Here’s a first stab at what I would consider good starting reading on virtual reality – both to get a sense of the topic from researchers and VR developers, as well as some defining visions of what virtual reality might become:
Neuromancer, by William Gibson (1984) – A truly visionary work of science fiction that gave us the first fully realized imagining of cyberspace, and deeply influenced a generation of science fiction writers and researchers alike. Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab says Neuromancer, “was without a doubt what inspired me to become a scholar of avatars… Large government grants have been awarded to me for building and testing Gibson’s ideas. Academic papers are improved by Gibson quotes that sum up the big ideas of the research. PhD students walk out of my office with a copy when searching for dissertation topics. Undergraduates who can’t imagine the world without the ‘cyberspace’ that Gibson predicted (or perhaps facilitated) grumble about my using it as a textbook in my lecture classes… Without Neuromancer, the world of virtual reality as a whole would look very different.”
Snow Crash, by Neil Stephenson (1992) – This was my first exposure to the cyberpunk genre, as an assigned reading in a 1995 undergraduate elective class on technology and society. Michael Abrash, formerly of Id Software and Valve fame, and now Chief Scientist at Oculus, describes the influence of Snow Crash this way, “It all started with Snow Crash. If I hadn’t read it and fallen in love with the idea of the Metaverse, if it hadn’t made me realize how close networked 3D was to being a reality, if I hadn’t thought I can do that, and more importantly I want to do that, I’d never have embarked on the path that eventually wound up at Valve.”
Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline (2012) – Another hugely entertaining, imaginative vision of virtual reality, and influential for the latest generation of developers. Palmer Luckey recommends this to everyone at Oculus, and Ernest Cline is similarly a fan of the Rift. As he remarked on the difficulty of timing in science fiction writing after being invited to Oculus, “You’re often wrong when you try to predict the advancements of technology and in this case, I feel like I underestimated instead of overestimated, which is really exciting.”
Interview with Jaron Lanier on Virtual Reality, Whole Earth Review (1989) – An early interview with the so-called godfather of virtual reality, Jaron Lanier. Aside from being a great window into the astonishing range of thoughts Lanier has always had about the potential of VR, here he puts forward the argument that the real potential of VR is social: “Other people are the life of the party in Virtual Reality. Other people are the unique things that will animate Virtual Reality and make it astonishingly unpredictable and amazing.”
Infinite Reality: The Hidden Blueprint of our Virtual Lives, by Jim Blascovich and Jeremy Bailenson (2011) – A fascinating tour of VR research by two top researchers in the field. This book focuses on how the human mind behaves in virtual environments, and the social and psychological issues that will become hot topics as VR becomes a mass market technology.
The Body Has a Mind of Its Own: how body maps in your brain help you do (almost) everything better, by Sandra Blakeslee and Matthew Blakeslee – recommended to me by virtual reality researcher (and new Oculus employee) Will Steptoe, this book delves into the emerging science of “body maps” – how your sense of self extends into the space around you and the objects you hold. Though not specifically focused on VR (though there is a special chapter on VR and body maps) the topic as a whole will be central to how effectively VR becomes an ’embodied’ form of both computing and cognition.
What would you add to the list? Comment below, and I’ll include any good suggestions in future iterations.