VIRTUAL REALITY AS POSSIBILITY SPACE
I’d like to invite you to reimagine what content could mean as Virtual Reality is finally becoming a reality —
The digital world will soon enough be enmeshed with the physical world in such a way that our ‘reality’ will be the transparency mode that we choose.
The advent of digital realities is an opportunity for us to rethink the way we could be experiencing information. We are leaving the glowing rectangular screens behind to step into computational space where the world is our desktop —
The future of immersive media technology is the future of computation.
Virtual, Augmented & Mixed Reality technologies will change how we do everything that we do today & much more, that we can’t even imagine yet. Fast-forward 5 to 10 years in the context of breakthroughs in neuroscience, artificial intelligence, blockchain, robotics & the bleeding-edge development of VR, MR, AR — think of all the new ways we could be acquiring & creating ‘knowledge.’
THERE ARE NO ANSWERS, ONLY CHOICES
As we go into this future without screens, we must pay attention to the context that our ‘innovations’ shall be set in: we have been witnessing the loudest voices on the internet, in the media, & in politics screaming for alienation vs communication, enclosure vs openness, fear vs curiosity.
In the light of recent events, I cannot help but admit I have been somewhat troubled by how narrowly we have been approaching our work, even we — even this very group of people that calls themselves innovators & explorers.
Our work is never just entertainment or marketing or science or technology, we are, in fact, creating culture.
More than ever before, we must think what ideologies the content we create could empower. More than ever before, we must think what behaviour the technologies we develop could enable.
Stanislaw Lem wrote: ‘There are no answers, only choices.’ What are the choices we are willing to make? What if instead of following the future, we go & build one?
The greatest science fiction is less about extravagant dives into tomorrow & more about bringing our attention to the choices we are making today. What made me fall for virtual reality is that it could give us that necessary distance to visualise & experience the complexities of physical reality in a new way. It truly is an opportunity to rethink how we could be interacting with physical reality.
By understanding what we desire & fear in virtual worlds, we could indeed learn more about our engagement with the physical world.
Here are some vital questions to ask: How much of the physical world do we want to change, modify or replace with the digital? How much of our data and privacy are we willing to surrender to the providers of digital worlds?
Unintended consequences of new technologies wreak havoc more severe & more widespread than we want to admit. We need to look no further than Charlie Brooker’s BLACK MIRROR or Keiichi Matsuda’s HYPER-REALITY to see the prototypes of the future where the merger of physical & digital space goes terribly wrong. These are important cautionary tales, & really digging in to understand what, why & how things could go wrong might be the only way to try to do it right.
The urgency to do it more right than wrong is real.
The technological progress is unstoppable, but we should not be embracing it blindly. I believe that we are in the beginning of a beginning of a technology that could be indistinguishable from magick, but only if we choose it to be so. If the intellect is the fuel of our rocket engine, the vision is the direction our rocket shall fly.
Technological innovation without humanitarian evolution = dystopian future.
IDEAS HAVE IMPACT
Media is the modern day mythology — it lays the foundations of our civilisation & becomes the ideology upon which we build our societal values & inform our policies for generations to come.
A blockbuster superhero figure saving the world ‘alone’ seems to be a fun story and and fantasy escape but it actually perpetuates a false archetype of the singular hero — it paves the path for Donald Trump ‘credibly’ saying he — & only he — alone can save America.
The proliferation of alien movies, vilifying in every possible way living beings whose bodies, culture or intelligence is different to our own, is an important ingredient of that fertile ground for paranoia & xenophobic, racist, despicably inhumane treatment of refugees fleeing not just for better life, but death itself… Actual humans, today, reduced to statistics, the illegals. No coincidence indeed that in USA, any non citizens are ‘aliens’… Unless you submit your own identity, passport or culture, you are & you remain an alien, no matter how much of an extraordinary one. Your existence allowed only by temporary grace, with probability of being revoked at any time.
Ideas have impact. How we speak matters. How we see matters. In fact, it all starts with how we see the world.
The media we create becomes us. The spaces we design inhabit us. The fictions we tell — if they are compelling at all — always bleed back into reality.
I know that if we bring our minds all together we could design future fictions that could support us in shifting present reality from the end dot of inescapability to the time-space of possibility.
So, I’ll ask you all here, can we imagine the future as a possibility space we could be designing together?
Together as collaborative entities of humans across the borders of nations, generations, genders & cultures, yes, but also as collaborative entities of human & machine intelligence. What if we could stop seeing technology as this external thing to us, & start appreciating it as an extension of our own biology whose well-being is not just our responsibility but a welcome challenge.
