The Professor was there: virtual reality, 1988

[Jaron lanier circa 1988 at his lab VPL]

[jaron lanier circa 1988 at his lab VPL]

What Eric Demaine presently is to origami and programmable materials, Jaron Lanier was to virtual reality and the augmentation of human experience in the 1990s. At once its most vigorous proponent, its most visible symbol, and the person most able to make his domain’s non-trivial problems seem by turns solvable and engaging. The Professor first interviewed Lanier by phone in 1988; shortly thereafter, The Professor visited Lanier’s company VPL for a hands-on demo. The technology disappointed but the man didn’t. He had jumped the chasm, leaped past the limitations of that period’s sensors and displays to see a larger picture about where technology and society were going. The Professor didn’t meet Lanier again until 1991 at a Double Rainbow ice-cream shop in Palo Alto, not long after VPL was forced into bankruptcy. Failure be damned, The Professor remembers thinking, he was intrigued by the nimble comprehensiveness of JL’s thought process. The Professor will periodically go to his archive so that he can present such material [now and in the future] so here’s the text of that original interview, 26-years old yet presented here online for the first time. And that’s why they call him The Professor.

Jaron Lanier is a musician and the founder and CEO of VPL Research, a Redwood City, California-based brain-tank cumcorporation where our future is being given compelling form on an almost daily basis. It is heady stuff. Besides working on two books that he “almost never has time for,” Lanier works as a person possessed, pioneering and pushing the boundaries of “virtual reality,” a software-hardware combination that lets users visualize and then experience their imaginations. Born in New York and raised in New Mexico as a kid who never fit in, Lanier took the desperation of his early life and digitized it. Although he never graduated from any big-deal school or college, his passion for music and his techno-fascination for videogame work led him to Atari. Even way back, he told me he believed that “the images on the screen were made up of little realities that could be changed.” In a sense, Lanier in person is virtual reality made incarnate, a large figure made playful by a child’s sense of wonder. With his iconoclastic, natty-dread image and his radical cyber-citizen ideas, he has become something that the computer field needs: a personality to capture the imaginations of fellow scientists and general public alike. The interview took place by telephone.

The Professor [TP] So what are you doing now?
Jaron Lanier [JL] Sitting at a piano; music is a big part of what I do.

TP I read that [in the early 1980s] you were very involved with MIDI. And you once said that you imagined being a piano as part of your virtual reality work
JL That was a [laughs] a mistake of sorts. It would make more sense for me to select something with joints

TP Do you believe technology de-natures or re-animates things?
JL That’s an interesting question. I believe that there are little moments throughout the day, and that these turn out in the end to be the center of life. The important thing is how life feels. What I like about virtual reality is that it is very process-based, while computers encourage an external way of thinking. I used to hate computers because I felt that they substituted information for experience. But now I believe that virtual reality will give [us] back some of the sense of wonder that we lost by using boring and isolationary media like television. I want virtual reality to expand communication, much like a telephone does

TP Define “virtual reality”
JL Right now, it’s an electronic place that we go to create new worlds at will. Any tool you can imagine is possible…. I hope it will be something that will help more things happen with greater fluidity; with virtual reality, the computer has become a ‘world processor’ instead of a ‘word processor.’

TP So you construct alternate worlds—is physical reality so tragic?
JL The thing to [laughs a long time] the thing to say is that life is, all at once, the most intense, terrible and beautiful thing that we know, and yet the least forgiving. Virtual reality, however, is multi-channel. It lets the entire universe be your body

TP What’s the immediate future of VR?
JL Recent progress has been enormous. Last year, for example, we had the first shared virtual experience. Thee potential for shared objectivity and communication is phenomenal. Since we are too self-conscious and yet not enough aware [as a species], virtual reality is a means of sensitization, be it for education, entertainment or research. By the year 2000, we will have transcended the accessibility, expense and quality issues we face today. Virtual reality will lead to a concentration of cultural experiences by allowing us to change scale, body and identity. While virtual reality can be used as a means of escape, if you are sharing that escape with another and are using it as a tool, then what does our idea of escape mean?

TP What about ten or more years in the future?
JL The first peek came with the Power Glove® where we licensed some of our technology to Mattel. It is to virtual reality what Hot Wheels® are to a real car. Eventually we can have personal simulators, machines that let us watch ourselves change species, become a different sex, or make us over as children. We can be a lobster, or play a tennis match across continents, be in ancient Egypt or surface amidst the gene pool and experience DNA on a molecular level. Virtual reality is a cultural phenomenon rather than a technological event. We have the advantage of being right at the start of it. It can be a profound tool of awareness. It can help us to experience and come to terms with the treasures of the past and the wonders of the future. But the real point is that there is no way to list or describe the infinity of possibilities that virtual reality [potentially] offers. We should just be careful about not carrying over into virtual reality the limitations of the computer

TP What is it like where you work?
JL Silicon Valley was once one of the most beautiful places on the Earth, a valley of earthly delights. In a very short period of time, it has become one of the blandest and dreariest. I think that the objectifying attributes that the computer evinces—and that so many of this area’s residents think incessantly about—have been made manifest in the ugliness and ordinariness of the spec buildings here

TP Agreed but why are you here then?
JL Why are you in Manhattan?

TP OK, I get it. How would you sum up our present moment?
JL We are living in an incredibly strange time. Music around the world is becoming available as it never has been at the same time that it is being removed or wiped out. This combination of simultaneous revealing and destroying makes music the rainforests of the psyche for me. Virtual reality offers the provision of alternate realities en masse in which we can share experiences; it allows ethnicity to exist, and I’m deeply attracted to that

n.b., Since the VR days, Lanier has moved on to become an industry consultant, collaborative musician, technology critic, media philosopher and more. Perhaps the best way to see where he’s at now is to check out his two recent books You Are Not a Gadget [2010] and Who Owns the Future? [2013].




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