Tech companies have spent years developing better, cheaper devices to immerse people in digital worlds. Yet they are still figuring out how to make virtual reality the kind of technology that people cannot live without.
So for inspiration, they are turning to science fiction.
At Oculus, a leading virtual reality company, a copy of the popular sci-fi novel “Ready Player One” is handed out to new hires. Magic Leap, a secretive augmented reality start-up, has hired science fiction and fantasy writers. The name of Microsoft’s HoloLens headset is a salute to the holodeck, a simulation room from “Star Trek.”
“Like many other people working in the tech space, I’m not a creative person,” said Palmer Luckey, 23, a co-founder of Oculus, which was bought by Facebook for $2 billion in 2014. “It’s nice that science fiction exists because these are really creative people figuring out what the ultimate use of any technology might be. They come up with a lot of incredible ideas.”
Those ideas are especially relevant now, as some of the biggest technology companies are nearing a major push of a new generation of virtual reality products. In the next few months, virtual reality headsets from Oculus, Sony and HTC go on sale. Venture capital money is pouring into the industry.
But how people will interact with the imaginary worlds remains largely unknown territory. And that is where science fiction comes in. Science fiction is shaping the language companies are using to market the technology, influencing the types of experiences made for the headsets and even defining long-term goals for developers.
“Science fiction, in simplest terms, sets you free,” said Ralph Osterhout, chief executive of the Osterhout Design Group, which builds augmented reality glasses.
Much of the action in the book takes place inside the Oasis, a global virtual reality network. Characters in the network attend school, socialize and take part in a high-stakes treasure hunt. Through virtual reality, they can inhabit the perspectives of actors in classic movies.
The book was published in 2011, around the time Mr. Luckey began building an early prototype of the Oculus headset. Mr. Luckey said he appreciated Mr. Cline’s portrayals of characters controlling their avatars through full-body suits rather than plugging “Matrix”-style cables into their brains.
“One of the things I like about ‘Ready Player One’ is all of the depictions in the book are pretty feasible,” Mr. Luckey said. “None of it is crazy, far-out tech.”
Oculus gave out 3,000 copies of the book to attendees of an Oculus developer conference last year. For good measure, Oculus named the meeting rooms at its headquarters after famous fictional versions of virtual reality, including the holodeck, the Oasis and the Matrix, from the movie of the same name and, before that, William Gibson’s “Neuromancer.”
Mr. Cline said he wrote “Ready Player One” partly because he could not figure out why virtual reality had not taken off in the real world.
“I think that was the same impulse that drove Palmer,” said Mr. Cline, who has visited Oculus several times to speak to employees. “Growing up with ‘Neuromancer’ and Max Headroom, it had the same effect on me as a writer as it did on businesspeople.”
Techies do not need any encouragement from their employers to read or watch science fiction, long a pillar of geek culture. Throw a rock in Silicon Valley and you are likely to hit a software engineer who can cite how long it took the Millennium Falcon to make the Kessel Run in “Star Wars.” (Less than 12 parsecs, according to Han Solo, whose use of a term for distance — one parsec equals about 3.26 light-years — rather than time has been the subject of entire articles.) The genre has influenced many corners of technology, from smartphones to robotics to space exploration.
But there is something unique about the interplay between science fiction and virtual reality, a technology that is essentially an instrument for fooling people into believing they are someplace — and often someone — they are not. Virtual reality is a medium, like television or video games, that can borrow liberally from the virtual worlds experienced by fictional characters.
Magic Leap, based in Dania Beach, Fla., and which counts Google as one of its big investors, has gone even further than most companies by hiring three science fiction and fantasy writers on staff. Its most famous sci-fi recruit is Neal Stephenson, who depicted the virtual world of the Metaverse in his seminal 1992 novel “Snow Crash.”
In an interview, Mr. Stephenson — whose title is chief futurist — declined to say what he was working on at Magic Leap, describing it as one of several “content projects” underway at the company.
More broadly, Mr. Stephenson said science fiction books and movies are often useful within tech companies for rallying employees around a shared vision.
“My theory is that science fiction can actually have some value in that it gets everyone on the same page without the kind of expensive and tedious process of PowerPoint,” he said. But the influence of the genre within tech companies is “surprising and mysterious to me as well,” he added.
There is a regular theme in science fiction that its fans in tech talk less about, though: the dystopian aspects of virtual reality. Addiction, disconnection from relationships in the real world and alienation from the environment are often side effects in narratives about virtual reality. It’s hard to make that into a selling point for the technology.
“Entrepreneurs are optimistic and upbeat by nature, which is why I enjoy hanging around with them,” Mr. Stephenson said. “They’ve got an admirable ability to completely ignore the more dystopian elements you’re talking about and see the cool stuff and positive potential of where it might go.”
Of course, authors and moviemakers get to overlook details of their own — like the tough technological challenges that real tech companies face.
“You never have to reboot the damned thing” in sci-fi books, said Genevieve Bell, a cultural anthropologist who works at Intel and has written about the interplay between technology and science fiction. “The mechanics are less interesting to most science fiction writers than the experience.”
Sometimes science fiction plants seeds in the minds of inventors that take years to sprout. The holographic chess game that Chewbacca played on a tabletop aboard the Millennium Falcon was pretty far-out in the 1970s, when Jeri Ellsworth saw it in the original “Star Wars.” It took several decades before technology caught up.
In 2013, Ms. Ellsworth’s start-up, CastAR, gave the first public demonstration of the company’s augmented reality glasses, which overlay digital imagery on the user’s view of the real world.
By now, the experience shown in the demonstration should come as no surprise — the glasses enabled the person wearing them to play a holographic chess game on a tabletop.
“It’s something I’ve been dreaming about my entire life,” Ms. Ellsworth said.