VR Will Save Your Life Someday.
This past week I got into as much VR-ing as I could. I saw many things, from a terribly awkward brand, trying to be relevant, to real life magic. I was lucky enough to attend an event put on by Light/Slant, a geeky journalist’s dream, created by a friend named Emma. Since we are now in the age where the concept of “The Future” is aggressively embraced as a product, you’ll see this site looks delightfully like Philip K Dick book cover. On the night of the event, Emma and Olivia welcomed a crowd of hip geeks into the same room as Lincoln Wallen the CTO of DreamWorks, Ivy Ross, a VP at Google and Head of Project Aura, Eugene Chung, the Founder/CEO of Penrose Studios, and Isaac Cohen , a young VR Artist.
A Businessman, An Innovator, A Filmmaker, and A Programmer/Illustrator (let’s go with Illugrammer). These thinkers and artists sat together to debate the value of Virtual Reality. It began with the usual conversation starter of “Hey, is this the end of the world?”, enhanced a bit by this background photo:
It’s hard to argue “No, heh, of course not..” when the picture behind you is the representation of a world where the one guy who needs to learn appropriate eye contact doesn’t have to anymore. Nevertheless, this brainy group of folks talked about something much more interesting. “Will this even happen?” The businessman said No. He gives “mass consumption” of VR a time frame of 20–30 years before it’s done right. He made a good point in saying that as storytellers, we are used to guiding the viewer and helping her along to make certain decisions. Once you attempt to bring the real world into a story, where the viewer is also an interactor, the technology that acts as the medium for that interaction must be so sophisticated that the now-interactor doesn’t notice. Lincoln says we are too far from that point to start making VR stories for a mass audience.
Now, it’s true that when you tell a story, there is no less seamless interaction than in your own imagination. When you experience a story as the listener, you imagine what happens to the character you hear about, and if asked, you would be able to imagine an interaction with the character in your mind without disturbance. In this way, stories enable you to easily put yourself in someone else’s place. They bring a moment of empathy in the truest sense.
Countering Lincoln was the Filmmaker, Eugene Chung, who was the first Head of Film at Occulus. Eugene said the way that he is able to overcome the challenge of interaction is by making characters smaller or sillier or more creature-like. His logic being that, if it’s something you, as a human, have never had an interaction with, how would you know if it’s real? He’s found that humans are much more accepting of differences in new and unrealistic experiences (especially if things are cute and fuzzy) and are less likely to feel the story is being interrupted.
In any interaction you have with anyone in real life, there is always a status difference — even for a moment. In performance, one of you is way taller, one of you is the king, one of you has a limp. In real life, it’s not your turn to speak, you’re the boss, or you have the flu. So, if it’s easy to use your imagination as it’s been set up to use, in Eugene’s example, there is no true departure and you’re connected and having fun with your experience. If VR could take on the responsibility of our imagination, things would feel real.
Next came the Illugrammer, Isaac Cohen, who, although brought us into the first very dark part of the evening, I’m sure he will be fine (have you ever met an Isaac who wasn’t a brilliant philosopher or lead singer of Modest Mouse?). Isaac, assuming it was already on our minds, brought up the concept of violence and destruction in VR and the consequences in real life (with proper training of course). He mentioned outright that “the more human-like characters are in games and in VR, the less we want to hurt them”. As everyone silently wondered how many people Isaac had killed, Eugene took the floor again and quipped a story about a “super cool” VR film he had made about a man who has a dream that his living room is filled with ocean water and floating dead bodies. Because everyone on this panel turned out to be a bit of a sadist, Eugene said that he made his roommate watch this film first. When the roommate didn’t die, Eugene watched it, and admits that he still has vivid pictures in his mind of what the dead body looked like floating in his living room. The human bodies looked as real as ever and he can picture them in his mind as clear as a memory, with full emotion attached.
Even though this was clearly a commercial for how awesome Eugene’s work is (it is awesome and Eugene please call me anytime), it made me think about Google’s VR talk at Cannes Lions this year (which coincidentally was also a commercial for how awesome google is at VR). A neuroscientist has been giving Google Labs insights on perception, stories, and memory. As many have said before, but perhaps has never really applied until now, our perception — what we see and hear — is not a direct input. It’s a combination of light, past experience, emotion, noise, and chemicals. We’re not exactly hallucinating all the time, but the way we interact with the world is not that far away from the way computers and phones formulate and playback these elements (light, motion, sound) to us to form moving images. If we can figure out the way that we actually see, hear, and perceive, we can reproduce it.
