Virtual reality (VR) apps with inexpensive smartphone attachments are widely available today, but what would it have been like to obsess over VR long before it was technologically feasible? It would likely have taken a unique character, and Jaron Lanier certainly fits the bill, as he demonstrates in his latest book. Part autobiography, part technical exposition, and part philosophical reflections, the book describes Lanier’s journey from childhood through the founding of the VR startup VPL Research.
Lanier has experienced the world with “overpowering subjectivity” since early childhood. Imagining himself inside Hieronymus Bosch’s fantastic painting The Garden of Earthly Delights and looking out was his first step on the road that would lead him to develop systems that allow people to participate in imaginary worlds. A childhood that was partly traumatic and partly exhilarating (as when he got the chance to design his own home at age 13) and an eclectic education molded his personality to create a unique point of view (an “outlier,” as he calls himself at one point).
Lanier is particularly interested in extensions of perception and action, as in endowing humans with many-limbed lobster-like avatars, or creating music based on the movements of one hand in a world containing virtual instruments. Noticing the elements that remain when both the environment and the user’s virtual body change, especially in the more fantastical settings, enhances the awareness of self. This claim is one example of Lanier’s humanistic approach to VR. Another is his emphasis on shared virtual environments in which people can interact in new ways, leading to “postsymbolic communication,” where people visualize their ideas directly without turning imagination into words for transmission. Lanier contrasts this approach, which puts humans at the center and aims to increase communication and empathy, to artificial intelligence (AI), which focuses on the creation of other, nonhuman, intelligent entities. Lanier views bits as meaning nothing except as interpreted by people, opposing viewpoints that concentrate on AI as a goal in itself. Unlike VR, in which the environment is changed but people still interact with the environment and other people in real time, AI is based on training data supplied by (or taken from) people, which is replayed later in what Lanier views as being “a non-real-time avatar, and that is what allows for the illusion that it isn’t an avatar at all.”
Creating VR technologies is certainly a wonderful way to learn about the flexibility and sensitivity of the human senses. In order to fool the user into a feeling of presence in a virtual world, it is necessary to account for mechanisms such as tiny head movements that affect vision and hearing. At the same time, the brain is often willing to complete missing details (a fact that was crucial in the early days of VR, when rendering speeds were quite slow). In order for VR to be effective, it is necessary to provide the right input that will fool the brain into a feeling of presence. An example is the way in which people using datagloves would move their hands more slowly to adapt to sluggish reaction times, causing them to feel time differently. This effect was later used in VR systems for physical rehabilitation to teach amputees to use prosthetics by starting them at slow speeds.
Explorations by Lanier and others of possible avatars and their effects on people’s perceptions have shown the potential for misuse. For example, experiments have demonstrated that social status rises as avatars become taller. As Lanier warns: “Control someone’s reality and you control the person.” Yet, the same technology can be used for good, as in the rehab example or in helping alleviate the subjective intensity of chronic pain.
In his advice to VR designers and artists, Lanier emphasizes the user’s sensorimotor loop and holistic experience, that is, starting and ending in the real world and considering other people in it, over the temptation to focus exclusively on the virtual world. Lanier also emphasizes the importance of input over output, and the fact that “your input in VR is you.” Easily available VR apps often treat the user as an observer without immersive ways of affecting the virtual environment, which, Lanier claims, misses the crucial role of interaction.
Lanier calls VR “the clearest-minded approach to digital technology” and advocates it as a universal user interface because of its capability of “conveying complexity with lucidity.” This argument is central to the title of the book, Dawn of the new everything. In particular, Lanier suggests that VR should be used to explore the results and recommendations of algorithms, making them comprehensible and enabling them to be judged by humans. He therefore argues that user interface research should be prioritized over AI.
Lanier admits that some readers find his books hard to read, and I found this to be true in some of the more philosophical parts of this book as well. However, reading the book is well worth the effort, because of the fascinating worldview it presents and its contrast with the prevailing AI view. The autobiographical story is quite absorbing, giving a glimpse into the development of a unique personality.
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