Crystal ball gazing

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If you’ve visited this site recently (September 1 2016), you may have noticed quite a few changes: this is the result of the apparent corruption of a number of files which was detected by my service provider. Quite what the problem was is unclear but, suffice to say, the only sensible option was to reinstall everything, create new databases, change passwords and generally put the site together again from scratch. This was a fairly monumental exercise and, as you will see, is very much still in progress.

All this led me to wonder what the next technology that will take over from websites as we know them will be like. There doesn’t appear to be any obvious historical model that can guide us – there’s never been anything like the Internet before and so any predictions must necessarily be highly speculative. The author William Gibson coined the term “cyberspace” to describe the virtual reality environment in which the protagonists of his “Sprawl” trilogy operated and, in an interview, he claimed that he had got the idea from watching adolescents playing arcade games (very primitive by our modern standards). For me, one of the most interesting aspects of Gibson’s work was his creation of a wholly new medium – “simstim”. This was a wholly immersive virtual reality environment in which the sensory experience of the hero or heroine was recorded, edited and relayed for consumption much as broadcast or online television is today. This product was consumed via electrodes which transmitted this sensory information into the consumer’s brain such that they experienced the sensory world of the person who was recorded – saw what they saw, felt what they felt and so forth.

Early virtual reality systems were extremely crude by comparison and demanded bandwidth and computer power that was rarely available. This power is now achievable with a modern smartphone and indeed some virtual reality products make use of phones to provide visual and aural displays with quite considerable success. What is lacking, however is the final user interface – the direct connection to the brain that makes the user experience truly immersive. Our knowledge of the brain is not yet sufficient for us to be able to transmit a data stream representing the sensory experience of one person into the brain of a recipient such that the experience created is indistinguishable from reality.

Several years ago, I wore a concluding chapter for a book on (audio) recording. The title was “Recording in the 21st century” and I proposed a medium not unlike Gibson’s simstim. Recent technical developments have brought this prospect somewhat closer but the key technology remains elusive. However powerful and sophisticated our systems may have become, the inescapable fact remains that we simply don’t know how the brain works at that level and until we do, any such medium necessarily remains entirely hypothetical and, for now, there seems little prospect of the requisite breakthrough in understanding, let alone in implementing a new technology. We are where we are and, until the paradigm shift comes, our present version of cyberspace seems destined to continue much as at present.