Jaron Lanier: Of dreams and imagination

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.

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