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Jaron Lanier

David: So what is Virtual Reality?

Jaron: Virtual Reality is the use of technology to generate the sensory experiences of people under human control. Virtual Reality is the first thing since the physical world that fits into the same niche between people of being what you call an `objective’ reality.

David: Because it’s consensual – more than one person experiences it, and it doesn’t go away when you stop believing in it.

Jaron: Right. And also because the neuro-physiological strategies used to perceive, manipulate and learn about it are the same that your body has evolved to use. So your experience of it is with the natural language of your own body as opposed to your intelligence or culture of perception.

David: How do you adjust then in Virtual Reality, when you change the physical laws, and do things that you’re not accustomed to doing?

Jaron: If you deviate too far, Virtual Reality becomes imperceptible, because it is too weird for the brain to recognize, but there is a wide gray zone in which you can experience a radically unnatural world. You can slow everything down, you can make your arm two miles long relative to the rest of your body….

David: The brain is still using the same neuro-physiological mechanisms.

Jaron: Right. When you want to really create a surreal experience in Virtual Reality you don’t play with physics, you play with your sensory motor-loop. For instance, one of my favorite ones is to trade eyes with another person so that one person’s head controls the other’s point of view and vice versa. So you have to a very intimate and trusting approach to the other person – it’s a remarkable experience of a shared body.

All of the great art that will happen in Virtual Reality I think is going to be – I hate these words like `all’ – playing with the very intimate sensory motor-loop in that way. (As opposed to the current, early trend of making weird external virtual environments.)

Another example of an extremely radical experience would be as follows: It’s possible to control a virtual body with more limbs than a physical body. Ann Lasko, who was at VPL for a long time, made a lobster body. Initially the extra limbs just kind of sat there. Typically it showed up as a twelve foot tall big red lobster and it scared people.(laughter) There are a few approaches to how to control the extra limbs. A very interesting one is to take all of the movement data from all over your body and to put it through some tricky algorithms so that you have a function that relies a bit on all that global data to control just one local joint on an extra limb. So maybe, even though your body doesn’t understand what this function, what this formula is, that’s creating that control, you can sort of learn it. And so, with relative freedom for each of your physical body parts you can learn to control extra virtual body parts, you can squeeze in an extra parameter.

David: Without being totally conscious of how you’re learning it? Is that what you’re saying?

Jaron: The whole question of conscious versus unconscious is a little misleading. The real question is whether your body learns it, which could also be conscious. There’s nothing necessarily inhibitive about consciously understanding something that your body knows but it’s a different type of knowledge. So you can learn to control new limbs. This was an enormous surprise to me, that people could learn to control limbs that were differently proportioned, much less new ones – this is very strange. You wouldn’t expect this to be something people would adapt to quickly.

There’s another interesting thing you can do. There’s a field of study of tactile illusions which are vital to the development of tactile feedback in Virtual Reality. One of the illusions has to do with putting buzzers or vibrators against the skin and creating phantom third buzzers between them. It turns out that apparently the way the brain understands that type of sensation is very nicely linear or metrical. So you can put a buzzer on one hand and another on another hand and create a sensation that’s from an out-of-body point.

Now, if you match up the position of such a sensation with one of these phantom visually existing limbs that you’re controlling, all of a sudden you have a new limb to your body that you can control and feel. I just cite this example and the example of trading eyes as two of the types of things you can do with playing at a deep level with the way you perceive your own body and the world and how you interact. That to me is the most fascinating area for aesthetic exploration of Virtual Reality.

Rebecca: What are some of the current applications of VR? Most of us by now have heard of the virtual kitchens in Japan, what else is going on?

Jaron: Well, at VPL we put together literally hundreds of sites using Virtual Reality around the world, so it’s really impossible to summarize. Right now I’m excited about using it in medicine, particularly in surgery.

Rebecca: What about applications in education?

Jaron: In education, wonderful things have happened both in K-12 and in college, but there’s not adequate funding because our society doesn’t make this a priority. We did a pilot class for fifth and sixth graders using Virtual Reality systems at VPL and they would put their dreams into VR and all sorts of stuff, it was great.

David: Put their dreams in it, what do you mean?

Jaron: They would come into class and build their dreams as a virtual world. What else would you do? (laughter) Sharing their dreams – they’re good at that. The generation of kids growing up with computers has an enormous facility and their kids will have an even greater facility – we’re really seeing a new type of literacy.

Rebecca: You’ve talked about VR as a tool for communication and empathy. You’ve described exchanging eyes and growing limbs, but how can VR help someone to really empathize, to understand another person?

Jaron: How does anything help you with something like that? I want to stress that I’m not claiming that this is any panacea. All it is, is that our particular culture is completely in love with technology and gadgetry, so this seems like it might be a slightly more inspiring sort of pursuit than some others. In another culture in another time, it might not have any value at all. So I’m not claiming it has any intrinsic, universal value.

Rebecca: But you feel that perhaps it’s greatest potential is for communication and empathy?

Jaron: Absolutely. But I’m thinking in the very long term. I’m not thinking about tomorrow but about generations hence. This really hinges on the idea of post-symbolic communication. Some generations from now, if we’ve survived as a species, which is not clear, there will be many wonderful cheap VR setups around and there will be access points everywhere and a generation of kids will grow up using tools with great user-interfaces for inventing stuff in virtual worlds.

So, they’re going to grow up differently from previous kids, because aside from using symbols to refer to the things that they can’t directly create and do, they’ll have this other way of just making up any imagined stuff as objective sensory objects for each other. They’ll develop a facility for `reality conversations’, or `intentional waking state, shared dreaming’, or co-dreaming. And that’s what I call post-symbolic communication.

David: I can understand that intuitively, but for some reason I can’t seem to quite grasp it rationally. (laughter)

Jaron: That’s only evidence that it is a truly new thing. Post-symbolic communication is genuinely hard to understand and it’s genuinely going to be a generational chasm. I can dream about it, but I’m sure I don’t really quite get it myself.

Rebecca: When you say `post-symbolic,’ you’re still talking about the symbol-based language involved in basic visualization, right?

Jaron: No. Let’s go back to symbols and childhood, okay? Remember our child? That was the pudgy weakling that’s very frustrated. When you’re a little kid, you find that there’s only a very small part of the world that you can control as fast as you think and feel. Your tongue and your mouth move as fast as you think and feel, your hands do to a certain extent as you grow older, and then the rest of your body comes along. So your body is the part of the world that you can move and change about as fast as you think and feel; the rest of the world you can’t.

Now, symbols are simply a trick where you use the part of the world that you can change easily to refer to all the other things that you can’t realize. So, for instance, you can compose a sentence out of symbols, like I can say, “We’re all antique lampshades that are sentient and we’re crawling up the back of a giant trilobite.”

Now, it’s not absolutely inconceivable that such a thing couldn’t be physically realized. You could have nano-technology experts change us into lampshades, perhaps, and you could have genetic engineers breed giant trilobites, but it would take centuries and billions of dollars. It’s an enormous project just to realize that one thing that I put together with a sentence.

So, that’s the power of symbols, that they operate on this

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