Jaron Lanier

Jaron Lanier

I was very lucky today to be able to attend a talk by Jaron Lanier, not only a VR pioneer but the person who originally invented the term “Virtual Reality”. The talk was at my old University UCL, organised by similarly pioneering Mel Slater. It was Mel and UCL that introduced me to VR, and when Sylvia and I first worked together, so it was good to be back and see many old faces. (I’ve augmented this post slightly with things that came up in a second talk of his I saw at Luke Robert Mason’s fantastic Virtual Futures Salon)

Jaron was in London (reluctantly) promiting his new book “Dawn of the New Everything: Encounters with Reality and Virtual Reality” that I’m certainly excited to read when it comes out. He describes the book as part memoir and part introduction to virtual reality and his talk followed that, using his shifting experience and views to illustrate the issues that surround VR. He described the talk as a thesis, antithesis and synthesis:


Jaron started by describing himself as a child and hippy/idealist young man. He saw language as limiting our communication: “Natural language feels like a beta version” of communication. He was looking for new ways of communicating and experiencing when he first read Ivan Sutherland’s Ultimate Display paper which introduced him to the idea of immersive displays.

Ivan Sutherland’s ultimate display

Jaron wanted to combine this single person virtual world display with communication with other people. This combination is what he called “Virtual Reality”. To do this he moved to Silicon Valley and founded a company called VPL that produced the first VR hardware in the 1980s.

VPL’s EyePhone Head Mounted Display

But he didn’t want to just make hardware, he wanted to create a new way of interacting with other people that he called “Post-Symbolic Communication”. He wanted to go beyond the symbolic limitations of natural language.

This had a strong idealistic edge but he was very aware of the dark side of technology, having grown up in New Mexico near the site of the first Atomic Bomb test. Gaining technological capability gets us into riskier and riskier territory. But he felt that it was an ethical necessity because we can’t move forward through solely by trying to have better ethics of all being better people, we need technological advance to make us better (we won’t be nice to each other if we are all starving).

The lust to power is seductive and will be what destroys us. We need to come up with something even more seductive to counteract that. Post-symbolic Communication was going to be this counter balance.

He believed that VR had an infinity to it: there isn’t an end point. People’s perceptual acuity would improve as the technology improves and they learn to adapt to it and this could carry on for ever. It is an infinite game, one that doesn’t play within boundaries, but plays with the boundaries. Civilisation and the survival of the species has to be an infinite game. He thought that non-symbolic communication would be an infinite game and could save our species.


That was the young Jaron Lanier, in the 80s and early 90s, looking forward to a bright future. What happened next changed his mind.

He talked about Norbert Wiener, the inventor of cybernetics, who looked at the 1940s computers that were about discrete input and output and thought how you could create a continuous loop of input and output that could allow you to control things just as a sailor controls a ship in the wind. Wiener ended his book by saying that this kind of cybernetics could be the ultimate behaviourist machine.

Behaviourism is an early branch of psychology that particularly focused on how animals could be trained with reward and punishment: i.e. they behaviour can be programmed by how we interact with them. This raised a lot of concern about its application to humans an how it raised the possibility of people’s behaviour being programmed. Wiener’s said that cybernetics applied to people could create exactly this kind of programming. He imagined a dystopian future in which we all had devices on us all the time that gave us constant feedback to program our behaviour, all linked to a global network controlling our civilization. At the time this sounded wildly technically infeasible, but Jaron pointed out that now it sounds a lot like facebook.

Thinking about this made him realise that Virtual Reality has the potential to be this ultimate behaviourist, behaviour programming machine, much more so than social media.


So VR could be the saviour of our species or it could be the means to program us. What can we do?

He isn’t sure he has an answer but feels that something of an answer is becoming apparent. The key to it is understanding how people change in the presence of technology. He used the examples of Mel’s VR pit, a classic demo where you stand next to a big drop in VR. Most people experience a fear of heights and feel very uncomfortable stepping over the pit (onto the physical floor in the real world)

Jaron’s daughter has grown up with virtual reality (one of the few people in the world who has). He showed her a bit and she said: “Oh cool it’s a virtual pit”. It had no effect on her. As we become more used to technology, we are less affected but also enjoy it more. This opens up the possibility of a less consumerist approach, but one in which we are allowed to adapt to technology and are in control of it.

He also said that he thought that the AI is the wrong way of thinking about computing, we should think about it as a loop with people in a Humanistic or Human Centered way. This got me excited because it links to my thinking on Human-Centered Machine Learning. It was particularly that he saw AI as a way of thinking about technology not as a technology itself (he has nothing against the algorithms, he thinks Deep Neural Networks are cool). This chimes with things I had been thinking myself (and should really write up some time). Part of this is that he thinks it is a mistake for VR to primarily be about downloaded, stand alone software. VR should have space for live performers, or “puppeteers” or dungeon masters. This is really interesting for me with my background in virtual characters, characters will ultimately be more interesting if they are controlled by a performer.

He was asked two questions that probed this. What is the difference between education and mind control and are projects like Tabitha Peck’s work on reducing racism by embodying people in dark skinned virtual bodies not mind control “because we agree with them”? When asked about education he held himself back from saying something, which might have been that a lot of education is mind control (I think a lot does match his definition, but maybe some mind control is OK, particularly with small children who need to be taught how to behave). His real answer was that there are two factors that characterise good education rather than mind control. Firstly there has to be a practical awareness of what is happening and how it works (i.e. not a EULA that no one reads but the ability to “talk to the professor”). Secondly, it has to be an infinite game, not just having a single end goal (getting you to click on ads). That means that you can adapt what is happening to your own goals and interestes. I guess that means that good education doesn’t just program you but allows you to develop yourself.

The coolest thing about VR

This post has been a bit dark, and some of the talk was, but want to end with some of the more uplifting things that were discussed. There were various questions that were about the coolest things in VR.

One was about the relationship between AR and VR and he answered that one of the most powerful bits of both were when you take the headset off an see the real world again but see it again with anew. One of his favourite things to do during VR demoes was to leave a flower in front of the person while they are in VR. When they took off the headset, they would see the flower in a completely new way due to their experience. It isn’t just about transporting you to a new world but changing how you see the real world. AR can do that by letting you see both real and virtual at the same time, and the virtual objects changes how you see the real table it is sitting on. He said that both do this but he thinks that the VR experience is more powerful.

When asked if there have been any VR experience that have lived up to his vision he talked about experiences that playing around with avatars design so that you have non-human bodies. He particularly talked about the human tail experiment, which was quite funny because the question was asked by Will Steptoe who did that work.

Jaron was excited by the ability to experience fundamental things that are utterly fixed from birth, as a bit fluid. He also talked about multiple people controlling the same body. This has lead him to be disinterested in the VR where the work is put into the environment. It is all about the sensory motor loop and the body. New Indy developers are also playing with this idea for example Chris Milk’s Life of Us.

There have been very interesting scientific results about the types of body you can map to without getting nauseous, they appear (according to Jaron) to map to the evolutionary time line: “deep time travel in terms of biology”. For each of these effects there is a shared version, so you can collaborate and communicate around new virtual bodies.

So it was a really interesting talk with some really exciting ideas raised and a lot to think about. I think I’ll leave the last question to speak for itself:

Q: What is the most beneficial aspect of VR?
Jaron Lanier: Really interesting surrealist virtual sex
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