Ivy Ross broke in at this point to talk about Empathy. (It always seems like the people who are curious and finger point-y about empathy and empathy-loss are the ones who might lack it most. Only saying that because she was Head of Google Glass, possibly the least empathic invention of our time.) She wondered how things in the world will get better if our actions in VR creation are directed at an artificial interaction in virtual life, when there is still a large lack of quality interaction between people in real life. I can see what she’s saying, and I think she’s afraid because she saw how many non-spectrum people were into the googs glass. It’s true though, “If not now, is this soon the end of the world”?
Ok, Empathy is important. We’re not arguing that. If storytelling allows us to step inside someone else’s mind for a moment, and if VR can actually let us see what that person sees, doesn’t VR then have the possibility to be the greatest psychology tool ever invented? Imagine if you could apologize to someone by letting them actually see how you felt and what you were mad about? Forgiveness and relief often come when you can totally put yourself in someone else’s place and feel their feelings.
Dostoyevsky was not at this panel, but while Ivy was talking I started imagining my plans to make the VR version of The Dream of a Ridiculous Man, but this time you get to be the man. It’s a story about a suicidal guy who sees a little girl, has a dream about utopia, and then wakes up alive, even though he thought he killed himself. His life is changed forever because the dream was so vivid that he felt the amazing feeling of what an amazing life could be. It was so real (think dead body floating) that he remembered the feeling and recalled it in times of hardship for the remainder of his life. Dostoyevsky is noted as creating the first publication of the meaning of life, which I guess is to feel really good and remember it.
So, if we do it right, VR could bring us complete empathy, understanding, and even the meaning of life, if we so choose to feel that way.
However, since we are humans and (particularly at this moment) we seem to fuck things up regularly, the bad side of that projection is the world of violent possibility that is in Isaac’s head. (I feel like I’m picking on Isaac. He’s all right.) To go one step further, what if not just humans were able to replicate the structure and emotional response that Eugene mentioned?
I recently asked Brad, a cute guy that I’m just gonna call “The God of Giphy”, “What is the magic of the gif? Why 3 seconds — why does that make us happy?” He responded by first correcting me and saying that it’s 3–5 seconds, and then went on to say that 3–5 seconds is the typical amount of time it takes to make a scene in filmmaking. He said that he’s not sure if we’ve taught ourselves to recognize that 3 seconds = an emotion or if an emotion only comes after that amount of time and input. Either way, we know how how gifs work.
You send this:
Your friend sends this back:
Since giphy has conveniently tagged all of the emotions of every gif, would it be so hard to “teach” a robot to “text” with you? Again, if a gif is the shortest story we understand, would that mean that you can “talk” with a robot? If you sent one back, would you be having a conversation? Would you be teaching your robot perception? Technically, would you be teaching your robot empathy? What about other robots sending gifs to each other? You could teach em that. Would they be able to “talk” to each other?
Ok, 1 in a million shot — what if we do end up telling all of our stories in VR? In 20–30 years when we do reach “mass consumption” (which will of course also come with a business model), will there be rules for VR interaction? Will there be licenses on 360 video you take of performers in a public setting? We currently have this overwhelming feeling that we want to be connected to everyone and everything, so that we can get information in the shortest time possible. But, we already know that connectivity is not equality…or even reason. The political state the US and the UK are in right now is a reflection of our want to be connected to like-minded people, and most of us have fooled ourselves into thinking that we live in a virtually isolated state and that it is possible to only connect to the people you want in your reality. VR is not just in goggles. We’re currently living in a codependent reality where connectivity doesn’t make things real-er or better. It’s like if you accidentally glued your hand to your phone. Would it be so far to assume that we will also make the mistake of creating the reality we think we want when it is actually possible to do so?
I’m not sure, and I’m not sure if I’m scared or delighted, but I am investing all of my money into the Royal Bank of Scotland, VR and Gif TVs tonight.