Virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier provides exciting insights
The Book Dawn of the New Everything
The human is a being that can dream. He dreams of flying, dreams of being somebody else, dreams of creating new worlds. These dreams turn into virtual reality. In his book: Dawn of the New Everything – How Virtual Reality is Changing our Lives and our Society, Jaron Lanier describes virtual reality the “hope for a medium that can convey dreams.”
The observation and interaction with virtual content on smartphones or tablets is now nothing new. The contact with virtual reality headsets, VR controllers, VR gloves or VR vests, however, is new and unusual to us. Virtual reality technology, though, is not really as new as it seems. Already at the beginning of computerization, in the beginning of the 1980s, there were attempts to make virtual reality marketable, initially without success at the time.
Thanks to the groundwork by Jaron Lanier and others, we now have a selection of affordable and user-friendly virtual reality hardware that cannot just be used for gaming, but rather can also be used for business applications such as VR conferences or CAD viewer. It was a long and tedious way to where we are today. Jaron Lanier traces this way in his book and simultaneously provides insight into his own life. Because this is difficult to separate from others.
Who is Jaron Lanier?
Jaron Lanier was born in New York in 1960 as son to Jewish parents who fled from the holocaust. He grew up in the desert of New Mexico and built a house based on his own designs that consisted of round domes. Love brought him near Silicon Valley, where he ended up settling down. The early death of his mother, who was killed in a car accident on the day of her driver’s license test, influenced him greatly and caused him to retreat into a dream world. The dream world became the basis of his thinking and pursuit to create a virtual reality.
Information scientist, computer scientist and VR pioneer : Lanier did not just coin the term of virtual reality, but rather also provided important groundwork in the 1980s with his company VPL research, which has made virtual reality into what it is today. Avatars, which are digital representatives of people, were an idea from Lanier.
As a social media critic, he published the book “Ten Reasons Why You Should Delete Your Social Media Account Immediately” and is therefore a part of the debate regarding data usage by social media providers. He was distinguished with the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade for his work in this area.
However, Lanier is also a musician and artist. This part of his life is most important to him: “I basically think of myself as a musician, and I’ll always have my music.” Jaron Lanier collects all types of instruments and takes on the challenge of being able to play all of these instruments. Art is an important topic for him and it greatly influences Lanier’s visions regarding VR.
The book: Dawn of the New Everything
The original title of Lanier’s book is “Dawn of the New Everything”. The book is mix of an autobiography and the history of virtual reality. Lanier reports about his childhood, his journey to Silicon Valley, his fascination for virtual reality and the foundation of the first VR company. Stories, memories and connections to virtual reality run together throughout the entire book.
Directly at the beginning, Jaron Lanier invites the reader to a new way of thinking. He begins with an almost childish joy regarding bugs in VR and how these change the perception of reality. He describes this like a trip on drugs in VR and back to reality: “bugs were the dreams of virtual reality.”
This is followed by a fictitious conversation with his younger self where he reflects on the initial expectations for VR and what has come true since then. Lanier writes about his childhood, the school, his contact with classmates and teachers and life near the border of New Mexico. As a boy, he finds a book at school with a picture of the garden of lust from Hieronymus Bosch. This picture is inspiration for him when it comes to illustrating thoughts and it was his first contact with art. He has not been able to shake the idea of being able to illustrate something unreal.
Another important event that he describes is an article from Ivan Sutherland, the inventor of the first head mounted display and therefore the predecessor of the modern VR headsets. This article fascinated Lanier so much that he has since been committed to computers and programming. Sutherland was a role model for Lanier that gave him the possibility to create a virtual reality.
Jaron left school without graduating and initially struggled along by selling goat milk that he got from his own small goat farm. He went to some courses and soon began as a normal student, which brought him the offer for a research position. Including a few stations in research and studies, he tried to be a musician in Manhattan, but the smoke in the bars kept him from continuing.
Love led Lanier towards Silcon Valley, where he got a permanent job and developed the game Mondust at Atarie. He describes Silicon Valley during his beginnings, the restaurants and bars in which hackers talked with each other and about what the future of computers would look like. He makes a clear difference between the “old” Silicon Valley of the eighties and that of today.
Takeoff into Virtual Reality (VR)
In 1984, Lanier founded the first company for VR hardware and software: VPL research Ing. “VR is the most humanistic contact with data,” he says. In VR, it is important to make data perceivable, whether it be through VR headsets, gloves or full-body suits. This makes the use of a keyboard or mouse unnecessary. The display is invisible through VR and it is possible to directly dive into the digital world. It is artistic to be able to illustrate and experience three and more dimensions. Here it is not about bringing reality into VR as is often assumed, instead it is about creating something new and complementing reality. In order to be able to communicate together in virtual reality, avatars were created and programmed at VPL research for the first time. Inspired by bugs, the team also experimented with unusual avatars that no longer had a human form.
