology to being a two-headsets-in-every-living-room media device then we’re going to see it evolve into something different from what was on the cards before. The potential revolution in home video gaming could be replaced by yet another white elephant.

Of course this is speculation. Maybe Facebook won’t change anything about the Oculus Rift or the direction in which it is headed, but that would be spectacularly bad business considering the amount of money they just sank into buying it. You don’t spend two billion dollars on a company just to tell them to crack on as they were doing.

Facebook knows that there’s more money in Farmville than there is in Elite Dangerous or Day Z. They know all about mass appeal. Past that they don’t want to make, or facilitate the making of, great games. They want our metadata, they want to expand the number of users they have and they want to bombard us with adverts. There’s nothing wrong with that, it goes with the territory as a social media company. However we have no reason to believe that anything good, from a gaming point of view, will come from the acquisition of a gaming technology by a social media firm.

I would love to be pleasantly surprised by the Oculus Rift. Maybe it will be everything that it could have been and more, backed by greater public interest and wedges of fresh money. However it’s much more likely that this is it for any Oculus Rift powered gaming revolution and possibly Virtual Reality too for the foreseeable future. This might all sound rather bleak, and, well, it is. Also there’s no Santa Claus and one day the sun will burn out. I say one day, it won’t actually be a day, and we’ll all be dead.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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Out like a light: why bad sleep poses a danger to us all

Our species has declared war on the night and sleep has been the victim.

At 4.02am on 2 November 1892, near Thirsk railway station in Yorkshire, an express train crashed into a goods train. Ten people were killed and 39 injured. Nearly a century later, at 1.23am on 26 April 1986, the No 4 reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded, killing two people instantly and causing multiple deaths from radiation. To see how these seemingly unrelated tragedies are connected requires that we understand biological time.

Our lives are ruled by time, but the alarms that drive us out of bed in the morning or tell us that we are late for a meeting are recently adopted chronometers. Life answers to a more ancient beat, which probably started to tick early in the evolutionary process. Embedded in our genes are the instructions for a biological or “circadian” clock that regulates our sleep patterns, alertness, mood, physical strength, blood pressure, and more.

Normally, we experience a 24-hour pattern of light and dark and this aligns our day to the Earth’s rotation. The clock is then used to anticipate this rotation and fine-tune physiology and behaviour before these conditions change. Temperature, blood pressure and cognitive performance all decline as you wind down to sleep. Before dawn, these processes are slowly reversed in anticipation of the new day.

The daily sleep cycle is the most obvious of these rhythms. While asleep, we don’t eat, drink, make money or have sex, so we have relegated the sleep state to a lowly position on our list of priorities. At best, we tolerate it; at worst, we regard it as an illness in need of a cure. Such attitudes are not only wrong, but dangerous.

Though sleep may involve the suspension of most physical activity, the brain is consolidating memories and solving problems; it co-ordinates the removal of toxins; promotes cell division and tissue repair; and rebuilds metabolic pathways. In short, without sleep, our performance and health deteriorate rapidly.

Our species has declared war on the night and sleep has been the victim. The unintended consequences of cheap electric light are twofold. More light at night, together with forms of entertainment including social media, have eroded our sleep time by as much as two hours every night. On top of this, many of us are trying to sleep at the wrong time. Those with night shifts work when they are sleepy and try to sleep when they are not. The body clock fails to adjust and remains synchronised to the natural light/dark cycle.

Shortened sleep and working against biological time have been linked with many health problems. These include lapses in attention and uncontrollable micro-sleeps; impulsiveness and loss of empathy; memory impairment and reduced creativity; immune suppression; higher risks of Type 2 diabetes, infection, cancer and cardiovascular disease; weight gain; and a susceptibility to depression, anxiety and mood instability.

In our quest for instant gratification, it is unlikely that we will stop doing what we like when we like. However, understanding the consequences of bad sleep will help us to reprioritise sleep. Perhaps, one day, the self-inflicted tired will be viewed with the same contempt as that for smokers huddled outside a building. Employers need to recognise that employees with disrupted sleep will be less productive. Why not introduce more health checks and offer advice to those at risk? As night-shift workers are more likely to have heart disease and Type 2 diabetes and to be obese, firms could provide food that reduces these risks. Finally, technology could be used to alert an individual that they are falling asleep both in the workplace and during the drive home.

So, what happened at Thirsk railway station in 1892 and Chernobyl in 1986? These disasters and others like them were linked to excessive tiredness, people working at the wrong biological time and a breakdown in procedure. James Holmes was the signalman at Thirsk. The day before the crash, he had been awake for 36 hours, caring for his daughter, trying to find a doctor and looking after his grief-stricken wife when the baby died. He reported to the stationmaster that he would be unable to work the next night, but no replacement was sent and he was forced to do his shift. He fell asleep, and he had forgotten that the goods train was on the line when he allowed the express through.

After the crash, Holmes was found guilty of manslaughter but given an absolute discharge. The railway company was blamed for ignoring him, and for failing to use procedures which would have detected that he had fallen asleep.

Russell Foster is Professor of Circadian Neuroscience at the University of Oxford

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution