Clouded Future — everything we know about the future of virtual reality and augmented reality
A playful research project by SPACE10 student in residence Erika Marthins and writer Rasmus Palludan, exploring the future of VR & AR.
Throughout the past year Danish tech writer Rasmus Palludan has gone on a journey to understand the current landscape of Virtual Reality & Augmented Reality, get different perspectives from renowned futurists, psychiatrists, philosophers, sociologists, technologists and added his own personal thoughts on what the reality of tomorrow may be. On a parallel, more visual path interaction design student Erika Marthins has researched and developed a series of photos that explore a future where we’re completely immersed in a virtual world. Their crafts come together in this intriguing piece called ‘Clouded Future’
Want to know everything about VR & AR and get a taste of what the future could look like, then dive headfirst into their work below:
Words by Rasmus Palludan
A creepy photo of Mark Zuckerberg emerged online this year from the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. He was captured walking past a sea of 5000 people, each staring blankly into a pair of VR-goggles. They looked like pale spellbound zombies, not even noticing the arrival of their even paler and seemingly mechanical overlord.
It triggered memories of the Wachowski-brothers’ 1999 blockbuster-hit “The Matrix” in which humanity itself is imprisoned in a VR-environment simulating the beginning of the 20th century. The movie is the ultimate rendition of VR as an existential threat. VR done so good, that it undermines reality.
Or perhaps memories of Cronenberg’s 1983 sci-fi movie “Videodrome” in which people get so intimate with media, in this case television, that the the mediated reality is perceived as real, thereby blurring reality and messing up peoples heads.
VR- and AR-headsets are still a reasonable amount of time away from Hollywood-levels of immersion, so one could argue we should take a chill pill (instead of speculating about blue pills, red pills and digital dystopia).
On the other hand speculating about future scenarios involving VR and AR seems more relevant than ever:
These technologies are hitting the tech industry like a flood. Today, Facebook alone have over 400 people working on VR. Sony has already introduced “Playstation VR”. Google has released “Daydream” while Samsung has “Samsung Gear VR” And all the other tech giants — Amazon, Microsoft, Apple — have teams working on either AR or VR
On top of that; there’s a myriad of lesser known companies trying to seize the moment to become the leaders of these new and highly disruptive markets.
AR-companies like Magic Leap, The Void and Meta are worth mentioning. To give a little bit of perspective: Magic Leap has gotten 1,3 billion dollars in investments without even having a finished AR-headset out yet. Why? Most likely because their AR-demos are way more than hype.
Futurist Kevin Kelly believes so strongly in AR that he’s suggesting companies like Magic Leap have an opportunity to become some of the largest companies ever invented.
But even for the best futurists out there the future in regards to AR and VR is clouded. Completely clouded. We’ve only just begun to see the potential of these new technologies unfold. You might even say that there are no true experts in these fields yet.
Nevertheless, it’s relevant to start thinking about what future world we are building for ourselves. What will these technologies do for us, but more importantly: Who we are becoming as humans while using them?
All new forms of media affects us in different ways. We still don’t really know to what extent AR and VR will change us as human beings and in what ways they will tinker with our brains. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in 1960, media types are way more than just passive channels of information. They don’t just provide us stuff to think about. They also shape the way we think. “The medium is the message”, right?
So let’s start speculating about the future…
VR: The internet on steroids
“In the short term VR (and AR) is overhyped, but in the long term it’s underhyped.” says Kevin Kelly who did tests on the earliest VR technologies back in the 1980’s as a journalist.
In 20 years time we won’t think of “the internet” or “cyberspace” as a place we go to, says Kelly. It will be all around us. He call’s this “place”: “The internet of experiences”. Instead of finding information on the Internet we will go there to get experiences.
Not all people think this is a good thing.
Elias Aboujaode, a psychiatrist from Stanford University, considers VR technology to be a natural evolution of the virtual experience. An evolution that’s been happening over the last 20 years towards gradually making the online experience more immersive and lifelike.
