Widening the Experiential: Jaron Lanier Explains Virtual Reality

Jaron Lanier, the widely regarded father of virtual reality, recounts his early experience introducing virtual reality to Hollywood and how his vision of his own technology differed from what some people wanted. Our interview with Lanier about his book, “Who Owns the Future?”, and how technology is widening inequality can be seen here. An excerpted transcript of Paul’s conversation with Lanier about virtual reality follows.

Paul Solman: I remember when I first became aware of you in the 1980s. You were pioneering virtual reality and you were suggesting that it was right around the corner. And here we are, 25 years later, and it still hasn’t really arrived.

Jaron Lanier: Virtual reality has become an almost universal industrial technology. Every single vehicle you’ve used in the last 10 years was designed in virtual reality first, so it actually has happened — just not for consumers. I’d always predicted that around 2020, so I still have a few years to be proven wrong on virtual reality.

Paul Solman: Why is it taking so long?

Jaron Lanier: Virtual reality is a bit of a complicated affair, because you have to get all these different parts — the visual, and the audio, and the motion and the interaction — all to work together. All the individual parts have expensive components, or at least they’ve been expensive for decades, and to get it all to come together for consumers is really quite a trick. It’s a puzzle. I’ve tried a few times; there all kinds of people trying still, and I think we’re actually getting really close. I know I’ve been saying that for a while, but now it’s really true. I think we’re actually really close to seeing something.

Paul Solman: And that something, presumably, or at least plausibly, is as big a leap forward, in terms of the marketplace, as video games have been vis-à-vis movies.

Jaron Lanier: Instead of thinking of it like a very 3D movie, or a video game that you’re inside, I think what virtual reality is going to be like is a new kind of a medium where you’re playing with your own identity, and that’s what’s so interesting about it. When you can turn into some animal and experience interacting with the world that way, it brings up this amazing feeling of not just what it would be like to be the animal, but it’s almost like you’re exercising these forgotten little corners of your brain, some really old corners that evolved to actually control different bodies deep, deep, deep back in our evolutionary past. And that kind of very profound, intimate sense of experience is really what virtual reality’s all about.

Paul Solman: Well, you’re a famous software engineer, but you’re beginning to sound a little bit mystical.

Jaron Lanier: I wouldn’t say it’s mystical; I would say it’s uncovering some treasures in our own biology that have just been hidden for a long time. So, when I was very young and playing with virtual reality for the first time, I had the experience of my arm suddenly becoming very large, because of a glitch in the software, and yet still being able to pick things up, even though my body was different. And that sensation of being able to alter your body is different from anything else. I mean, it’s almost like a whole new theater of human experience opens up.

Einstein talked about sometimes imagining his body experiencing these alternate spaces, in order to think about alternate visions of space and time, and I think when we try to stretch what we’re able to think about, we have to stretch who we are. And virtual reality, by its very nature, stretches who you are. It allows you to experience yourself in the world through an entirely different loop, through an entirely different pattern than you’re used to in natural reality. And I think it can’t help but open up new vistas of ways to think, ways to feel.

A generation or two from now this will be part of our experience in the same way that movies, and literature and video games already are. So it will become ordinary, but I think nonetheless it will have brought us great gifts in the course of becoming ordinary.

Paul Solman: Force for good? Force for ill?

Jaron Lanier: I want to give you two different answers to your question. So, 30 years ago, when I was younger and people would ask me, “Is this virtual reality idea going to be a good thing or a bad thing for people?” I would always say: It’ll be both, because people are complicated, but it’ll be more good than bad, approximately because virtual bullets aren’t bullets, but virtual art is still art. You know, it should balance towards expression and away from harm.

Now, lately my friends in Silicon Valley have managed to turn our information tools into a giant sort of spying system, where we collect data on people, to try to sell them things and try to influence them. So, you know, the game evolves, and it’s hard to be sure. What I do want to say is that every new capability that people achieve can go either way, and no amount of technical prowess can make people better. You know, that’s something that has to come from a different sensibility; a moral sensibility; an ethical sensibility; and that’s not a problem we can solve in the lab.

There’s a whole world of people doing clinical studies of using virtual reality to treat Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, and it’s being applied to help a lot of our returning vets, which is one of my favorite applications. But I also want to put a qualification on that. I was living in New York when the 9/11 attacks happened, and I was very disturbed for years afterwards. My apartment was damaged and whatnot. And some of my friends in the field said: Well, look, we’re doing Post Traumatic Stress treatment. You’re an ideal candidate. Why don’t you get some of your own medicine?

And I thought about it, and I felt that I had sort of a duty as a moral witness in that case not to cure myself. I didn’t want to… I wanted to stay sensitized. I didn’t want to be desensitized, so I took a few years and I dealt with it, and I prefer to do it that way. So, the only reason I’m saying this is that I’m not an advocate of using technology to try to make everybody perfect. I think that’s a completely foolish approach to life. But I think what we can do is use it intelligently and selectively to help people.

Paul Solman: Is this an urban legend, or not, that your head is so big that you can’t actually experience virtual reality yourself?

Jaron Lanier: I can experience virtual reality and do, but some of the head pieces don’t fit on my head. It is true I have an extra large skull, and then on top of it I grew all this stuff, so it has to be a headset that’s a little elastic, and some of them will not fit on me, but many do, so it’s only half true as an urban legend. It’s a suburban legend.

This entry is cross-posted on the Making Sen$e page, where correspondent Paul Solman answers your economic and business questions