We have created augmentations of ourselves for as long as we have existed.
From slingshots to satellites, from eyeglasses to AR glasses, from crutches to exoskeletons suits to replacement of our biological tissues, etc., we are constantly evolving how we engage and augment ourselves. AI and digital assistants, & our future virtual dreaming, are all a part of the amazing creative output of our species. It is up to us as a community, as it always has been, to continue to model the examples of doing good with what we create and focus on helping us all reach our potential.
To quote Audrey Tang & this poem of hers as a manifesto for a kinder future:
When we see ‘Internet Of Things’, let’s make it an internet of beings.
When we see ‘Virtual Reality’, let’s make it a shared reality.
When we see ‘Machine Learning, let’s make it collaborative learning.
When we see ‘User Experience’, let’s make it about human experience.
When we hear ‘The Singularity is near’, let us remember, the plurality is here.
We need more stories of plurality. We need more platforms for inclusion. We need more technologies for collaboration. In fact, could we embed collaboration in the very essence of our design?
SPACE TO CONNECT ACROSS BORDERS
I believe, not just we can, but indeed we must, we must shift the conversation from virtual reality being a space of isolation to virtual reality being a space of resistance, of connection, of belonging. Instead of escaping the physical reality, we can search for new pathways to co-presence and co-creation that transcend our physical reality. Because we will have to find new ways to not just resist, but actually overcome the borders that are being imposed around us. As the angry men in ill-fitted suits want to build walls, we, we must build bridges.
I want us to envision VR/AR/MR as the most amazing medium we have ever had to facilitate understanding, learning, connecting with each other across & beyond borders.
I want to go as far as thinking we can indeed design the kind of VR that could actually make the physical borders between us obsolete.
IMAGINATION TO TRANSFORMATION
Virtual reality is the space that can manifest its full potential only if we all come together & work together toward a shared goal.
The reason there is little truly extraordinary AR/MR/VR content is because we are all still working ‘in boxes.’ Engineers with engineers, game people with game people, directors with their producers, artists with artists.
So again, here I want to reiterate as strongly as I can: to create something truly new — experience, or the technology that powers it — we need to step out of our echo chambers. Whichever discipline we focus on, we are all participating in creation.
We are held back not as much by early-stage tech, but by our fear of imagination, by our unwillingness to have a conversation outside our comfort zone, & our inability to really collaborate across disciplines, cultures, generations.
We need to open our imagination, convert it to conversations, to collaborations, creating outcomes of transformation.
CONTENT FRAME TO CONTENT MATRIX
Our short term goals have a real chance of killing our vision.
Too often we reach for the low-hanging fruit even while being aware that could very possibly hurt the medium long term. But we could step out of seeing everything in the heat of the action, in the first person, & learn to become a witness to our own situation as that indeed might be the only way we have any hope of discovering a pathway out of the maze we seem to be so stuck in.
Together, we can redesign future vision & maybe by working backwards we can be so much clearer about our present responsibilities, actions & choices.
TS Eliot wrote: ‘To become what you are not, you have to go the way that you are not.’ So we cannot continue dragging the old media and its methodologies and our bad habits that go with it into this new media space we create.
Screens had to compete with all other distractions in our physical surroundings & we compensated for that distance with all the extra stuff that would terrify us in the real life: the insanely fast pace, violent action, exaggerated visual effects. But what does it mean now that we won’t be watching it anymore, but actually being in it? It is not anymore about suspension of disbelief, it is about belief .
We have to shift our thinking from creating content within the frame of screens to creating the space we move through & interact with as our content matrix.
Virtual Reality is an experience that requires trust. Elon Rutberg said: “You don’t even notice your subconscious mind — until you get scared, or horny. Inherited wounds are the background radiation of our lives.” When we experience digital space, just like with a physical space, we bring all of our subconscious trauma, that more often than not, we aren’t even aware of. VR viscerally taps into all that we are are, including our personal histories.
It is easiest to achieve emotional reactions by triggering our fears. That’s why we’ve been seeing so many violence- & horror-based VR experiences. YouTube is full of the videos of people freaking out while being attacked by virtual zombies. Sure that seems funny, but only until that happens to you.
The experience is virtual, but the fear is very real. Is the experience ‘just’ virtual if it causes real emotional damage?