If you compare the graphics on any typical webpage 10–15 years ago to a webpage today you see an evolution towards making it more eye grabbing and more demanding of your attention, he explained:
“VR accomplishes this by grabbing your attention in a new way by immersing you even more in the digital than any previous technologies. So I see VR as ‘The Internet on Steroids’ because this new medium is more powerful than anything we’ve gotten used to so far. VR is more convincing. More engrossing.”
So what’s the problem with being totally immersed?
Meet my split personality
According to Aboujaoude, people can end up spending so much time in a VR-environment that they end up creating a parallel persona for themselves — not unlike the personas we create for ourselves on social media-profiles today.
This becomes a problem for people who end up believing in this virtual persona and start preferring it to their real life. VR can, if you will, cause a split between a persons “virtual reality” and “real reality”.
“Being immersed in a virtual world can cause a lot of disappointment. Because eventually, you have to log off. Eventually, you have to face whatever your true reality is,” he said.
In the virtual world — in a computer game for instance — people can often do a lot of things that are simply not possible in real life. They can feel much more powerful, if not invincible, and act more narcissistic, more selfish and impulsive. Yet, once people take off the VR-goggles they can’t get away with expressing these traits anymore. Even worse, they can end up bringing these personality traits from the online world into the offline world.
“We can end up looking more and more like our avatars. If you spend 8–10 hours a day interacting with people in a negative way, you don’t become the model of a polite, considerate citizen,” he says.
Ultimately Aboujaoude thinks we’re in danger of losing the ability to be in the moment. Alone with ourselves without feeling there’s a big crutch. A lot of important self-evaluation and self-reflection is going on when we’re alone with our own thoughts.
“Losing that would be a huge loss. Bigger than we realize. It already feels very unnatural without your cell phone. Or to be offline more than a couple of hours. That’s fundamentally a way to run away from being alone with yourself,” he said.
Aboujaoude compares new mediums like VR to other potentially addictive substances like alcohol and drugs. He thinks the key is “moderation”. We have to be careful not to make VR the only thing that we derive pleasure from.
Doctor! I’m addicted to VR
According to John Suler, professor of psychology at Rider University, some people will become addicted to different types of VR-experiences. The most likely ones are VR-porn and VR-gaming:
“For intense gamers it can take time to readjust to the real world when they stop playing. They feel like part of their minds is still in this intense experience. So I think those transitions from VR back to the normal world could be difficult for some people in the future,” Suler told me.
According to Suler, there are a lot of reasons as to why people could potentially develop sexual addictions to VR. Perhaps certain sexual needs or parts of a person’s sexuality can be expressed through VR; like having sex with imaginary characters opposed to people. Other people are afraid of intimacy and closeness. They might have emotional issues that get stirred up when they have physical sex. Therefore, having sex with an artificial intelligence or other fabricated beings in a VR-experience might feel safer.
I just met this amazing virtual chick…
I’ve tried VR-porn and I don’t feel shameful admitting that I definitely see the potential. Getting eye-contact with porn-actors during the primitive VR-experiences of today definitely does intensify the experience — even though it’s not even close to mimicking the real experience of sex yet.
Futurist Kevin Kelly believes that eye contact is the key to feeling “presence” when communicating with another person in the form of an avatar in VR.
For Kelly, one of the interesting things about VR and AR is that you see everything from a first person perspective. Even though we have a lot of first person-shooter games today for computers and consoles it’s not the same. There’s a gap between your eyes and the screen. You’re kind of “watching” the first person-view as an outsider, while you play. In contrast, many people leaving immersive VR-environments today say that they are not remembering the experience as something that they watched. Rather — they remember it as something that happened to them.
That makes me think:
So if watching VR-porn starts to feel like something happening to us… isn’t it kind of… real?