Lanier was the one who implemented virtual reality as a description for the corresponding technology. However, the term was found in writing for the first time in the book “The Judas Mandala” by Damien Broderick. “VR is actually the child of a long row of scientists and companies,” Lanier explains. He offers 52 definitions in his book to describe virtual reality.
Two phases of virtual reality
VR technology is based on a row of inventions, such as the stereoscope, which allowed for the first three-dimensional illustration of images in the 19th century. The story of VR in a closer sense begins in 1968 with the “Sword of Damocles”, which was developed by Ivan Edward Sutherland and his student Bob Sproul. This was the first head mounted display (HMD) and is therefore a predecessor to the modern VR headsets. The nickname “Sword of Damocles” was given to the device, because it was mounted on the ceiling and looked like it. Sutherland developed the first graphic program capable of 3D drawings on computers.
The first VR phase ran between 1982 and 1992. The developments by Jaron Lanier and his VR company laid the foundation for this. Building and programming went hand in hand back then. Because the programs, VR headsets and input devices did not exist. The VR pioneers had to do everything themselves and find out what is possible.
The vision was to develop a program that allow the programming of contents from within. With direct feedback in VR and without lines of code. The ideal input and output devices were needed for this. Data gloves belonged to the first input devices. The bigger challenge was still to illustrate the content on an output device, because even back then they needed a lot of computing power for this. The first VR goggles were brought onto the market with the “EyePhone”, which was placed on the head without a frame. The 50,000 dollar device was intended for use in companies and research.
Once computing power improved, data suits were tested to show movements of the entire body in VR. VPL even thought about the tongue as an interaction interface between the human and the program, because this can be controlled precisely. In the end, the familiar VR goggles pushed through as an output device and the controller as an input device. Thus, the foundation for the second wave of VR was laid.
This second wave of VR that we are experiencing today began in 2012 with the introduction of the modern VR goggles from Oculus, the company from John Carmack and Palmer Luckey, which currently belongs to Facebook.
Lanier’s vision of VR
Above all things, Jaron Lanier is a visionary. His ideas are still impacting the development of VR today. VR will not replace reality, but the better the goggles and controllers or input and output devices are, the better the perception and comparison of the virtual and real reality.
The perception of reality also changes through experiences in virtual reality. “VR is the technology that reveals people,” Lanier writes. It is not about portraying reality, but rather creating new realities and using the possibilities of VR. It should not be the goal to make VR realistic. Lanier’s vision is to give users the possibility to create their own virtual worlds in VR. Programming language is needed for this that is based on three-dimensional objects and not on text. He tried to develop a programming language like this, but programming on a text basis established itself. There is no alternative yet that works in VR in real time.
Jaron Lanier is also fascinated by the possibility to slip into different roles. Because the plasticity of the brain is enormous and the ability to put yourself in the shoes of others is present. Lanier has been researching this phenomenon for a long time. A user quickly gets used to a third arm or can control the many arms of an octopus – and are able to do it within the shortest amount of time.
However, Lanier warns of a possible misuse of VR, because the immersion makes it possible to condition or manipulate a person in a way that is not possible with any other medium. This warning has clear relationships to social media criticism in which he also points out the risks of manipulation.
For Lanier, VR illustrates a possibility to communicate with other people beyond using speech: “And this is what I call post-symbolic communication, because it means that instead of using symbols to refer to things, you are simply creating reality in a collaborative conversation, a waking-state, intentionally shared dream.“ And today we can see that this vision is slowly becoming reality.
Dawn of the New Everything is a very personal book about VR. The excitement for the many little things and the virtual reality from Jaron Lanier is really contagious and casts a spell on the readers of this book. Lanier manages to play with the reader’s feelings, to make them grin and laugh, to indulge in beauty, but also to generate a depressed mood when, for example, he writes about his early childhood, the early death of his mother or the harassment he was subject to as a Jew. He takes the readers on a trip to past and future worlds and helps them dive into the initially strange world of virtual reality, a “medium that can convey dreams.”
Book: Jaron Lanier, S. Schmid, H. Schlatterer (2018): Dawn of the New Everything, How Virtual Reality is Changing our Lives and our Society. Publisher, Hoffmann und Campe, E-Book
Website: Jaron Lanier
Article: Jaron, wired
Article: Jaron Lanier: VR and the Problem of How We Talk About Tech, medium.
Article: The virtual visionary, The Guardian
Podcast: #600: Jaron Lanier’s Journey into VR: “Dawn of the New Everything”, Voices of VR Podcast