Developer M2’s E-mote virtual reality demonstration at the 2016 Tokyo Game Show drew censure and snaking queues. Photograph: Kim Kyung Hoon/Reuters Simon Parkin
Sunday 2 October 2016 08.00 BST
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I n muggy Tokyo, a man wearing an Oculus Rift headset crouches in front of a blank-faced mannequin and fondles her breasts. On screen, an animated cartoon version of the girl (despite her nurse-like professional attire, it is unquestionably a girl) smiles coquettishly while a skeletal depiction of the man’s hands move rhythmically, as if testing a nectarine for ripeness. According to the organisers of last month’s Tokyo Game Show, it is the year of virtual reality. For a number of exhibitors at the show, however, it seems more like the year of digital lechery. Such was the outrage on social media at the spectacle of this dummy-groping, the software’s developer was told by event staff to remove the touch sensors from the mannequin’s breasts. It was a diluted compromise. The lascivious, snaking queues remained. The only difference was that now the mannequin didn’t know when she was being felt up.
A year ago,Palmer Luckey, who invented the Oculus Riftvirtual reality headset in his garage while he was a student (Luckey is currently embroiled in a lawsuit that disputes the claim), appeared on the cover of Timemagazine . The photograph captured Luckey barefoot, his face partially obscured by his invention, leaping into the air, as if joyfully skipping through a dream. Beneath it, the headline: “The Surprising Joy of Virtual Reality and why it’s about to change the world”.
VR has certainly changed Luckey’s life. Facebook bought his company for $2bn in 2014, when the inventor was just 21 years old. Since then he has apparently been using that fortune to help effect change. Last week, just days after the launch of the consumer version of the Oculus Riftin the UK, it was reported that Luckey donated $10,000 to the non-profit organisation Nimble America, which operates the Reddit channel r/The_Donald, a place where alt-right memes promoting white supremacy are created and shared in support of Donald Trump’s candidacy for president. The news caused a number of developers to withdraw their support for the Oculus Rift and, after a few days, drew a statement from Luckey, posted on Facebook, in which he stated that he was “deeply sorry” – not for supporting neo-Nazis exactly, but for “negatively impacting the perception of Oculus”.
Getting to grips with M2’s E-mote VR demonstration at the Tokyo Game Show. Photograph: Kim Kyung Hoon / Reuters While for many Luckey’s political views can be separated from his invention, the relationship is more complicated when considered in the context of his stated beliefs about the power of virtual reality to, as Timeput it, “change the world”. In 2014, at a Silicon Valley VR conference, Luckey spoke of the “moral imperative” that he feels to bring VR to the masses. “Everyone wants to have a happy life,” he explained, “but it’s going to be impossible to give everyone everything they want.” VR, he said, gives less privileged people (“Chinese workers or people who are living in Africa”) the chance to “escape the real world” and experience life as “good as we do here… in California”. For Luckey, VR is not merely a tool for immersive entertainment, but a mechanism to democratise privileged experience. It is, in this way, disruptive to social order, a trait it shares, some might say, with Trump’s candidacy.
Luckey’s idealism has, however, been misplaced. He funded Nimble America in order to support “fresh ideas on how to communicate with young voters” but, in doing so, gave money and legitimacy to white supremacists. And he’s brought into the world a technological platform to democratise lived experience but, in doing so, has given sexual misfits the chance to fondle virtual girls of an age that would make Nabokov blush.