Just dumped my girlfriend for a porn-suit, bro
The Japanese have already created VR-porn simulators that include a haptic body suit of sorts, attached to a thrusting penis pump. But for now they look horrific. As an owner of a porn-suit like that I would be more frustrated about how to get the suit off and clean it after virtual sex, or scared to death about being busted while wearing the suit during virtual sex, than I’d be excited about jumping into the suit to have virtual sex.
It seems likely that a really good version of a suit like that would hit the market in the future. What happens next? We buy access to different types of advanced AI-pornstars or AI-lovers online? We tell our girlfriends or boyfriends we don’t have energy for sex tonight, because we just fucked an AI? I guess it could make some people prefer virtual sex. No messy and complicated humans to deal with. No walks of shame. No rejections in the bar.
The documentary “No Sex please, we’re Japanese” already illustrated what some humans are capable finding “love” in the virtual realm. The documentary portrayed a culture of geeks in Japan so consumed by computer games and manga cartoons, that they’ve stopped dating in real life to have relationships with digital woman.
When I interviewed the Canadian Michael Harris, author of “The End of Absence”, he agreed, that there is a risk that the virtual makes some people become cowards in the face of other human beings, and end up being afraid of talking to strangers. He told me, that even today lots of studies have showed, that teenagers are terrified about making voice-to-voice phone calls, so they text instead.
On the other hand. A world without real emotions?! No real love?! Isn’t the challenge of getting sex, or maintaining a relationship, part of what makes sex enjoyable? If we could all just sit at our VR-pornstations all day getting what we want… would it be all that fun? You could program a porn-AI to challenge you of course. Or you could make it simulate love. But wouldn’t we ultimately end up longing for physical intimacy?
What I’m saying is: While a futuristic version of VR-porn might become an interesting alternative to physical sex, I don’t see it making physical sex extinct. That does not mean it couldn’t cause problems: If VR-porn involving an interactive AI-pornstar becomes a really good alternative to real sex: When will our girlfriends and boyfriend become jealous of the robots?
On a positive note: A realistic VR-porn-simulator could probably increase life quality of old people who don’t go out much, but still misses sex in their lives. Or people having a hard time finding sexual partners, like people with a handicap, could also benefit from this.
On AR and your wildest fantasies
AR is not irrelevant in regards to sex either. The technology could affect our sexlives in strange new ways, according to Robert Scoble, a technology evangelist and an expert on AR and VR. He told me that one could wear AR-lenses while having sex with a person and alter the sexpartners face with a filter (think: more advanced versions of the Snapchat-filters of today).
I could see some couples experiement with that. Suddenly your spouse could have the face of… let’s say Nathalie Portman or Ryan Gosling… or even something otherworldly. What about giving your boyfriend digital wings? Or a girlfriend with a tail? All the sudden AR could, depending on your perspective, become an either disturbing or fascinating sex fantasy-machine. Or what about a time machine? You could use AR to make your sexpartner look 10, 20 or 30 years younger. And would the ability to do that make us feel like shit about our bodies? Could it save long term relationships by making sex stimulating in new ways? We just don’t know yet.
What’s not to like about dystopia?
During an interview with philosopher Nick Bostrom from Oxford University on VR, it surprised me that he, of all people, would be so positive towards VR (perhaps he was tired of talking about the end of the world that day).
Bostrom has never been afraid of proposing wild, dystopian ideas. For instance, he’s the guy who thinks there’s a probability that we might be living in a hyperreal Matrix-style VR simulation right now. Why? The humans (or aliens) of the future could be using virtual reality to simulate a specific time in the past or to recreate how their remote ancestors lived.
While Bostrom agreed that there could be dystopian future scenarios involving VR; scenarios where people could end up finding VR experiences so rewarding that they’d prefer them to reality, he added something interesting. What looks like “digital dystopia” from the outside might as well be the opposite:
“It’s not obvious to me why people turning their backs on the physical reality entails they’ve made a mistake and it’s a bad thing. I don’t know about you, but I already spend more time in front of a computer than I do in nature, so you could say I’ve already been alienated. I still have the option of going camping or something…. but for most people it’s just not as rewarding as sitting indoors in a climate-controlled environment. So maybe we romanticize nature sometimes.”
