Liberating Our Digital Creativity: GitHub’s Danilo Campos on the future of VR

Danilo Campos is a self-taught techie and tech enthusiast. He’s an educator, software developer, and GitHub’s Technical Director for Social Impact. In July, I tried his HTC Vive rig, and then sat down with him in San Francisco to talk about the future of Virtual Reality.

Hope: Tell me a little bit about yourself.

Danilo: I’m Danilo Campos, and I make software and work on tech inclusion programs. We go around the country and we sit down with kids, teach them about how computers and the internet work, and we leave them with some sort of computing device at the end so they can keep adventuring with that afterword.
Hope: How did you get into software, or why?

Danilo: Accidentally. I spent my whole childhood just obsessing over computers, but I was really bad at math, and everyone told me that you had to be really good at math to do anything with computers, so the fact that I wasn’t was like, alright, I better figure out something else to do with my life. Accidentally, I learned programming in a 3D shared MMO environment called Second Life, and with Second Life you could create 3D stuff, you could write scripts to make the 3D stuff do whatever you wanted. At that point in time I thought that programming was something other people did, and I just backed into it because I needed to do things of increasing complexity to meet my goals, and that meant writing more and more scripts. Eventually I was just building code in Second Life, and selling robots and paying my real life rent selling these robots.
That was my start, and the fun thing about my childhood is I spent so much time learning about how software interfaces worked, that I could just intuitively design them in whatever situation I was thrown into. As long as I could suss out the basics of what problems someone needs to solve, I could build an interface that worked pretty well, and it was intuitive, and people liked using. Without really trying to, I spent a decade of my childhood just studying user interface design, and not really realizing that would be valuable or useful one day.
Hope: You say you were obsessed with computers. What was it that drew you in so strongly?
Danilo: They’re bottomless, and at the time it was the most interesting puzzle that could ever be put in front of me. It was like what the hell can this thing do? What is at the bottom of it? Then you add the internet to the equation, this was 1994 and ’95 …
Hope: Dial-up.
Danilo: Yeah, and AOL’s unlimited service shows up, and so you could steal any piece of software you wanted. You could download these things that were just text files full of weird conspiracy crap, and I wanted it all. I just wanted to know what was going on, and I wanted to experiment, and I wanted to understand everything I could get my hands on.
Hope: You’re really excited about VR. Most of the applications that I see or have read about right now are gaming, but it seems like you have an image of a future far beyond gaming.
Danilo: Oh, absolutely. I think games are the low-hanging fruit, because there’s already so much invested in creating games in a 3D environment, so there’s all these tools that are well optimized for building games, and there’s all of these assets and intellectual property that can be adapted into VR. Even just entire games that were built for point and click keyboard stuff, like Fallout 4. You wander around a post apocalyptic wasteland trying to survive and getting cool loot, and they’re adapting that for VR now. They built this whole thing for a 3D engine, and now they just have to bolt on controls for it that work for VR. That part’s easy.
I think the more interesting thing, and we’re seeing a little bit of this with apps like Tilt Brush, is — I love creativity, and I love imagination, and I think VR has this incredible potential for liberating people’s digital creativity because it’s so intuitive to get into something like Tilt Brush and just start painting in 3D. You don’t have to learn a bunch of complex commands, a whole bunch of complex tools, you just pick a brush that works for you, you pick the color that works for you and you start playing around and see what happens. I think that making creativity that approachable and that intuitive is not only inherently, intrinsically exciting for the creator, I think it opens up a whole new avenue of culture for us. The level of complex stuff that you can now create for a very small investment in figuring it out. It could get very exciting.
Hope: What’s more exciting about using that than getting some canvases and paint brushes? Is it that once you have the system you can just —

Danilo: The bottomlessness is nice, but beyond that if we grab a canvas for example, you’re still painting in 2D. With something like Tilt Brush you are painting like in three dimension, so you can have things that have depth to them, and you can have things that you can wander around. Everyone has an imagination, and it’s stuck inside of there for most people. There’s a handful who get this amazing channel between their imagination into their hands or their voices, or any number of different things to express that. It takes a lot of training, and it takes a lot of practice with different tools, and I think that something like this that is such an analog for our 3D everyday reality, but that has all of the flexibility and limitlessness of computer software, means that you can put creativity and expression into people’s hands in a way that they haven’t really had before.
Hope: There’s an intensity to a VR experience, and it’s immersive. I wonder if there’s an aspect that’s about the novelty, in the same way that when people started going to the movies it felt like this amazing immersive experience, and then you acclimate. I’m wondering if you think there will be an acclimation in the same way.

