Rizwan Virk

@rizstanford

Ready Player One and the Simulation Hypothesis: Are We Avatars in a Virtual World?

OK so I watched Ready Player One this weekend. I’d read the book a while back and you can imagine I was very excited to see this movie.

After all, I grew up watching Spielberg’s films in the late 70’s and early 80s, I played Atari 2600 games as a kid, and these inspired me to make video games myself and eventually become an investor in a number of VR/AR companies.

Here’s my take: there’s something profound that Spielberg and company accomplished with Ready Player One, and it’s not really about whether it was a “good” movie with good acting.

It’s not even whether the story makes any sense. I will try to avoid spoilers here in case you haven’t seen it (which is not that hard to do for a movie where the story is almost secondary!).

I’m also not going to pontificate on why the changes from the book were good or bad (honestly the changes weren’t great, most were probably un-necessary, but even I have to admit they weren’t bad, and who am I to question Mr. Spielberg’s choices on that front anyways?)

In Ready Player One, The Virtual World and the “Real” World Are Intertwined

Watching this movie made me think more about VR/AR, pixels, special effects/CGI, and the nature of virtual and “real” worlds, than about the 80s nostalgia that the book is famous for. Those who’ve read my recent article (The Simulation Hypothesis: Why AI, Quantum Physics about and Eastern Mystics Agree We Are In a Giant Video Game) won’t be surprised that i’ve had simulations on my mind recently.

Worlds Within Worlds Within Worlds …

The truth is that watching Ready Play One was a strange, self-referential, almost surreal experience.

It was like a dream-within-a-dream — you know when you are inside a dream and you wake up, realizing you are late for work or school, you get out of bed, and then you realize you are in a second dream! There was literally one scene in the movie (not in the book) where this happened and reality was almost indistinguishable from the game.

Let’s take stock of the layers of reality that were in play while I was watching this movie in my local movie theater:

  • I was sitting in a theater with a group of other moviegoers in a “3d” world, watching a 2D screen.
  • I was using the 3d glasses so the 2D screen seemed like it was a real 3d world with depth. This applied to both the “physical world” in the movie (Columbus, Ohio) and the “virtual world” (the Oasis). To be honest, I usually skip the 3d versions of films these days but this one was worth it.,
  • In the movie, the action flipped between the very depressing “physical world”, following real-life Wade Watts, and the “virtual world” inside Oasis, where Wade’s avatar Parzival and his romantic interest’s avatar, Artemis, and assorted friends avatars roamed different planets and incredible (virtual) 3d landscapes.
  • In the virtual world, in an attempt to find clues on the quest set up by Haliday, the virtual avatars would watch actual video from the “real world” — of the actors playing Oasis creator Haliday and his business partner, Ogden.
The worlds within worlds within worlds ….

This was what made it a surreal — when they showed scenes of the “real world” inside the virtual world, inside the real world, inside the movie, which I was watching in 3d from the so-called “real world”. This led to an effect like the nested Russian dolls, only I lost track of which level I was in and how many levels there were above me.

Avatars, Pixels and Virtual Worlds

Let’s talk about avatars, a term that was fist coined by Randy Farmer and Chip Morningstar to describe characters in the first MMORPG, Habitat, which they developed at George Lucas’ video game company (Lucas Arts) in the 1980s. Incidentally, Randy and Chip were still working together a few years ago when I met them and invested in one of their startups — but that’s a whole different kind of story!

Inside the Oasis, which is the world’s most successful company in Ready Player One, your avatar could look like anything. The avatars shown were all over the place, from a Wizard (Oasis creator Haliday’s avatar) to anime-like, semi-realistic versions of themselves (Parzival and Artemis), to giant robots like the Iron Giant and Gundam. Characters also had cool weapons, spaceships and artifacts ranging from a Delorean to particle weapons to yes, even Mechagodzilla!

Avatars could take on any form you wished in the Oasis

Now it’s not that you couldn’t tell the difference between the avatars in the virtual world and the characters/actors in the physical world. Avatars were drawn like pixelated characters we might see in video games, and this made me think about rendering and how far we’ve come with digital representations of the people and objects in the world.

In the early days of video games, characters were represented by non-realistic bitmapped icons like Pac-man or the aliens in Space Invaders. As rendering technology advanced, you started to see more sophisticated representations, like the characters in World of Warcraft, and avatars in virtual worlds like Second Life, where people would build houses and have virtual relationships and much more. You might even say that Oasis is pretty much Second Life on steroids (SL was popular just before Kline published RPO in 2011).

The avatars in Oasis were more realistic than in most games, and they were more responsive. Most likely, the actors were using motion capture suits, so their every move was reflected in their avatar. Coincidentally, this is pretty much what the characters in the movie were doing to drive their avatar!