Bostrom continued his argument by telling an anecdote. A colleague of his recently came home from a camping trip and was exhausted; he hadn’t managed to get any sleep during his trip. Maybe it was the mosquitos, the lack of a comfortable bed or something else, Bostrom speculated. Nevertheless, the colleague was happy to be back, looking at all of his screens. Meaning: There’s a reason why we chose to live the way we do. If we spend a lot of time using VR in the future it’s probably because we enjoy it.
And maybe Bostrom is right. There’s probably a reason why I’m capable of watching four hours of the Netflix-series Mr. Robot on a Sunday instead of taking a Thoreau-esque walk in the woods. The reason is that I really, really like to binge-watch Mr. Robot.
Bostrom went on to conclude:
“So if a VR experience becomes really beautiful, rich and compelling and people chose to spend more time in it for that reason… that doesn’t mean that something has gone terribly wrong. I might even count as a great success,” he said.
Earlier this year I asked the media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, author of “Present Shock” and “Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus”, about whether or not VR could make him worried about a seemingly dystopian world where couples come home from work, and instead of talking to each other they just isolate themselves behind VR-goggles.
“You mean something more dangerous than coming home and watching 3 hours of television?” he asked.
“Yeah?” I replied.
“I guess what you’re saying is that at least when you’re watching 3 hours of television, you can still turn it off and fuck your wife. And if you’re doing 3 hours of immersive VR-porn then you have 30 girls fuck you, but you go to sleep and don’t fuck your wife. Hmm… I guess… i mean. I hesitate to blame digital technologies for taking up the slack on the failings of our society — so if people are not being intimate with their spouses I would tend to blame the institution of marriage. Or something about the way we work. Or the way marketing makes us feel dissatisfied with who and what we are. I would tend to blame that more than the technology, games and things that we invent to entertain ourselves.”
Rushkoff did also add that the easier you make it to avoid each other — by for instance using VR-technology — the more likely it is that we’ll do that. But supplemented:
“I have a feeling that people are growing increasingly dissatisfied with these options and that there is a strong drive particularly in younger people to reconnect in the real world in physical ways”.
VR makes the world more real
So before we get too hung up on the idea that we will spend most of our awake-time in VR-worlds: It’s worth adding that the VR-pioneer Jaron Lanier have argued that one of the coolest things about VR actually is “not being in there”. The coolest feeling is actually taking the VR-goggles off and coming out of it. When testing VR-tech back in the 1980’s at his famous VPL-lab he would dive into a 20 minute long VR-session. The graphics in the VR experience were primitive back them, but during the 20 minutes his eyes would get used to the lower resolution. And when he took off the glasses after 20 minutes and returned to the real world, looking at a real flower on the table would amaze him. All of the sudden the flower would look “hyperreal”. With intensified detail and density:
“You see just the sheer reality of it. You just feel things from it. It’s really incredible. To me, that contrast, that feeling that you have when you’re out of it after you’ve used it, has universally been more precious than what happens in it. So, yeah, I like it. I might be wrong about this, but I suspect that a lot of people will find what I found: that the coolest thing to do with [VR] is not to be in there for hours the way people are with their pocket devices these days, just staring at the screen…,” he said in The Verge.
Isn’t that a beautiful thought? That by diving into VR-worlds we will actually end up appreciating the complexity of reality even more when we snap out of it? I kind of like that. I could see myself travelling to a digital version of Hawaii in order to appreciate the — for now — much more tactile and combustive sensory experience of strolling through a park in Copenhagen on a sunny day.
That sort of brings us into a more philosophical territory regarding VR and AR.
When I talked to John Suler, a psychology professor at Rider University, he said that humans have always felt this intrinsic need to experience reality in different ways.
