I’ve just finished reading Dawn of the New Everything: A Journey Through Virtual Reality by Jaron Lanier, godfather of virtual reality (VR) and techno-philosopher. Much of the book is dedicated to the story of Lanier conceiving, inventing and developing virtual reality, and his rise to fame in Silicon Valley. But there are also some juicy tips about how best to use the technology – straight from the man who created it.
For those in a rush, here’s the summary, and some actions for brands:
Thoughts on VR:
- Virtual reality will always remain ‘virtual’.
No matter how good a VR setup is, or will be in the future, we will always have a profound understanding of the qualitative differences between reality and virtual reality. In other words, in Lanier’s future, The Matrix can never happen. He likens it to magic and asks you to imagine you are watching the world’s best magician perform the best-ever trick: even though you have requested to be fooled, at no stage are you likely to think the trick is ‘real magic’ because the ‘fooling’ is the mutually agreed output. Thus the ‘V’ in VR will always be the most important letter. Bad luck, Keanu.
- Virtual reality amplifies ‘real’ reality.
When in VR, participants are consciously or subconsciously assessing the proximity of their experience to the real world. Adequate proof, then, that reality is our benchmark for quality. Thus, Jaron argues, the value in virtual reality is to help us appreciate reality more when we emerge from VR. The world is the real deal.
- Virtual reality helps us understand ourselves.
Some immersive experiences see the virtual viewer as a ‘floating consciousness’ with no visibility of their own body or limbs. Or the experience sees the viewer recast as a ‘god’ hovering over a city, or places you behind the eyes of an eagle soaring over the Andes. Lanier’s hope is that the act of divesting you of your body will help you notice the ‘you’ in your head. In short, you are not your body. You are your thoughts, wherever they may be embedded. He wants you to think about what this means for human consciousness.
- Virtual reality should act as an interpreter for the full range of human movement.
Lanier despairs over the existence of poor VR experiences, drawing attention to 360 videos where viewers are merely passive spectators and cannot interact with their environment, or lazy experiences merely using buttons to engage with the action. He wants VR to be akin to playing a musical instrument; using the body and its micro- and macro-movements to generate emotional output other users can enjoy, use and build upon. He underscores this point by reminding us that VR’s evolution came about not through advances in graphics, but advances in body-tracking sensors to faithfully recreate movement within virtual environments.
Bonus thoughts on AI:
- Fear of artificial intelligence is overstated.
Lanier does not buy into fears of an artificial intelligence (AI) takeover or ‘robo-pocalypse’. He reminds us that AIs need data for sustenance, and that humans are the suppliers of that data. As an example, he targets natural-language user interface (NLUI) translation software to remind us that without real-life bilingual human interaction, there would be no need for an AI translator in the first place. In short, AIs will never bite the hand that feeds. Without us, they are nothing.
- Citizens should monetise personal data.
For those vocations and roles that are threatened by AI, he proposes the following solution: dismiss Universal Basic Income as a degrading reminder of human uselessness. Instead, he suggests humans sell the exabytes of data they generate every day in return for nano-payments. He bemoans that advertisers can collect behavioural data on citizens for free in order to optimise their attention, but that those same citizens are not rewarded for donating that data. In summary: ‘You want my Fitbit run route? Pay me.’
The conclusion to these musings is that – though we all get carried away talking about a future full of wondrous tech-fuelled experiences – we must not forget to keep the human at the centre.
Brands excited by VR and AI must remember technology exists to serve people, and thus its correct use is to add value to someone’s day, not merely to celebrate its own novelty.