Virtual reality versus augmented reality
Although the Matrix started as a VR-only technology, once ubiquitous AR came along it rapidly fell out of favour. Most people just don’t feel comfortable completely disconnected from their surroundings, particularly if they’re in any sort of public space. Plus, while you can move really fast in VR - with the Matrix flowing as fast as your thoughts - it turns out that’s exhausting if you do it for more than a few hours. VR is now sufficiently uncommon that for most commlinks a SimSense module is an add-on and not a standard feature.
So for most ordinary folk, work time and leisure time that involves computers is mostly done through AR, not VR. They dip into VR now and again – mostly either for virtual meetings in work with people in different offices or when safe at home – but that’s all. Extensive time in VR is the domain of serious gamers, the most dedicated sports fans watching live broadcasts, and deckers/spiders/other socially isolated buttonheads.
This is motivated partly by aesthetics - I still want Shadorun to contain offices where people go to work, and I want them to look broadly like you expect offices to. If everyone is in VR all the time, there’s no need for huge spaces crammed with tiny desks and beige walls and miserable people. And that aesthetic, to my mind, is an important part of any pan-corporate dystopia.
I also think it helps make deckers feel distinct from everyday Matrix users. In early SR, VR wasn’t ubiquitous (requiring expensive cyberterminals to use), and was mostly only used routinely by hardcore hackers. I want this to still be true.
Consider the basic, unsculpted Matrix in full VR: how it looks if you disable all visual re-skins normally added by your service provider, your commlink manufacturer, your settings, and so on. Like you’re some sort of 2052-era cave-dwelling metahuman back in the primordial grid. What do you see?
Geography & the grid (VR edition)
Imagine an infinite plane of black, overlaid with a fine silver grid, stretching to the horizon. This is the lower grid. It’s populated with icons for all the devices within local mesh range of your commlink - maybe a few hundred meters, depending on network conditions. Personas are represented by a special icon that is configured according to the user’s wishes. Devices in PANs are hidden, by default, to make the display less cluttered; although you can turn that off if you want to see everything. Devices outside of PANs are represented by icons, typically utilitarian factory-default ones like cartoonishly coloured caricatures of what they are, tiny corporate logos of whoever made it, or eerily photorealistic modelled and rendered versions of whatever the icon represents.
In theory, the lower grid spans the planet - you can zoom your viewpoint up into the “sky” and see a map of the world, with data-sparse areas like the deep sea represented by areas where the silver grid fades out to blank nothingness. But you can’t see icons outside your local mesh, so it’s not that interesting to do so. Most of it would look empty from the perspective of your commlink.
This limited view of the local mesh can be very intense, though, with many hundreds or low thousands of icons - and even more fine filigree lines pulsing between them, representing the data flow from device to device. Even the most hardcore decker can’t do anything with that much information. Normal people run extensive filtering options that remove the clutter and only show the stuff they care about: typically, one icon for each device they are carrying, plus one icon for each PAN they can see.
There may also be local hosts visible in the lower grid. For example, a wageslave arriving at the office would see icons for one or more local hosts associated with the workplace - perhaps the main shared host for files and work, and a few more for security and building control. These are hosts that don’t have a dedicated connection to the backbone and work mostly through the local mesh. They would log on to the shared host at the beginning of their workday, and it wouldn grant them access to the stuff they need to do their job.
Stretching above them is the sky, by default rendered as a very dark blue-grey. Floating within it are icons for all the publicly visible hosts on the Matrix - many hundreds of thousands of them. Again, this is hopelessly cluttered, so people filter their view. You might see the main P2.1 public host, for example, where you can go to read or post social media updates. Your employer’s public host, where you can read PR updates like a good little wageslave. Your commlink fades all the other hosts in the world out, reducing their icons to barely more than a point, and fading all the colour out. The end result is to see perhaps a few dozen icons floating up there, the hosts you care about and use regularly, plus a sprawling constellation of stars representing the rest of the Matrix.
Finally, some cloud hosts like to be associated with particular geographic points. For example, Dante’s Inferno - the famous/infamous Seattle nightspot - has a host that links to the precise location of the club in the real world. Its host icon floats in the sky, as dictated by the rules; it’s a cloud host, not a local host, so it’s in the upper grid. But a thin line of neon pink and blue stretches down from the host to the precise location in the lower grid that corresponds to the club’s address. For hosts like Dante’s Inferno’s one, this is a key part of their branding, and it means when you are close to the club in real life you get a prominent link to the cloud host on the Matrix.
Neon-coloured wireframes and faceless chrome figures may have been cool last century, but in 2080, people demand a more a la mode view. Sculpting is the process of making things look different. It’s a combination of artwork, animation, and physics modelling; it’s very skilled work; and it’s a lucrative market for those who are good at it.
At the big end of the scale, hosts in VR are sculpted to look like… well, anything the owner desires, right down to changing the laws of physics inside the host. Want it to look like infinitely high sky scrapers with the users navigating sections of the host by jumping between them in zero gee? Sure, you can do that. You probably shouldn’t, unless you want to clean a lot of puke off the floors, but you can.
At the small end, people spend incredible amounts of time and nuyen sculpting their persona’s icon. Cosmetic options and add-ons and accessories can be bought from just about any corp on planet Earth, perfect to show your devotion to this or that brand. People often broadcast their persona icon in an ARO, so there’s a lot of pressure to get the look just right.
VR is yesterday’s tech. It’s where you go to use the computer, but who wants to go somewhere to use a computer? You want the computer to come to where you are. You want the computer to bleed into your everyday reality. Chummer: you want your reality augmented.
Welcome to AR.