Just look at the fact that we spend a third of our life sleeping and dreaming. Our minds want to enter into this dream-like state where things differ from our normal reality in our waking life. And in many different cultures people have used drugs of all kinds to alter their experiences of reality, Suler said and continued:
“It’s like humans are wired to kind of figure out: What is reality? How can I look at it from different perspectives? I think that cyberspace and VR is the new incarnation of that need. That’s how philosophical people talk about VR. It’s a tool to figure out: What is reality, anyhow?”
VR is going to be hyper social
But let’s say that everybody will have a VR headset in his or her home in the future. Would it be all that bad? Why is it a catastrophe if we spend a couple or even more hours per day using VR-goggles? From the outside it might look like we isolate ourselves behind these goggles, that we detract from the things in life that really matter — that we isolate ourselves in darkened and digital VR-cocoons.
But sitting in a couch wearing VR-goggles does not necessarily equal being anti-social. With the VR-apps of the future one could — for all we know — be hyper-social with friends and interact with them in new and interesting ways.
Kevin Kelly, for one, thinks that VR will become the “most social of the social medias”. During a speech at SXSW in 2016 the futurist said:
“Other people are far more interesting in these worlds than other objects and landscapes. It is inherently a social event. A social experience.”
He went on to use Metcalfe’s Law to substantiate his view. Metcalfe’s Law states that the value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system. Basically: A network like Facebook gets exponentially more valuable when the number of people using it increases. Kelly continued:
“Metcalfe’s Law is going to be true in VR. The value of a VR-experience will increase by the square of the number of people involved. VR is inherently going to be something we share with others. Because experiences — even more so than information — gain value from being shared (…) One of the first things we’re going to try to figure out with VR is how to have more people in them at the same time.”
If Kelly’s projection holds up — and considering the social nature of human beings it’s likely — it’s simply not true to think of VR as an “isolating technology”.
It’s likely that the social nature of humans will push these technologies towards becoming highly social platforms as well. It’s probably not a fad that Facebook has created a “Social VR” team that’s digging into how the technology can be used to share new experiences — in a first person perspective.
To many experts the potential of using VR or AR in education is enormous. What if this “power of experiences” could be harvested in education?
Today, psychologists like Philip Zimbardo from Stanford University believes that a lot of students today have problems focusing in analogue classrooms because they’ve spend most of their lives in interactive, digital environments. Why not use VR and AR to create a level of immersion that can tether youths’ fleeing attention spans? Not as a substitute of traditional textbooks, but a supplement.
An example: I’m guessing that if you experience an impressive audio-visual simulation of The Big Bang in VR it’s likely that you remember it better than if you just read about it in a textbook. Perhaps after you’ve seen The Big Bang unfold in VR you’ll feel more motivated to study it afterwards in textbooks. So put simply: Who are we becoming as humans if VR and AR revolutionizes education: Hmm… I think we just might become a little bit smarter — or what about more empathetic?
The ultimate empathy machine?
Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, is working on a research project called “Empathy at Scale” in which he is exploring ways that VR can be used to teach empathy. His ideas are quite cool. He found out that if you see a 65-year-old avatar of yourself in a VR-environment it will make you more likely to save money for retirement. And, if you see the world through the eyes of a color-blind person it will make you twice as willing to help that person. He calls it “The Proteus Effect” when the behavior of an individual, within a virtual world, is changed by characteristics his or hers avatar.
The world’s leading VR-movie-maker Chris Milk also thinks that VR could become a vehicle for empathy. His project “Clouds over Sidra” lets you enter a Syrian refugee camp in VR and follow the humble life of the 12-year old Sidra; One amongst millions of stranded refugees. Sidra is looking you straight in the eye as she talks. You feel her presence. Perhaps you feel her pain too. It’s obvious how the technology could be used for compassionate storytelling in journalism and documentaries. Ask yourself: What’s more powerful? To read about bombs exploding in The Middle East or to feel like you’re actually there? Hear the bombs. See people running past you screaming in the streets.
Techcrunch-journalist Josh Constine goes so far to suggest that:
“Virtual reality represents a giant leap forward in mankind’s propensity for compassion.”
