Wish you were here
Wish you were here BigBox

In the 1996 episode of The Simpsons where Homer leaves the nuclear plant to work at a Microsoft stand-in called Globex, there’s a momentary visual gag that is, to a modern audience, not a joke at all: We see Bart and Lisa arrive at their new school, Cypress Creek Elementary, with a sign outside that bears a URL. (It’s “http://www.studynet.edu,” which to this day remains unregistered.) In the 2006 DVD commentary, writer and producer Josh Weinstein acknowledged that it’s "one of the show's most obviously dated jokes" — the joke, which isn't even perceptible as a joke anymore, is that in 1996 it seemed ridiculous that an elementary school would have a website.

There’s a similar moment in the 1997 Seinfeld episode “The Betrayal.” The episode's final scene is a flashback to 1995 and ends with someone mentioning "email," to which Jerry responds, "what are you, a scientist? What the hell is email?" It gets a laugh because only futurists had heard of email in 1995, but it was completely ubiquitous by 1997.

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I remember watching both of these episodes when they aired, and I can confirm that the jokes landed nicely because of how rapidly everyone’s lives transformed over the course of just a few months in the mid-’90s. We went from “what the hell is email” to “even SCHOOLS can get on the information superhighway” to “hey, I can use the Internet to buy books” in what seemed like minutes. It seemed as though, overnight, the most far-fetched futurism anyone could think of became an indispensable aspect of everyone’s lives.

That’s how the metaverse feels right now, which is why I’m doing my best to approach POPULATION: ONE with an open mind.

“We want it to be a destination people feel at home in and keep coming back to see how it evolves over time,” says Chia Chin Lee, Head of Studio at Seattle-based BigBox VR. The company, which Facebook/Meta recently acquired, is the developer of the virtual reality game POPULATION: ONE (the title is stylized in all caps, God help us), in which you run, climb, and fly around a crowded arena shooting at friends. It’s like Fortnite or PUBG, only with a VR headset strapped to your face.

If you haven’t been in VR lately — or ever — you might be surprised by how far the technology has recently come. The headsets are relatively unobtrusive, and often wireless. The screens in front of your eyes are crisp, the animation smooth. But of course, that’s only the case when it all works; as with dialup internet in 1995, the tech is fragile and occasionally presents some truly baffling breakdowns. (On one recent outing in VR Chat, I found myself embedded in a floor, my left and right eyes floating nauseatingly in opposite directions.)

When the pieces come together, though, you might catch a glimpse of what the future holds. The term “metaverse” is largely meaningless at the moment, a vague hand-wave in the direction of the boundaries blurring between online and real life. POP1 suggests one possible gaming future of the metaverse, one in which you can drop into a colorful world and run around shooting at friends.

The game features fantastic aspects, like the ability to fly by spreading your arms; but there are also moments of intense realism, such as virtual weapons that the player reloads with realistic gestures.

“We wanted to do stuff in an FPS shooter that you couldn’t do outside of VR,” says Eric Morrill, the company’s community manager. “The act of physically climbing up a ledge, flying around the map, firing around a blind corner and pointing out enemies for your teammates to see produces moments in VR unlike any other shooter.”

I personally find it all a bit too harrowing, at least for now. VR tech has now achieved such believability that some clinicians use it to successfully treat amputees’ phantom pain by allowing patients to see and use their absent limbs, and I get so swept up in the immersion that I can’t bring myself to point a realistic-looking weapon that I’ve realistically loaded with realistic ammunition at a realistic avatar, especially when I can hear a real person’s voice coming out of it in real-time.

I know it’s just a game. Maybe I’ll get used to it, like how I gradually warmed to the terrors of Dark Souls after initially feeling too tense to play. And it’s clear that other people are not as inhibited as I am — POP1 is estimated to have tens of thousands of active players. (Update: After we published this piece, BigBox's PR rep noted that the "tens of thousands" player estimates are unverified; though they did not provide actual player numbers, they asked us to note that the game "has become one of the top sellers on the platform.") And I’ll admit that though I’m squeamish about the guns, the exploration is a hoot.

“In POP1, you can fulfill that fantasy of climbing, flying and ambushing your enemy just like you’d see in an intense scene from a movie,” Morrill says. “Flying and climbing are part of our Vertical Combat System, something that you can't do in any other game in this way.”

I can’t argue with that. Climbing towers and leaping off to glide around a candy-colored landscape gave me a giddy euphoria. It was at those moments that I was reminded, oddly, of checking email with Eudora sometime around 1995 and realizing that I could communicate with people on the other side of the world: On one hand, I was instantly unbridled from the constraints of reality; one the other, ah geez there are still a lot of pain-points to work out.

While the VR worlds often look believable, your ways of interacting with them can be limited by clacky controllers that feel like mittens; hand-tracking in VR is glitchy at best, and produces some truly uncanny flailing limbs; even gravity feels “off” sometimes, with objects flying unpredictably through the air. My attempt to play a cornhole game in Microsoft’s AltspaceVR was a complete failure; when I tried to drive a car in VR Chat, I nearly threw up.

But hey. Setting up an email account in 1993 basically required a computer science degree. The thing with tech is that — ideally — it improves over time. BigBox is aware of how hard it can be to make people comfortable in VR, and they’re working on it.

“To overcome the motion sickness issue that some people feel in VR, we tested the game using techniques and methods used by the Royal Air Force in motion simulators,” says Gabe Brown, BigBox VR’s head of technology. “Our solution involves creating a kind of tunnel vision, blacking out the periphery when moving. … There are many other solutions that are running in the game that players will not notice, from level design, to how you bank and turn while flying, and many more.”

There is also, pleasantly, a uniquely Seattle flavor to the game. “You may notice the GIANT tower in the middle of the map,” says Brown. “The massive tower in POPULATION: ONE is that grounding element, just like The Space Needle grounds any photo in Seattle.”

It’s an effective technique, and reminds me of the Hitchcock movie Dial M for Murder. That film was made to be projected in 3D, and many of the shots in the living room where we spend most of our time include a prominently-featured lamp. The camera seems to pivot around the lamp like it’s orbiting a sun, which helps to ground the viewer in 3D space.

“Also, the frequency and prominence of puffy jackets in Seattle and POPULATION: ONE is no accident,” Brown says. Okay, that’s less Hitchcockian.

The folks at BigBox diplomatically avoided making any predictions about their role in Facebook/Meta’s vision for the future of the metaverse. When asked about it, Head of Studio Chia Chin Lee would only say that “since the acquisition, our team has had the opportunity to grow and iterate even faster.”

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Hmm, what does that remind me of? Oh yes: “Netscape's brand, portal, and people will help turn the promise of electronic commerce into reality," said America Online chief executive Steve Case in 1998, following the announcement that AOL would purchase Netscape. That prediction didn’t exactly pan out for any of the parties involved, but then again any prediction about the future is guaranteed to be wrong in some way.

I’m glad I got online when I did, despite the mess of having to fiddle around with IPX drivers and default gateways and winsock.dll. I’m enjoying VR right now. I’m excited to see where it’s headed, and hopefully, one day, for questions like “what the hell is the metaverse” to be an artifact too.

In the meantime, I’ll keep exploring games like POP1 for glimpses of the future. One of the game’s features is that you can heal your character by peeling a virtual banana and raising it to your face to eat. The first time I tried this mechanic, I punched myself.