Now, we all know that it’s possible to place CGI elements that seem “real” in physical locations. In fact, Spielberg’s Jurassic Park was one of the first big budget movies to use CGI to place virtual characters (if you can consider a T. Rex a character) into a physical world in the 1990s, and Andy Serkis Gollum got rave reviews in the Lord of the Rings movies in the 2000s.

Though the hair on the human avatars in Ready Play One moved in the wind (one of the most difficult aspects of CGI), they mostly avoided the “uncanny valley” by being close but not too close. This is the “strangely familiar feelings of eeriness or revulsion” that that we get when watching “humanoid objects which appear almost, but not exactly like real human beings”.

Well, we can’t expect avatars in video games to be fully realistic, can we? After all they are just pixels on a screen, aren’t they?

As I sat in the movie theater wondering about pixels, I realized that even the humans — the actors that I was watching on screen — were also just pixels too! Most theaters today use digital distribution and not physical film. This means that the whole film is a set of pixels, compressed frame by frame, and sent out to the theater for a digital projector to display.

Did the actors look more realistic than the avatars because they had more pixels than their avatar counterparts?

Not really, since the resolution of frames in the film is consistent throughout. It’s not like the scenes in Columbus were at say, 4K and the scenes inside Oasis were at 1080p — in fact most digital projectors use 2K.

If both the avatars and actors on the screen were based on pixels, being projected slightly differently to each of my eyes (using the real3D glasses) — what was the real difference between the “virtual” and the “real” characters on screen in Ready Player One?

Is the Simulation Hypothesis More Real Now?

Which brings us right back to the Simulation Hypothesis — the idea that we are all living in some sort of video game.

Ready Player One and the Simulation Hypothesis

When Kline wrote his novel in the late 2000s, Virtual Reality really wasn’t a big thing. The current “second wave” of VR really took off in 2014, when Facebook bought Oculus and everyone became convinced VR was the next best thing.

Though our haptic suits and add-ons aren’t as complicated as those in the movie, VR has come a long way, and , as one reviewer of the movie pointed out, even the omnidirectional treadmill that Wade used, is a real thing.

While no one has created an Oasis yet, you can see a pretty clear path from today’s rendering technology to more realistic simulations.

Just as I was watching this “movie” using 3d glasses where actors were wearing 3d VR glasses to control avatars inside a rendered, pixelated world, I began to wonder if there weren’t more levels to this nested Russian doll scenario than I was aware, outside of our world.

Were we in fact, in a pixelated, seemingly 3d world only because images were being beamed to our “eyes” and rendered to look that way? The Matrix, is of course, the most famous of the movies to present this scenario — and there was even a teaser poster for Ready Player One that was based off of the Matrix (see above).

Nick Bostrom, Oxford philosopher, made the idea of the Simulatoin Hypothesis popular among academics with his 2003 paper, Are You Living in Simulation?

His basic argument, if you boil it down is that either mankind (or any species) will reach the point where it has the technology to conduct a simulation like our world, or it won’t.

Bostrom calls it a post-human civilization that creates what he calls ancestor simulations. I like to think of it as a “simulation point” — the point where our computer technology becomes sophisticated enough to create a fully realistic 3d simulation that looks and feels reals.

The possibilities are threefold, according to Bostrom, about reaching this “simulation point”:

1. We never make it to this point, thus ancestor simulations are not possible.

2. We make it to this point but ancestor simulations are banned or not allowed.

3. We make it this point, and we create many realistic ancestor simulations.

If #3 is true, that a species gets to the point where its technology allows realistic ancestor simulations, then that species is likely to create many such simulations. Thus the number of “simulated worlds” will vastly outnumber the “real worlds” and the number of “beings” (either real or simulated) in these worlds outnumber “real physical beings”.

This is true even if (especially if) there are multiple races that make it to the simulation points on different planets.

It’s a simple probability then which tells us, since there are way more beings in simulated worlds than the “physical real world”, the chances that we are simulated beings in a simulation is very high.

Well, watching Ready Player One made me think that we may not be that as far off from being able to create fully realistic 3d worlds and simulations. Elon Musk and others believe it’s only a matter of time before our technology gets there –whether its 10 years, 100 years (or even 1000 years).

Bostrom’s argument says that if we will ever get there, we are probably there now (by being inside an ancestor simulation).

What does that mean for the 7 billion people that are on this planet now? Are we living in a simulation? An Oasis type world? If so, who’s outside the simulation? Superintelligent machines or aliens or souls playing characters through reincarnation?

The name of the movie is based on the old arcade games which would say “Ready Player One” or “Ready Player Two” as your cue that its your turn to play the game.

The Simulation Hypothesis implies a much more sophisticated massively multi-player game like Oasis with millions if not billions of players, all of whom need to be ready to play simultaneously.

After seeing this movie, I’m thinking: Ready Player 7 Billion.

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