While all of this has some truth to it… I can’t help but think that VR could also be used to do the exact opposite.
Earlier this year I interviewed Adam Sternbergh, author of the dystopian sci-fi books “Shovel Ready” and “Near Enemy” about the topic. He had an interesting take on the debate:
“There’s sort of a utopian idea that has already surfaced: That if you give people the opportunity to virtually visit a refugee camp, then that experience will give them more empathy. So you say: ‘sure’. But what if you gave someone the ability to visit any kind of environment? Judging from what we know about human nature people are going to gravitate towards the illicit and less sort of spiritually edifying experiences.”
It seems to me that Sternbergh is absolutely right. If we imagine a future where almost anything can be experienced through VR: Who’s to say people are going to go for empathy and compassion? Who’s to say that they won’t use VR to explore the darker corners of their imagination? Who’s to say that empathy-enhancing VR will become popular among consumers? And who’s to say that “the ultimate empathy machine” couldn’t also become “the ultimate nightmare machine”?
AR could become bigger than VR
A lot of experts, including Apple-CEO Tim Cook, thinks that AR has a bigger potential than VR.
The reason is simple: You’re more likely to walk down the street wearing AR-lenses, because they allow you to see your surroundings while virtual objects and information is displayed onto the real world, thereby augmenting it. In contrast, when you’re wearing VR-goggles they immerse you completely in the digital world, thereby isolating yourself from the physical world. That means that AR could be used almost anywhere (Pokémon Go already proved that).
According to the tech evangelist Robert Scoble, both VR and AR are going to create “deep cultural changes for humanity” within the next 5–10 years. They will bring about an enormous paradigm-shift in the way we interact with technology:
“We’re moving into the fourth state of user interface in the personal computer era. The first state was “character mode” as we saw in MS-DOS. The second was “graphical user interface”, that we know from Windows’ and Macintosh’ desktops. The third was touch that we know from smartphones and tablets. And the fourth is going to be “spatial computing”. It’s a new user interface where the interface is not menus. Not icons on a screen. The interface is on the world, it’s things you can pick up, throw, shoot,” he told me.
So basically our operating systems will be all around us. Not trapped in our phones and computers.
Enter: The world of AR everywhere
Scoble imagines that AR-lenses will change how we work because we won’t need small physical screens in our offices. When wearing AR-tech, we can create as many virtual HD-screens as we want, any size we want, and work on them instead. And when we leave the desk to get coffee some of the screens showing CNN, Twitter-feeds or football games can follow us.
AR will change the way we learn because we’ll be able to get digital instructions in real-time. Even today, the tractor company Caterpillar is using AR to help train workers on how to both use and fix equipment. “Why not get real-time instructions from Jamie Oliver while cooking?” says Scoble. Personally, I don’t know if I would want to wear AR-lenses while cooking, but who knows… Untrained surgeons could also use AR to get real-time help and instructions on how to do an operation. And the list goes on and on.
AR will change the way we play because we enter a world where almost any digital game can be placed onto the physical world. A virtual chessboard on the kitchen table? Done. Scoble has already seen demos of AR- zombies crawling out of walls in a real office space. And even though the quality is not convincing yet, you kind of get the idea. AR can turn any room in the world into a digital playground.
Another thing about AR that really excites Scoble is the ability to manipulate with things in our physical surroundings:
“Look at this bowl with fruit,” Scoble told me, sitting at an office table in Copenhagen.
“With the AR of the future I could turn these bananas black. To me that’s real “Mixed Reality”. Because you don’t just augment it. You actually change what’s already there.”
Think about that for a second. If Scoble is right true it means you could paint your apartment any color you want before you go out to buy paint. Or change the color of your Nike-shoes. Or your car. Or your house. The potential is enormous in marketing, design and architecture.
It’s still to be seen wether or not Scobles vision can executed realistically. But why not?
The end of anonymity?