We will witness the very real PTSD from the virtual experiences.We will see people harmed, crippled, terrified, traumatized by experiences that did not happen to their physical bodies at all.
In the disproportionate amount of the VR I have tried, cheap claustrophobic tricks have been employed to make me move through the virtual space. That Space, or action within it, or time closing in on me. If the only way you can motivate me is by threatening me with death, then this current version of the medium suffers from a serious case of arrested development.
I invite you to support the media & technology that could help open us up, not continue closing us down.
POWER OF CONTENT
My creative partner Howard Goldkrand asks: How can we design our future as a compassionate collaborative network? All this might seem a daunting task today, I know; but if not us, then who, & if not now, then when?
With the advent of immersive media, we are about to fully realise the awesome & awesomely terrifying power of content. Content that we create could help us to move past the outdated, ossified structures of the existing society & visualise the more inspiring world that tomorrow could be.
I want you to think how the new infrastructures we design could enable the new, participatory story-world.
WHAT YOU MAKE ME FEEL
Throughout my life I have moved from creating still images to moving images to immersive spaces to expansive fictional worlds & what I have seen across all is not the discontinuity in the media, but a continuum of human experience: What you make me feel, more than what you make.
It’s not as much about what you design, but what we can do in your design. It’s not as much about your subject matter, but how you approach it.
Alysha Naples, who led the design of user experience & interaction at MAGIC LEAP says:
Do not make something about something. Make something that is something.
The more I work in the field, the more I realize that there isn’t really such a thing as a ‘grammar of virtual reality.’
We are trying to establish format compatibilities & certain rules of engagement of interaction, but the bigger question here is: How do we craft ‘reality’ situations? How do we design possibility spaces?
My personal number one rule for creating good virtual reality content is a consciousness around engaging with our physical reality. Observing what makes us react to physical experiences, how we move through physical space, how we interact with physical objects — paying attention to these “laws of interaction” so we can bend & open them to an even wider array of possibilities in the digital/virtual space.
VR does not exist without interaction.
Audience is not just audience anymore, & more even than a participator — the ones that are experiencing the virtual world ultimately are the creators of their own experience.
For the future of this technology to be as good as we dream it to be, the technology has to become transparent. Bruce Sterling says:
We can no longer allow ourselves to be hypnotized by the sense of technical novelty. We should look at it like it is already ‘passe,’ and create it from that point of view.
It must be good without us considering that is is new. If an experience is only good because it is new, it won’t be good for long.
INNOVATION IS NOT A GADGET
We do not have ‘a technology problem’. Accuracy is not the only measure of quality. In volumetric VR space, most seem to be pursuing the pixel perfect re-creation of reality. That is something we need, but it is not the only thing we need, & certainly not what we need most. It’s how you are connecting me to your created reality in a virtual space.
It is vital that more time, energy & resources go to the R&D of content. Because VR is not hardware. VR is not platforms. VR is an experience.
VR is a digital space that you step out of with physical memories. VR is a journey, leading ultimately, into experiencing your own inner space.
VR IS NOT NEW
It is simply a technology that can finally begin to echo what the shamans of time immemorial have been bringing us into through their sacred rituals. Rituals that, since their inception, have had a goal of teaching us how to dive into the parts of our psyche unknown to our conscious minds so we could learn how to come closer to the world that we are inextricably linked with. I know this might sound somewhat esoteric, but that’s what ‘being in the space’ while knowing that that space is not there very much is — it is literally an out-of-body experience.
More than ever before, creation — be it artistic, scientific, or technological — needs to have some of that shamanism within it.
I dream of technologies that could help us heal our wounds — as individuals, as cultures, as societies, as a species. Our technology should not just be about solving practical problems.
The greatest inventions inspire us to invent more.
EXPERIENCE DRIVEN TECHNOLOGY
Creativity is not about devising smarter ways of selling more things people do not need. Creativity is about creating moments of unique experience. Experience that expands the human potential — creatively, emotionally, intellectually, physically. What we need more than anything, for a long-term future to be a more inhabitable place, is infrastructures & tools that allow us to be creative with our own lives.
What we need is not more technology-driven experiences, but experience-driven technology.
We want technology that supports us in becoming the best version of ourselves. We want technology that can take us further, beyond our physical bodies, so that we can bring back that digital possibility-space into our physical lives.
NOW IS THE FUTURE
Everyday, with everything that we do, we create the culture of the future that we, & everyone else will be inhabiting. If I can leave you with one question, it is:
What is the future reality that you want to create?