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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Dawn of the New Everything

Encounters with Reality and Virtual Reality

Jaron Lanier

Henry Holt and Co.



What Is It?

VR is ­those big headsets that make ­people look ridicu­lous from the outside; ­those who wear them radiate startled delight at what ­they’re experiencing from the inside. It’s one of the dominant clichés of science fiction. It’s where war veterans overcome PTSD. The very thought of VR is the fuel for millions of late night reveries about consciousness and real­ity. It’s one of the only ways, for the moment, to raise billions of dollars fleetly in Silicon Valley without necessarily promising to spy on every­body.

VR is one of the scientific, philosophical, and technological frontiers of our era. It is a means for creating comprehensive illusions that ­you’re in a dif­fer­ent place, perhaps a fantastical, alien environment, perhaps with a body that is far from ­human. And yet it’s also the farthest-­reaching apparatus for researching what a ­human being is in the terms of cognition and perception.

Never has a medium been so potent for beauty and so vulnerable to creepiness. Virtual real­ity ­will test us. It ­will amplify our character more than other media ever have.

Virtual real­ity is all ­these ­things and more.

My friends and I founded the first VR startup, VPL Research, Inc., in 1984. This book tells our story, and explores what VR might mean to the ­human ­future.

Recent VR enthusiasts might exclaim, “1984, no way!” But it’s true.

You might have heard that VR failed for de­cades, but that was true only for the attempts to bring out a low-­cost, blockbuster popu­lar entertainment version. Just about ­every vehicle ­you’ve occupied in the last two de­cades, whether it rolls, floats, or flies, was prototyped in VR. VR for surgical training has become so widespread that concerns have been expressed that it’s overused. (No one would suggest that it ­shouldn’t be used at all; it’s been a success!)

What Can a Book Do That VR ­Can’t, at Least as Yet?

The romantic ideal of virtual real­ity thrives as ever. VR the ideal, as opposed to the real, technology weds the nerdy ­thing with the hippie mystic ­thing; it’s high-­tech and like a dream or an elixir of unbounded experience all at the same time.

I wish I could fully convey what it was like in the early days. ­There was a feeling of opening up a new plane of experience. Inhabiting the first immersive avatars, seeing ­others as avatars, experiencing one’s body for the first time as a nonrealistic avatar; ­these ­things transfixed us. Every­thing ­else in the tech world was dull in comparison.

I cannot use VR to share what that experience was like with you, at least not yet. VR, for all it can do, is not yet a medium of internal states. ­There is less and less need for me to make this point as VR becomes more familiar, but it’s a clarification that I have been called upon to give many times.

There’s occasional talk about VR as if it is on the verge of evolving into telepathic conjuring of arbitrary real­ity along with a conjoining of brains. It can be difficult to explain that VR is wonderful for what it is, precisely ­because it ­isn’t ­really every­thing.

Eventually a new culture, a massive tradition of clichés and tricks of the VR trade, might arise, and that culture might allow me to convey to you how early VR felt, using VR-­borne technique. I have spent many hours daydreaming about what a mature culture of expression would be like in VR. A cross between cinema, jazz, and programming, I used to say.

First VR Definition: A twenty-­first-­century art form that ­will weave together the three ­great twentieth-­century arts: cinema, jazz, and programming.*

Even though no one knows how expressive VR might eventually become, ­there is always that ­little core of thrill in the idea of VR. Arbitrary experience, shared with other ­people, conversationally, ­under our control. An approach to a holistic form of expression. Shared lucid dreaming. A way out of the dull per­sis­tence of physicality. This ­thing we seek, it’s a way of being that ­isn’t tied just to our given circumstances in this world.

If I tried to tell the story of VR dispassionately, I’d be lying. What makes VR worthwhile to me is that it’s about ­people. I can only tell you what VR means to me by telling my story.

How to Read This Book

Most of the chapters tell a story that begins in the midsixties, when I was a boy, and ends in 1992, when I left VPL.

There are also chapters interspersed throughout that explain or comment on aspects of VR, such as a chapter on VR headsets. ­These “about” chapters include a dusting of basic introductory material, a hearty portion of sharp opinions, and more than a few out-­of-­sequence anecdotes. You have my permission to skip through them if you prefer storytelling to science or commentary. Or, if you ­don’t like storytelling and just want to read my thoughts on VR tech, then race right to ­those chapters.

Some of my stories and observations are found in long footnotes. I bet you’ll be glad if you find the time to read them, but you can leave that for ­later. ­There are also three appendices that expand on my ideas from the period, but are ultimately more concerned with the ­future than the past. Read them if you want to know what it feels like to have an informed worldview that ­doesn’t include AI destroying humanity any minute.

In keeping with the time period of the narrative, I’ll talk more about classical VR than mixed real­ity,† even though that’s what I’ve worked on more lately. (Mixed real­ity means the real world is not hidden entirely by the virtual one; you see virtual stuff placed within the real world, as experienced lately in a HoloLens.)