Scoble admits that AR-technology could be scary for humanity as well. AR-lenses, like Microsoft’s Hololens, are scanning and mapping our surroundings in order to place digital objects on different surfaces. Therefore, you could imagine AR-lenses with the ability to do facial recognition in the future. Perhaps that could scan a face in front of you without that persons consent, and use the scan to find relevant information about that person online.
“You could turn into a god,” says Scoble and continues: “it would be creepy for those not wearing the glasses, because they wouldn’t know, what the god is able to see,” says Scoble.
To me, one of the beautiful things about living in a city is the ability to roam around anonymously. What a terrible thought it is to be constantly recognized by strangers wearing AR-gear. Unless you’re at a conference where the otherworldly ability could serve a practical purpose.
Even if AR doesn’t create “gods” it could become a problem for the technology, that you put a pair of glasses between people.
Regarding privacy, futurist Kevin Kelly thinks, that AR- and VR-tech inevitably will lead to more tracking:
“Everything that can be tracked will be tracked,” is one of his mantras in his new book “The Inevitable”.
And when we’re wearing AR- and VR-goggles we’re going to be tracked in new ways, says Kelly. Not only data about our online habits and whereabouts can be collected, like today, but also data about what our eyeballs are looking at and how our bodies move. Every time you move your head or even your eye that very motion could very well be tracked in VR.
Hmm… Google and Facebooks knowledge about me is already creepy. Will we reach a future, where these companies will know what colors i tend to prefer looking at when I’m walking down the street? I sure don’t hope so. On the other hand, tracking people in VR and AR-environments could give us valuable data about human behavior at large.
A generation of unaware assholes
When the Pokémon Go-craze hit, I immediately came to think about the American author William Poundstone, author of “Head in the Cloud” and “Are you smart enough to work at Google”. Back in 2013, Poundstone wrote an essay for EDGE.org in which he wrote about his worries on AR. In short he worries about “A world where everyone is only pretending to pay attention”.
When Pokémon Go hit the world in the summer of 2016 and the streets of Copenhagen, Tokyo and New York were filled with people pointing their phones in various directions to hunt Japanese monsters, his worry seemed more relevant than ever.
Split attention seemed like a chronic condition for Pokémon Go-players. They seemed unaware of their surroundings as opposed to immersing themselves in their surroundings. Put bluntly: Why be aware of an old lady passing the street, when Pikachu might be hiding around the next street corner? Why care about cemeteries, memorial-sites and Holocaust Museums being reserved for those who are mourning, when Bulbasaur might be hiding in the bushes?
I asked Poundstone if the popularity of Pokémon Go could be seen as a symptom of a bigger problem of unawareness that’s rising in the horizon as the AR-technology matures?
He answered: “Yes, it’s the perfect example”
So let’s enter Poundstones world if AR-distractions.
AR: It is inevitable
According to the author, AR is an appealing technology that is completely inevitable within the next 20 years. He imagines we will wear goggles a la Hololens, or maybe contact lenses, that overlay useful information in our field of view; Be it an an interactive map, a live news ticker, or notifications of messages. Perhaps a Pokémon-detector.
The sheer privacy of the AR-experience is problematic. When wearing the AR-lenses of the future no one around you can see, that you’re for instance checking scores of a basketball-game, while in a meeting. Or playing video games while in class, Poundstone says.
To prove his point he asks the reader: “How often have you not checked your phone messages because it wasn’t quite socially acceptable to pull out a phone?”
These inhibitions of the smartphone-age will be gone, when the digital is mounted on your head. Simply because no one knows what digital overlays is hiding in your field of view.
It’s not safety that worries Poundstone. It’s not the fear that we’ll be so unaware that busses or cars will hit us when we cross the street with Pokémon’s hanging in our field of view. The fear of going from Pokémon Go to Pokémon Gone. Instead, it’s the fear that we will start violating otherwise agreed-upon norms for good behaviour.
