Tech companies have spent years developing better, cheaper devices to immerse people in digital worlds. Yet they are still figuring out how to make virtual reality the kind of technology that people cannot live without.
So for inspiration, they are turning to science fiction.
At Oculus, a leading virtual reality company, a copy of the popular sci-fi novel "Ready Player One" is handed out to new hires. Magic Leap, a secretive augmented reality startup, has hired science fiction and fantasy writers. The name of Microsoft's HoloLens headset is a salute to the holodeck, a simulation room from "Star Trek."
"Like many other people working in the tech space, I'm not a creative person," said Palmer Luckey, 23, a co-founder of Oculus, which was bought by Facebook for $2 billion in 2014. "It's nice that science fiction exists because these are really creative people figuring out what the ultimate use of any technology might be. They come up with a lot of incredible ideas."
Those ideas are especially relevant now, as some of the biggest technology companies are nearing a major push of a new generation of virtual reality products. In the next few months, virtual reality headsets from Oculus, Sony and HTC go on sale. Venture capital money is pouring into the industry.
But how people will interact with the imaginary worlds remains largely unknown territory. And that is where science fiction comes in. Science fiction is shaping the language companies are using to market the technology, influencing the types of experiences made for the headsets and even defining long-term goals for developers.
"Science fiction, in simplest terms, sets you free," said Ralph Osterhout, chief executive of the Osterhout Design Group, which builds augmented reality glasses.
Perhaps no fictional work resonates more throughout the industry these days than "Ready Player One," written by Ernest Cline and now being made into a movie by Steven Spielberg.
Much of the action in the book takes place inside the Oasis, a global virtual reality network. Characters in the network attend school, socialize and take part in a high-stakes treasure hunt. Through virtual reality, they can inhabit the perspectives of actors in classic movies.
The book was published in 2011, around the time Luckey began building an early prototype of the Oculus headset.