Danilo: Early film, you could point a gun at the camera and fire it and people would just lose their shit having watched that very simple sequence, right? The novelty of the medium at that point was so substantial that even very simple expressions worked well. I think like you saw today with the Blue undersea tour app, this is mostly a thing where you’re just sitting there looking around weird shit. That’s cool, but I think the much more interesting stuff comes down the pike, and it won’t be enough, a year, two years, five years from now, just have a whale come at you, as exciting as that is, right?
Hope: Yeah, you’ll have to harpoon it.
Danilo: Yeah, you’ve go to do something with the whale…

Hope: I hear your excitement about the possibilities for creative expression, and I’m imagining you paint some 3D art immersion experience, and then can save it and someone else can wander through it, but I also wonder about the potential for something antisocial or isolationist to happen, where you can put on this headset and immerse yourself in a world and have all kinds of experiences, including simulated social experiences that are completely alone, or where you interface with a person that you imagine or create, not a real person, and —

Danilo: I think I see where you’re going. Is there an isolating hazard — 
Hope: Yes
Danilo: — to this technology. I mean, the original VR technology is the novel, right? You pick up a novel and you have all of this sensory information — 
Hope: Oh yeah, sometimes if I’m reading a good novel, when I come out of it, you get that motion sickness, or whiplash.
Danilo: Yeah, you’ve been so immersed in this, and the author can determine what level of immersion happens, how much detail is described, all of that. I think that whatever hazards of isolation and immersion exist in VR, are the same ones that exist in books. You can lock yourself up in a tower and just read all day if that’s what you want to do, and sometimes that’s good, but even at that it’s a social experience because someone who’s written the book is expressing ideas and expressing points of view to you. Even if it’s kind of asynchronous, and even if it’s at quite a distance, you’re still having an experience with another person, the author in that case.
Hope: I see what you’re saying, and that is a thing that I love about books. You have this connection across space and time, and that’s compelling, but I wonder about this difference between written media and VR that has to do with two things: choice and attention. To read a book you have to give it your attention. There’s some active will in terms of how you are directing your attention, and once you get in it at a certain point, it’s pretty easy to keep going, but there’s this decision.

Danilo: It’s like a startup cost, entering the book.
Hope: There is a startup cost, but that also means that you were making a choice about how to direct your attention, so I wonder about the sensory intensity of VR, whether that’s so compelling that it can become compulsive and you lose your choice in a way, and I also wonder about the effects on attention. Not VR specifically, but the screen world, and the way that your attention is grabbed and grabbed and grabbed constantly. A fear about losing our ability to direct our attention in a deliberate way.
Danilo: I think the hazards for that are far greater with a mobile device than they are with VR, because at least the way VR implemented now and foreseeably into the future, it’s a little bit of a solid context shift to get going in VR. You’ve to make sure the rig is up and rolling, you’ve got to put the headset on, and you’re checking out of the world in a way that takes a little bit of fiddling.
Hope: It also has a startup cost.
Danilo: Right. Beyond that though, I think that in any distribution of humans you’re going to have some folks at the edges who will get lost in an obsessive consumption of any kind of media. You see that with books, you see that with video games, you see that with tabloid magazines. There will be folks on the fringes who just can’t get enough of this thing to a point of social isolation, but I think that part of what we’re seeing right now, and I’ve seen this in other areas — early iPhone apps were very simple. Early iPhone apps didn’t connect to a server, early iPhone didn’t do anything especially complicated, they were just really handy because they were right there in your pocket. And iPhone apps today are inherently social. There’s always some component for sharing something, for connecting to other people, for benefiting from some sort of network.
When I think about VR, I think one of the interesting future applications of this is the social application. That’s why Facebook bought Oculus. They’re seeing the fact that, alright, if all digital stuff is eventually happening in this 3D world, and we’re part of that, we get to be part of a future of social revolution. For example, you and I have a continent separating us a decent chunk of the time, but if we could sit down and play chess in a simulated environment, the additional context of this social activity as a surface for also having conversation and catching up and all that, I think there’s a lot of power to that.
Hope: Do you think it will inevitably go that way because humans are so dramatically, compulsively social?
Danilo: I think it’s a strictly information theory problem, right? Our brains are very complex in terms of the patterns and models and other structures of information that live inside of them, and the only way that they can truly be satisfied is to find something of equal complexity to play with and consume and exchange in all of this, and that’s another human mind. It’s being social. As much as there can be fun in simple arcade expressions of VR, I think the most fun comes in doing things with other people.
Hope: VR is useful to that because of the nature of jobs in our society, moving, and distance?
Danilo: It can bridge distances but on top of that it can create opportunities for activities that would not be possible, either because of distance or because it’s just a fantastical activity someone’s come up with.
Hope: You can’t actually have sex with a unicorn.

