In eighth grade I wrote a science-fiction story about people living in giant hamsterballs with virtual-reality goggles strapped to their heads. I had just learned the word “dystopian.” Future VR iterations in Lawnmower Man, The Matrix, and Existenz left me cold, but I remained confident that as a society we were on the right track… but nothing came of it. And then these Latypov brothers dreamed up The Virtusphere. On a recent tour of the lab, I expected to stumble into a cybersex sweatshop with immigrants trying to claw their way out of these things, or else find a hyper-intelligent gerbil with VR goggles—the Patient Zero of their operation. Could the Virtusphere be the mass cyber-exodus we’ve all been dreaming about, or is it just another one of those shitty VR machines from the 90s that were a $200,000 cure for a settled stomach? Virtusphere inventor Ray Latypov has the answer.
Vice: Has the Virtusphere been a lifelong pursuit?
Ray Latypov: We were in the entertainment industry for a long time, where we created computer games. But in 1993 I took a trip to the United States and spent a week in the New York public library researching virtual reality.
No one from the entertainment industry would ever find you in a library!
I found out that there were no solutions to locomotion inside virtual worlds.
You know I was kidding with the library joke, right? Sorry, continue.
For several years we tried to solve the problem of locomotion. We found several.
Right here is where you say the Virtusphere is the best.
The Virtusphere is the best. It’s worked very well, and is the closest mimic for walking and running. We like it.
Me too. But can you tell me the story of how this idea came about?
The locomotion idea itself is very simple. I’ve asked children to come up with the solution to the virtual locomotion problem, and in a half hour they talking about the idea of a sphere.
So you really just needed to bring some tools and some money.
Our advantage was finding the question. We have a Russian proverb: If you figure out the exact question, it’s half of the solution. Now we have several solutions and the best of them is the Virtusphere.
You cover three of the five senses with this thing—are you going to tackle smell and taste next?
We have ideas for what might be the next step. For example, we have a technology that will add smell into immersive experiences in virtual reality. We received a US patent for technology for a small device like an inkjet cartridge that can hold odors. You add it to your head-mounted display and it generates different smells.
What do you need to smell in the virtual world?
If you walk through a rose field you get the odor of roses, and if you shoot monsters you smell what’s inside the monsters. It can change very quickly because it’s small and lasts for one breath. The device is very close to your nose and is controlled by software.
I admit that is very impressive.
We have a prototype. And it’s very important that it’s small. For example, 50 years ago there was the experience with Odorama. Cinema with smell. Unfortunately it wasn’t a good experience because the mix of different odors in one room gave a bad result and they gave up on it. In our technology, size is very important. For example, even if you’re in the same room, you won’t smell what I smell. One breath, all the odor goes inside you. It’s very important that it changes dynamically—every second you can generate different smells. For example, you shoot a monster, it smells like gunpowder.
Are there any sci-fi movies or books you’ve seen that predicted the Virtusphere?
I was born in a family where science fiction and new technology was very important. My father himself was an inventor and a physics teacher. He helped us be creative. What I always hear from the people who use the Virtusphere is Holodeck— it’s a real Holodeck! Unfortunately, the first time I heard this, I didn’t know what a Holodeck was— I’d never watched Star Trek! Now I know, and they’re right.
At what point can we fool a human into thinking that the virtual world is the real world?
Our idea isn’t to replace the real world with the virtual world. We want to extend the real world with the virtual world, because it’s unlimited. It’s limited only by your imagination. We are not replacing. We’re extending real life with a virtual experience, and we continue to find solutions for how to do this, closer to a natural interface. You can now have the experience of being immersed in the virtual world, an experience close to the real world.
What if the virtual world is a better deal for somebody? If I’m rich in the virtual world and it feels real, why would I want to come back to this craptastrophe?
You should always compare the real world and the virtual world. Children, when they play the games, they imagine they’re inside, and I don’t think they should care about living inside the virtual world and not returning to real life. If you live in the virtual world, I believe that you will not be able to think that it’s something exciting and good. Only when you return to the real world, you feel that happiness because you understand that it was different. You have a new impression, so you’re happy. If you walk or play inside the virtual world for a couple of hours, I don’t think you’ll be happy.
Do you remember the first video game you ever played?
My first game was Stakup—a Russian game that you know as Tetris. I was there the year that Alexey Pajitnov created this game. I remember it was on a computer that was as big as a room, with an eight-inch flexible disk. The first time I saw it, it was on a green screen. I liked it very much. Alexey opened me to the world of games. A little bit later I created my own game. And I like my game. It still works on any computer, but it was created with EGA graphics, 16 colors. It was 1989. I created my game with my friends, three of us. It finally got picked up by Microsoft and was called Russian Square.
Holy shit, you were friends with the guy who created Tetris? So did you go straight from Russian Square to the Virtusphere?
Yeah. We had several ideas for games, but our profession was to create new technologies, and we created several technologies related to virtual reality. We had a solution for the creation of TV shows with full immersive experience in real time. You’re able to shoot a user in the virtual world, and you’ll see him in the virtual environment. No editing, no montage, all in real time. But that’s the next step, and we’re focusing on the Virtusphere for now. Once it launches the market, we’ll have time to explore these other technologies.
Do you have a basement or backyard with all your inventions a la Gizmoduck in Duck Tales?
My brother Nerulla, co-inventor of most of our inventions (and my partner in all these ventures), when we lived in Moscow, our apartment was full of devices. The first demonstration of the Virtusphere I did in my home. One room was just for the Virtusphere—it was an eight-and-a-half foot sphere.
What do you think’s going to happen a hundred years in the future?
I see what’s happening now, and most of what we see around was predicted in science fiction. We’ve seen it in movies or read it in books, and now it’s breathing all around us. We can now use such devices. We discussed space shuttles, and now they’re flying around. It was predicted far before. Today’s communications—internet, Second Life—I believe that if someone after one hundred years would reach another planet, it will be close to what someone built in Second Life. You could create the environment of another planet today, using software like Second Life. One hundred years later you would find that existing somewhere. For example, our technology gives us the experience of living on another planet or in the future. You walk around, you will be able to act with other people through the network, or act with computer generated images or aliens. I believe we have some vision, and some experience of the life that will exist in ten years, in fifty years. You know the game Spore? You create different user-generated organisms. Maybe some of the characters created by a child in Los Angeles today, we’ll see the same character on another star in a thousand years. We are already living in the future, partly.
Sounds like you think humans have these god-like powers in the games, and then when the games become reality, we become gods. Fun.
You know, someone always takes the first step. Someone came to the United States and opened this country to us. Thousands of years ago someone came from Asia and took the first steps. Now millions live here and it’s normal. Every day we take first steps. I believe everything is very close in the virtual world and in real life. The devices like Halo, the Virtusphere, it’s almost real—and the head mounted display is the bridge. For me now, the virtual world is not something unreal. It’s real. It’s generated by computers and software artists, but it’s real. It’s extended our life in a new way. A new direction. And we are part of the bridge.
VICTOR PINEIRO ESCORIAZA