Meeting My Younger Self

Never thought I’d see you again.

What I always feared. You get old, then you milk your younger self. Like all the other writers.

You are so wrong. It would be easier not to deal with you. I’ve been feeling more comfortable with myself than ever before. Dealing with you brings up crummy old patterns. I get insecure and depressed. ­You’re recidivism bait. I’m only ­doing this ­because I think it would be useful for other ­people to know about you.

What’s ­going on with virtual real­ity? Is it even called VR?

Yeah, most ­people call it VR now.

You mean we won the terminology war?

No one remembers or cares about that war. It’s just words.

But is VR any good?

Well, ­we’re about to find out. It looks like this book might come out at about the same time that VR gets commonplace.

Oh crap, I hope they ­don’t screw it up.

Yeah, who knows . . . You know how hard it is to do VR well.

I hope VR ­isn’t still so—­what’s the word?—­pressured by all the psychedelic ­people.

Oh, you’d miss them. You ­won’t believe it, but singularity freaks cross-­bred with libertarians, and their fanatical offspring are the main ­drivers of tech culture ­these days.

Wow, that sucks—worse than I ­imagined.

I feel embarrassed that you ­were expecting a perfect world.

I’m embarrassed that you think ­you’re noble or enlightened just ­because you learned to accept living with bullshit.

Oh, c’mon, let’s not fight. ­There are plenty of ­people out ­there to fight with.

Okay, so tell me about this cheap VR you say is shipping. Are ­people making up their own VR worlds?

Well, usually not while ­they’re inside, but yeah, a lot of ­people ­will prob­ably be able to make worlds.

But if you ­can’t improvise the world from inside, what’s the point? Just more phenomena to clog the senses, and not even as good as in the natu­ral world. Why does anyone care? ­You’ve got to do something to stop it before they bring out crap. What’s wrong with you?

Hey man, I’m not the VR police. I ­don’t run the show.

Why not? You ­were supposed to run the show!

It’s actually ­great to watch the kids reinvent VR. ­There are all ­these cute VR startups and teams in the big companies. Some of them even remind me of you and VPL, though the fashion ­these days is a lot straighter.

I’m insulted that you’d say someone reminds you of me if that person just thinks of VR as a spectacle. ­Don’t they know that’ll turn into a cliché pretty fast? What happened to the dream of improvising real­ity? Shared lucid dreaming? I mean, what’s the point of just making a flashier type of movie or video game?

Look, you ­can’t devote yourself to serving ­people if you think ­you’re better than them. VR ­will be kind of crummy but also kind of ­great and it ­will evolve and hopefully get ­really ­great. You have to relax about it. Enjoy the pro­cess. Re­spect the ­people.

What a load of crap. Are you at least screaming your head off about it?

Well, yeah, I guess . . . this book . . .

Okay, so who’s bringing out cheap VR? VPL?

No, VPL is long gone. Microsoft brought out a self-­contained mixed real­ity headset—­doesn’t need a base station—­goes anywhere. You’d be ­really impressed.

Microsoft? Oh no . . .

Um, my research post lately is in Microsoft’s labs.

Are you institutionalized? Oh wait, you just said you are.

Give it a rest. Classic VR gear is also shipping; not unlike what we used to sell. One of the social media companies bought this ­little com­pany called Oculus for two billion dollars.

Waaaaiiit whaaaat? Two billion for a VR com­pany that ­hadn’t shipped yet? Wow, the ­future sounds like paradise. And what’s a social media ­com­pany?

Oh, that’s a corporation ­people use to communicate with each other and keep personal remembrances, and ­there are algorithms that model the ­people so offers can be targeted; ­these companies can make ­people sadder or more likely to vote by tweaking the algorithms. ­They’re the center of a lot of ­people’s lives.

But, but, combining that with VR would be like a Philip K. Dick novel. Oh my, the ­future sounds like hell.

It’s both paradise and hell.

But bright, rebellious young ­people ­wouldn’t want to be ­running their lives through a corporation’s computer . . .

Weirdly, the new generation gap is—­supposedly—­that young ­people are more comfortable with corporations ­running digital society.

You say that like it’s just another fact you can live with. I mean, ­wouldn’t they become like serfs? Do they just live with their parents more, or what? The world’s gone mad. Every­thing’s inverted.

But that’s normal for the world. It’s what happens with time.

I feel like I need to slap you.

Maybe you do.

1. 1960s: Terrors of Eden

* This is the first of dozens of numbered definitions of VR dispersed in this book.

† An example of my 1980s usage of the term “mixed reality” is found in “Virtual Real­ity: An Interview with Jaron Lanier” (Kevin Kelly, Adam Heilbrun, and Barbara Stacks, Whole Earth Review. Fall 1989, no. 64, p. 108[12]).

Copyright © 2017 by Jaron Lanier.