Jaron Lanier: Of dreams and imagination

Posted on August 15, 1995 
Filed Under Anita, Profile, The Star

By Anita Devasahayam

Jaron LanierJARON Lanier, as “guru” of a growing technology, pioneered the frontiers of Virtual Reality, a 3D world rendered by a computer and experienced with EyePhone goggles and sensor-equipped DataGloves.

The computer scientist with the shoulder-length red dreadlocks - affectionately dubbed by some a “Rastafarian Teddybear” - founded the world’s first VR company, VPL Research Inc, which produced most of the world’s VR equipment for many years. VPL is now defunct. These days, Lanier devotes much of his time to music as well as pondering the future.

He has appeared on the cover of the Wall Street Journal, Scientific American, on TV shows like Nightline and The Charlie Rose Show. The 35-year old “self-educated” dropout-turned-scientist is currently a visiting scholar at the Department of Computer Science, Columbia University, and at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.

While his preoccupation is Virtual Reality, his first love is music. Lanier has appeared on stage at Chicago, Toronto and Linz, Austria; and has performed with Vernon Reid, Philip Glass, Ornette Coleman, Terry Riley, Barbara Higbie and Stanley Jordan.

COMPOSER-MUSICIAN Jaron Lanier, famed for his pioneering work in Virtual Reality, is full of philosophical musings. Philosophy is the newest “byte” which Lanier has added to his personal portfolio.

“Technology without philosophy is dangerous and foolish. The combination is beautiful as philosophy will have a long term value and impact on society,” he declares.

Although Lanier is best remembered for his failings - a business gone awry and patents lost - he held his audience and press in awe at a recent meeting.

His personality radiates hope of a better future and an easier way of life brought on by technology,

After chatting with him, even cynics will concur that this world, with its social and environmental ills, needs Lanier’s passion to merge real life with technology to bring about conclusive change.

Currently teaching computer science at University of Columbia and interactive telecommunication programme at New York University, Lanier also edits an American entertainment magazine Spin (this is an experiment, he says) and writes in between. He admits that his books are late in coming but expects them to hit the stands someday.

“I’m having a deliciously wonderful life right now. I have a few different careers that are going simultaneously. Being a composer-musician is probably the closest to my soul,” he says.

Lanier is also working on a prospective album for Polygram called Instruments of Change, which involves playing instruments that exist inside virtual reality.

He performed at a recent classical rock concert, and played a virtual saxophone using a single glove to an awed audience at the CA World Tour last month.

Aside from music, Lanier is also involved in the use of virtual reality in the field of medicine. How surgeons can use virtual reality in the future - to plan operations, carry out surgery and control very sophisticated surgical instruments.

“To make sure surgeons keep in touch - human touch is such sophisticated technology,” he adds.

PHILOSOPHICAL QUEST

This semester, Lanier will do a course in philosophy as be is keen to discover the philosophical basis of computer design. What fascinates him most is the way people view computers.

“What are we looking at? Are we looking at essentially a version of a person which is not very smart, or are we looking at something that is not a version of a shovel but smarter? The way we think about it is very important.

“I give you an example, I personally believe that computers are not people. I think they are tools. But some people think that computers are people,” he adds, citing artificial intelligence as a prime area where there are many confused and misled minds.

According to Lanier, in order to make computers look smart, confused designers have produced user interfaces that reflect stupidly on the human ability.

“But if you view computer as a tool, you end up making a good tool,” he reasons.

Which is why Lanier feels strongly about the relationship between computers and philosophy, and is exploring issues presented from the symbiotic connection.

FAITH IN VIRTUALITY

Alongside his early works, Lanier does not believe that virtuality is a goal in itself. He reckons that people are very sharp, and the depth of human sensitivity should never be underestimated.

Over the decades, exposure and experience with technology has taught human society to be more sensitive and respond naturally to technology.

“Because of the element of sensitivity, we are able to improve all the time. No matter how advanced technology gets, and as it automates many more functions, we will not lose the ability to distinguish machine from man,” he says, adding that this is an evolutionary process.

With the commercialisation of virtual reality, Lanier predicts that the first of products will be seen in the entertainment circuit.

“No matter what happens in the future and how virtual reality gets - movies will be even better,” he adds.

The movie makers realise that in order for virtuality to work, there must a computer to model the objects or create the scenes.

“My point is that when people use virtual reality, it means they are making a choice, they care about the interactivity and quality of the media,” he says.

He adds that this also means a commitment was made to use interactive media.

“I care about dreams and imagination. I cannot imagine a virtual reality movie - virtual reality is not a narrative. For instance, virtual reality excites kids because they see It as a way through a dilemma and a world that is filled with objects and which can be shared.

“It is fluid like your imagination. Anyone who is inside virtual reality has the power to invent what is present in the virtual world while they are there. Virtual reality is an inventory medium, not a composed medium,” he declares.

As soon as it gets that way, something magical will happen as people will start to improvise shared dreams which Lanier believes will spawn a new type of communication - a post-symbolic communication.

Although he can’t think of the medium, Lanier knows it will take time to reveal itself. He cites the Internet, which has been around since the 1960s, but truly took off after the World Wide Web arrived in 1993.

“And if is marvellous. The Internet is the first example of a working anarchy in human history,” he adds.

THE DARK SIDE

Lanier admits that virtual reality is a very ambitious project and is still in an extremely early stage. There are many challenges ahead, with the easier bits involving computer resources and the personal computer, which is gaining more power with each generation.

“The tougher bits are development of good software, tools to invest for the virtual world and a catalogue of human behavior that will work, well in the virtual world. There’s a long way to go,” he adds.

On the other hand, Lanier feels that the current generation of children growing up with computers will see better virtuality in 10 years.

“When Windows kids reach adulthood, we will see something better,” he predicts.

Unlike the commercial world, which is concerned with product packaging, virtual reality is about human expression.

“For instance, kids today look at the computers as something that makes their imagination real and they are growing up with an idea that the contents of their imagination are not meant to be inside. It is meant to be brought out in reality into the real world,” says Lanier.

He adds that the goal in future is to help bring it out and this can be done mostly by making programming tools that are easier to use.

(CA-Unicenter/The Next Generation from Computer Associates is an example of virtuality at its infancy available in the commercial environment).

Lanier reiterates that the future generation of hardware products will ride a smooth curve while software development will continue on a step stair.

Lanier concurs that development in virtuality is potentially dangerous as there is a dark side to human nature. However, he feels that such issues should be acknowledged and dealt with.

He says that virtual reality is self-limiting and not all-consuming as some quarters perceive it to be.

“Whatever problems virtual reality has, you have to admit it is much better than television,” he adds.

REALITY BITES

Lanier argues that the ability of memory recall is very much dependent on the way information is presented. “It is a matter of biology,” he declares.

He points out that the movement towards virtual reality is a natural process and has nothing to do with marketing or general thinking, but is integral to the way people are built.

“For instance, you live in a city for five years, leave and then come back and, you still remember your way around. But if you do a PhD in chemistry - which presents you with the same amount of details like living in a city - and you leave the field (chemistry) for five years, you may not remember it as instinctively. That is why virtual reality as an interface is inevitable,” explains Lanier.

He adds that though virtuality will break the back of traditional techniques, it is not the sole answer to managing the complexity of the future, but it will be an essential element that will contribute to simplifying processes and tasks. “The whole point of this is to help people,” he concludes.

Published in In.Tech, The Star, Star Publications, August 15, 1995

by Anita Devasahayam

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