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Is the OASIS just Science Fiction?

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The OASIS from the novel Ready Player One is a sprawling virtual utopia that lets you be anything you want to be. It’s a place where people live and play on any of ten thousand planets, each one offering a unique experience tailored to the creator’s desires.

Although the novel is set in 2044, the creation of the OASIS happens in the (fictional) year 2012. As of 2016, we have no real-life OASIS yet; but how far away are we from building it?

As it turns out, not very.

How to build the OASIS

There are many parts that make up the OASIS experience, each one integral to total immersion and escape from the real world.

Perhaps the most obvious one is virtual reality. The OASIS as a fully immersive experience just wouldn’t be possible without it. But VR is now a solved problem — the imminent release of devices such as the Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive and the Gear VR has the potential to put room-scale VR in every home.

While VR is necessary for immersion, it’s not the full story; a truly immersive experience must engage all the senses. And we’re also getting there; recent advances in haptics have given us omnidirectional treadmills like the Omni, full-body haptic suits like the Teslasuit and responsive controllers like the Falcon. Using all our sense inside a virtual world is closer than ever, though we may have to wait a while for smell-o-vision…

The many worlds within OASIS are a pop-culture fan’s dream. Films, music, TV shows, videogames; every world is a playground of nostalgia. But content from the past isn’t enough. The internet we know and love today has an incredibly rich landscape of original user created content. The tools that make content creation and publishing to sites like YouTube, Twitch and Tumblr so easy could fill countless planets with original content.

The virtual currency of the OASIS became more stable than any in the real world. Bitcoin has seen ups and downs, but has bought cryptocurrencies to the mainstream. Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies have lead to new technologies which could power a future OASIS currency. A working economy encourages user interaction, creation, and deepens immersion.

The missing piece of the puzzle

We have many parts of the picture. Through VR and haptic devices the user can be immersed, whilst a realistic economy and ability to create rich content add meaning and purpose.

But the OASIS is seamless, vast and immediate. There can’t be any loading screens when teleporting between entire planets, or when moving between the relatively tiny areas that today’s MMOs are forced to draw boundaries on. Player’s actions must have long-standing, meaningful consequences, that are visible to everyone in the world. Creations can’t be lost to regular map wipes, or the results of massive battles and the stories they tell erased with a respawn.

In summary, VR and haptics are the window into an alternate world, but the experience is only as immersive as the world itself.

Just like with the recent resurgence of VR and haptics, we are at the dawn of a paradigm shift in the simulation space.

A world that feels real can’t be built out of decorative props and scripted events; it must be a living, breathing world with a depth and complexity way beyond what can be accomplished by manual design alone. It must be a world that exists by itself, built out of billions of individually simulated entities, each of them interesting by itself, and whose interactions give rise to the kind of emergent, larger-scale behaviour we take for granted in the real world.

To build something that reasonably approximates such a complex simulation would require massive engineering resources and time, and has been at the borders of possibility. However, just like with the recent resurgence of VR and haptics, we are at the dawn of a paradigm shift in the simulation space. SpatialOS, a distributed operating system, enables simulations encompassing huge worlds that many millions of entities interact in.

Through rich behaviours and components, these entities can take part in simulations of ecologies, cities, fantasy battlescapes; innumerable possibilities for realistic, living, breathing worlds. SpatialOS could enable the OASIS not only as a simulation of a realistic, living world, but as a playground where any user’s dreams can see life as their very own planet.