Danilo: Exactly, but now you could, or at least the unicorn could talk dirty to you as you … We haven’t even gotten into teledildonics with this.
Hope (laughing): Did you just make up that terminology?
Danilo: No, that is as it is known.
Hope: Okay, that’s kind of fantastic.

Getting back on track: when I put on the headset, you don’t exist anymore. And neither does my body.

Danilo: I wonder if that would be liberating for some people.

Hope: Don’t you think? For people that are self-conscious of their body in social space, to be in a space where you are completely interacting with your body as something that is moving and doing, or being done upon, but you are not being seen or interacted with as a watched object.

Danilo: Or you take it further and determine what it is someone gets to watch. Like if you wanted an avatar that was a pony.

Hope: That’s interesting. What did you call this? Dildo-tonics?

Danilo: Teledildonics. I’m glad you’re so tickled by that one.

Hope: Do you worry about government or propaganda use?

Danilo: No more so than —

Hope: Than any other medium?

Danilo: Yeah

Hope: It’s inevitable but people can fight against it.

Danilo: You know what I read though, the other day? Do you know the Fallout universe at all?

Hope: No.

Danilo: In Fallout you have all of these people fighting for survival and robbing other people, and it’s a pretty violent life out there. And somebody walked up to one of their opponents and shot ’em with a shotgun, and it was so visceral. It was unsettlingly visceral. In contrast to a lot of video games, VR is going to be this thing where it actually doesn’t feel that good.

Hope: Because it’s so realistic.

Danilo: You feel a little bit chilled by your actions there.

Hope: I’ve seen the terminology of VR as an empathy machine, attributed to more than one person. There’s this simulation, the guy’s name is Chris Milk, who has you follow a Syrian refugee in a camp in Jordan — 
Danilo: I’ve heard about this, yeah.
Hope: Yeah, he did a TED talk, and he’s very interested in the potential to use VR to create empathy, and I’m curious if you are thinking about VR in terms of broader social change.

Danilo: I think that that is a very interesting opportunity, in terms of bringing somebody’s experience to someone else who’s had no reason ever to live it. I see that, but I think even deeper and more exciting to me is the opportunity for cultural expression just exploding. I think that we are inherently creative creatures, and we like to create expressions and reflections of our lives and our worlds, and the outcome of that is incredibly empathetic at points. Like when I look at Black Twitter for example, as a cultural mechanism for explaining the black experience, especially in the United States, that’s a thing where you put the tools in somebody’s hands, and they will create something reflective of their world. When it’s something as visceral as VR, I can’t even imagine what the long term implications of that will be, both for culture and the resulting social change it pushes.
Hope: Do you think that the empathy problem is fundamentally a technology problem?
Danilo: Can you say more?
Hope: Or an expression problem? You can create some kind of art about what your experience in the world is, but empathy requires some willingness — or maybe all it requires is a sensory overload from VR?
Danilo: Well, the willingness is there. People went and saw Straight Outta Compton, people watched The Wire, and those are cultural expressions of a very different sort of life for a lot of people that are delivered at a level of quality and production value and richness that is inherently compelling. Our curiosity is a sufficient hook. Our curiosity is enough of a crack in the door to shove the empathy in.