AR: A headmounted hurricane
According to Poundstone “our social lives are founded on a premise that has always been too obvious to need articulation: that people attend to the people immediately around them. To not do that was to be rude, absent-minded, or even mentally ill. That’s coming to describe us all. We’re heading towards a Malthusian catastrophe,” he writes.
The speed of consumer-level bandwidth is growing exponentially, while our ability to deal with seductive distractions is stable or at best grows arithmetically.
We, the biological humans, are not built for this bombardment of AR-information. Therefore Poundstone writes in conclusion:
“We will need to invent a new social infrastructure to deal with that, and I worry that we don’t have much time to do it.”
When talking to Poundstone on the phone, he even added:
“I think it’s already a problem. At restaurants you see young people staring into their phones when they should be having witty conversation. When you look at what it’s going to be a generation from now, it does make you worry what’s going to happen. It’s obviously not a fad. When we get better ways of presenting information to us — like future-Google-glass-type-devices — this is the way were going to live our lives: with a video screen on a subjective visual field.”
Even today, many people are stressed by the ever-blowing winds of information ticking in on our smartphones. Add a pair of AR-lenses and you’ve got yourself a head mounted hurricane?
Since when have we ever been present?
I presented Poundstones argument to the american poet Kenneth Goldsmith, author of “Wasting time on the internet”. He was surprised because he usually considers Poundstone to be quite open-minded.
“I have a problem with his premise to start with,” he said.
Goldsmith thinks it’s strange to assume that human beings ever been truly present. When he is teaching students, he knows that they’re probably also thinking about dinner or a date later that night:
“And while you’re talking to me, I’m thinking about the fact, that I have to go to therapy at 13 o’clock. So you know… I’m listening, but I’m also sort of not listening. How can Poundstone know that everyone is truly listening to him? He is just making some sort of a weird assumption. So I think AR is just more of the same really,” he told me over Skype.
So will the world go under?
Let’s start somewhere else:
I work as a journalist and my workday have already become completely about being online. I wake up. I check my email, my Instagram, read the news, research, contact people. And sitting at my desk at work, while the sun crosses the sky, I’m realising that I’ve already become completely alienated from nature. There’s nothing natural about this.
If someone was watching a film of me physically sitting there, it would look like I was half dead. My head is barely moving while I look at the screen. Sometimes I’m clicking the mouse. In my mind I have a recollection of what that day involved: I communicate with different people, watch movies, stimulate myself in different ways, I laugh when I hear a joke.
But basically… not much is happening. I’m in hibernation-mode. It’s like my entire existence has been reduced to this one mode of action with the world, which has nothing to do with my physical senses.
Is VR or AR all that different? I mean… it looks a little bit strange, sitting there with goggles on… but is it really that different?
I don’t think I’ll stop enjoying taking a walk in the park. Or see my physical girlfriend. Or my physical friends and family. So I’m not all that worried.
If people adopt these immersive technologies I tend to think that it’s because they find them useful in their lives. AR and VR could even make our lives kind of magical. Imagine being a kid walking around in London with AR-lenses seeing what the city looks like through the eyes of Harry Potter. Fiction could become more real than ever before.
If these technologies become problematic in some ways — and there’s definitely ways in which they could — I’d like to think that we can always take them off. Or get help from experts.
But let’s go all out and say we succeed in creating a VR-environment that is indistinguishable from the physical world, like Ray Kurzweil predicts. I could definitely see how that could become very seductive and problematic.
There’s so many things about the physical world, that can be frustrating. It’s too hot outside. Your hair is a mess. You’re too short. You’re too tall. Too fat. Too thin. Too broke.
All of those frustrations could be gone. And you would have to ask yourself an existential question:
“If a VR-simulation is that good, why would I ever want to turn it off?”
It’s good to think about these things, because it makes us think about what our core values is.
At our core I do believe we’re physical creatures in a physical world. And I think turning our backs on the physical world is a lot harder in real life than it is in dystopian sci-fi movies.
Tech-thinkers like Nicholas Carr think we’re more than just computers stuck to a body. I tend to agree. For now.