What’s VR for? A conversation with Monika Bielskyte

One of the most amazing things about Pandemon.io is the diversity of speakers we have lined up. Rather than just bringing together business consultants, or hardcore technologists, we’ve assembled polymaths, systems thinkers, artists, and those pushing the edges of what’s possible.

But most of us are still constrained in possibility, because we’re limited by the real world. AR/VR designer and thinker Monika Bielskyte sees new realities as a way to defy the possible, and experiment with entirely new ideas.

Hands of Blue, one by one.

She’s currently touring Amazonia, dyed a deep indigo against insects in the rainforest canopy. But soon she’ll be headed to Panama, to join us on the smartest beach on the planet. We had a chance to ask her some questions in between her flurry of world travels.

Pandemonio: I remember you telling me that people saying VR is “for empathy” was a big oversimplification. So what is VR for?

Monika: The digital world will soon be enmeshed enough with the physical world that our ‘reality’ will be the transparency mode that we choose.

The advent of digital realities is an opportunity for us to reimagine the way we can experience information. The future of immersive media technology is the future of computation. We are leaving behind the glowing rectangular screens, and stepping into computational space where the world is our desktop. Virtual, Augmented and Mixed-reality technologies will very likely change everything that we do as we do it today: Obvious things like education, communication, entertainment, and advertising; but many more that we aren’t yet able to imagine.

“Empathy” is a word that has been thrown around a whole lot in connection with VR, but really what it is about is manipulation of your mind—which can be used positively or negatively. It’s not the technology itself that defines how it will be used. We have to define how it will be used.

So much money is going towards developing horror- or violence- based experiences. First-person shooter are the most popular content for now. I personally think this medium is suffering from a serious case of arrested development, because not enough money is going into the actual R&D of content: Money is flowing towards hardware and platforms, and towards content that essentially drags the old media into the new medium.

What we need is to really think natively about the medium: What is the impact that the content we are developing could have, and how can we embed collaboration into the very essence of experiences we design. I believe this this is the only pathway for VR to have a positive impact on our society, and to expand human potential, creatively, intellectually, emotionally, and physically.

A vivid imagination and some critical thinking are two things this industry definitely would benefit from having more of.

P How do we bridge the gap between creative designers and technologists when exploring new media?

M Virtual reality is the space that can manifest its full potential only if we all come together and work together for the 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. To create something truly new in this space we need to step out of our echo chambers. We need to open our imagination, convert it to conversations, to collaborations, creating outcomes of transformation.

We are held back not as much by early-stage technology, but by our lack of imagination, by our unwillingness to have a conversation outside our comfort zone and our inability to really collaborate across cultures, disciplines, and generations.

I think big responsibility here goes to conference organizers, funding entities and tech giants. In the conference space we really need to bring in more voice diversity, mixing people working in the bleeding edge of science of every aspect of immersive creativity—not just VR but fields like neuroscience and Artificial Intelligence—with creatives, particularly those with different cultural backgrounds.

At the same time, tech giants and investors need to start thinking more long-term and fund projects and startups with more ambitious goals, not just technologically, but also culturally.

P Today, mixed reality feels cumbersome and distant. What’s going to fix that? How long will it take?

M There are a lot of issues that need to be solved for MR to become ‘a functional space’ rather than a gimmick. We need breakthroughs in machine vision, machine learning, and artificial intelligence.

Essentially, the device (e.g. the MAGIC LEAP) needs to be light enough, comfortable enough, and needs to understand the world that the user is looking at in order to embed the digital content into it seamlessly. We’ll get there in a few years time, but maybe not as soon as everyone has promised.

In the meantime, it’s the combination of AR and VR for different specific use cases: AR more for professional and industrial applications; VR more for entertainment. Ultimately, what we need to is to able to move seamlessly from 0% digital input to 100% digital environment within one device.

P The potential for abuse in virtual worlds is much stronger than, say, Twitter. How should designers think about policing social interactions in virtual worlds?

M We have to shift our thinking from creating content within the small frame of a two-dimensional screen, to creating content that lives within the space through which we move and interact. Screens had to compete with all the other distractions in our physical space, and we compensated for that distance by turning up the volume on the content: Extra stuff that kept our attention, but would terrify us in real life: The insanely fast pace, the violent action, the super-saturated imagery, the exaggerated visual effects.

But that changes when we’re no longer watching something any more, but actually being within it. It’s not about grabbing your attention. It’s no longer about suspension of disbelief. It’s about belief.

VR viscerally taps into all that we are, including our personal histories. When we experience digital space, just like with a physical space, we bring into it all of our subconscious trauma (that, more often than not, we aren’t even aware of.)

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 being attacked by virtual zombies. Sure that seems funny, but only until that happens to you.

We will witness very real PTSD from virtual experiences. We will see people harmed, crippled, terrified, by experiences that did not happen to their physical bodies at all. The experience is virtual, but the fear is very real. Is the experience ‘just’ virtual if the fear is real? I firmly believe creators need to take all this into account while developing new content. We must think how it will affect people, and we must strive to affect people in a positive way—by adding something of meaning and value to their lives, rather than isolating them even more or filling them with terror and fear.

Last, but not least, the bleeding edge of VR/MR includes integration of body sensory feedback & EEG’s into the devices. That means next-generation experiences will include haptic add-ons and experience personalization based on your individual data. So important questions such as “how much of your own data you will be willing to share?” and “who will have access to your experience data?” and even “how much you will want to modify your perception of ‘reality’?” are crucial.

Charlie Brooker’s Sci-fi series Black Mirror & Keiichi Matsuda’s design fiction Hyperreality are cautionary tales we should definitely be learning from.

Augmented Hyperreality, by Keiichi Matsuda.

Join Monika and dozens of other amazing speakers who are building and thinking about how technology is disrupting every aspect of society at Pandemon.io this February 15–17. It’ll be the smartest beach on the planet.