Watch the "Ready Player One" trailer here.
An avid reader of novels featuring immersive virtual worlds such as William Gibson's "Neuromancer" and Neal Stephenson's "Snowcrash," Bryan Carter already was a fan of Ernest Cline's 2011 novel "Ready Player One" when Steven Spielberg announced he was adapting it for the big screen.
A dystopian story set in 2040, "Ready Player One" follows a character named Wade Watts on his search for clues, keys and a hidden Easter egg in the OASIS, a fully immersive virtual universe accessible to people around the world. Whoever finds the egg inherits its creator's fortune along with the right to control the OASIS. With the help of his friends, Watts follows the clues, defeats a nefarious rival — both in the real and virtual worlds — and finds the egg.
As director of the University of Arizona's Center for Digital Humanities and professor of Africana studies, Carter's interest in "Ready Player One" went far beyond the lure of a good novel or the thrill of an exhilarating movie. Carter, creator of the Virtual Harlem and Virtual Montmartre projects, has studied virtual reality and immersed himself in the field of digital humanities before there even was a name for it.
Now, with the development of new virtual worlds and advancements in bandwidth, headsets, and augmented and mixed-reality technologies, an explosion of new opportunities exists for students and for the UA's research enterprise, he says.
"Although the novel was published in 2011, I think Spielberg's movie is an attempt to get this generation excited about the possibilities of virtual worlds just as the advent of Second Life excited educators back in 2003-2004," Carter says.
Second Life, an immersive world platform developed by Linden Labs and embraced by educators, was a proving ground for many of the ideas portrayed in "Ready Player One," which opened in movie theaters this spring. But Second Life fell out of favor after discounts for educational institutions were discontinued.
"When Second Life came out, we taught classes, held workshops, visited museums and went to concerts in a completely new world," Carter says. "Our avatars mingled with dozens of others in virtual classrooms, and there were hundreds of avatars from around the world attending concerts and sporting events — all the things we saw in the movie and read about in the book."
Carter's original vision for teaching in an immersive virtual world can be traced back to 1996, when he was a doctoral student, and that vision has only expanded since then. Asked about the opportunities virtual reality offers to today's students, he leans forward, smiling, his voice full of enthusiasm.
"The research component behind all this is the opportunity for the UA," Carter says. "My goal is to get students excited about developing these worlds and thinking about the content that can be created and experienced, as well as the ethical and social implications of immersion. Faculty members can expose students to the construction, content development and programming of these worlds."
The virtual worlds Carter and others like him envision must be built from the ground up by programmers and engineers, but, Carter says with a laugh, it's the humanities that drives the technology. "I joke with my friends in the sciences and say, 'We give your life meaning.' For instance, when Second Life was launched, the novel 'Snowcrash' had already been out for years, but it was still talked about constantly. You can program a world, but without the humanities, what purpose or context does it have?"
According to Carter, the College of Humanities and the UA as a whole have the opportunity to inform the ethical and social constructs of the virtual worlds being built today.
"We have to encourage developers to think about ethics and inclusion and about the ramifications of access versus non-access," he says. "Because we already live in a society where class, race and opportunity are stratified, and because there is a high cost of entry that comes with virtual reality, the risk of exacerbating existing stratification is very real."
Whereas a smartphone can be used for augmented or mixed-reality experiences, an immersive virtual-reality experience costs hundreds of dollars and must include a headset, high-speed connectivity and bandwidth, and a computer powerful enough to run the headset and render graphics.
"In the novel," Carter notes, "Wade goes to school in the OASIS and every student is given a basic rig — a bodysuit, gloves, headset and computer. But in America, we don't have the altruistic mindset to make that possible."
It's not just a question of equal educational opportunity. It's also the difference between net neutrality and the idea that companies can charge different rates according to user type, content, application or platform.
So what role can the UA community play to expand opportunity?
For virtual reality to realize its promise, especially in terms of educational opportunity, Carter says there must be a base level of access that allows everyone in the door.
"Unless there's some sort of stipend or supplement to poor and rural communities, we're going to start leaving people further and further behind and exacerbating the existing gulf between haves and have-nots," he says.
But beyond technological and hardware access, the worlds being imagined and built must have a more diverse and inclusive vision.
"A majority of content developers today are not women or people of color, so you have a repetition of ideas," Carter says. "Our job as a university is to address the ideological as well as the technological gulf."
Hispanic- and Native American-serving institutions, as well as historically black colleges and universities, need to create connections with companies to provide hands-on experience and exposure.
"The UA has the opportunity to address the diversity problem," Carter says. "If we can do that, it will be huge."
As Wade Watts learns at the end of his Easter egg hunt in the OASIS, real life is the only place you can find true happiness. But someday, Carter says, we'll all be able to put on a headset, gloves and bodysuit, step onto an immersive treadmill and enter virtual worlds full of wonders. We'll be able to go to school or to a museum, start a business or a war, or even fall in love with people we may never meet in the real world.
What those virtual worlds look like will depend on the imaginations of students sitting in UA classrooms right now.