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?”