As humanity dons their Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality (VR/AR) headsets over the next few years (as we surely will, with Meta releasing updates to its hugely successful Quest and Apple releasing their own, with an expected high level of consumer friendly polish), we will enter cyberspace to a degree our laptops and smartphones have previously only hinted at.
A brief note on what we mean by VR: Our usage covers both full VR and passthrough (AR) where the user can see the world as it is, with augmentations overlaid. We feel that (primarily) ‘VR’ headsets will support full colour, high resolution passthrough soon enough and (primarily) ‘AR’ headsets will be able to cover most of the user’s vision
A new world
This all-encompassing digital experience, where everything we see will be mediated by computer systems, as well as everything we hear and later every physical sensation, will be a huge leap for mankind.
We owe it to our future selves and our descendants to look at this new landscape and decide what it should be, after all, this new world will be entirely human made. We cannot let it be made only by those mega corporations which are investing billions in VR with a focus on their own revenues.
I believe that the most powerful human capability may very well be our capacity to dream.
A professor from Syracuse University (whose name I unfortunately cannot remember) once said that “truth kills creativity”. What he meant by this is that once something is established to be something, that becomes a truth and then is not questioned.
An important and relevant example is how the personal computer became a rectangular box with a pointing device and keyboard, running an operating system with applications for writing, reading, browsing the web, working on spreadsheets and doing email in the 1990s. With the establishment of this ‘truth’, much of the potential explored by Doug Engelbart, Ted Nelson and other pioneers in the 1960s was no longer considered to be “what a computer is”. What a computer ‘is’ continues to develop, but only very slowly, with a full on pandemic being necessary for video conferencing to finally take off.
We no longer dream what a personal computer can be. We believe we know what it is.
We no longer dream how we can interact with text on a computer. We believe we know how it can be done.
This is the reason I have hosted the Future of Text Symposium for all these years-to help us revisit and think anew. But text interactions on digital systems exist and we think we know the truth of what it is, so it is very hard to un-learn and re-dream.
This is not the case with VR. We still have the mental space to dream of what it can be. And I think it is vital that we do so, before VR is implemented by corporations to a degree where it is in daily use by people in general and we ‘know’ what VR ‘truly’ is. We cannot afford to be complacent. We cannot afford to let this opportunity go to waste. We cannot afford for VR to be predominantly developed for the enrichment of the large companies which produce the hardware and operating systems.
We need the massive investments these companies can make, but we cannot simply leave what VR will be up to them, it needs to be in dialogue with the wider community.
Issues with the development of VR which are already apparent include such basic questions as:
How we will be able to navigate in VR from one ‘room’ to another? Picture yourself at Hampton Court Palace at the time of Henry VIII and after enjoying the experience and learning something about this time, you wonder, quite randomly, how Hampton Court as used during World War II. How can you now find out if there is any available VR data for that location at that time?
- Will we need to download an app to enter/acess this time? If so, how will we find and evaluate this app, will we need to exit the current room and go through menus? How will the provider of the other rooms be presented, will it be made by companies we can choose how we feel about? Would we prefer a BBC, History Channel or Fox News view of history? Or will we trust what a small startup has made?
- Or will it be based on Web Addresses?
- Or perhaps time and date coordinates?
- Or even speaking to an AI?
This leads to deeper issues of how data will connect. Will there be protocols for searching along timelines and geographies? How can data connect for fact checking?
What about creating knowledge products in a room made by one vendor and then having a meeting in a room made by another–will the knowledge product be the same? Will you be able to bring it with you or will we have compatibility issues as we had with Mac and Windows, the browser wars and Microsoft Office and Mac? If so, this will be a compatibility issue of all-encompassing proportions.
AI has quietly entered all our lives in what was sci-fi only a few years ago, with speech to text good enough for dictating messages and more. Advanced AI has shown incredible progress in working with images but there is not much beyond entity tagging of text available in general use. So we ask, as we move into a more digital, VR environment, how can we employ AI to better access, view, analyse and share information. Further, how, as a community, can we develop and share advanced, powerful AI systems, systems which should not only be available to large companies which want to exploit users, not augment them?
VR has the potential to further alienate us by allowing us to dive deeper into filter bubbles where we only see what we approve and our interactions become increasingly virtual and distant.
We believe that VR also has the potential to connect us to each other and our knowledge deeper than we have previously imagined, truly augmenting who we are to tackle the problems we face today and in the future.
VR can imprison us or it can deeply connect us and empower us. It is our collective choice as to how we steer the development of this new medium, this new world, this full embodiment of cyberspace.
If we don’t all work on this to some degree, we cannot expect VR & AI to work for all of us.
This is why we are hosting the 2022 Future of Text Symposium on the theme of Knowledge Work in VR and this is why a group of us meet twice a week for two hours to discuss the issues in our Future Text Lab.
Frode Alexander Hegland