VR Technologies such as Oculus Rift and Microsoft HoloLens are starting to become part of the common consumer landscape. Perfect timing for a look back on the birth of this emerging technology.
Jaron Lanier, Tech Visionary and THINK 18 speaker, explains the origins of VR, both technically and philosophically, in his latest book, Dawn of the New Everything. It was Lanier’s company VPL, formed in 1985, that pioneered the use of head-mounted screens to render computer-generated worlds to fool the brain and sold the first VR development kits to scientists, government contractors, and Hollywood studios.
Lanier’s VR company survived for just five years, but its effects were felt for a long time: Its EyePhone, a headset that could track head movements, its haptic “DataGlove”, and VPL’s revolutionary apps were the company’s most important inventions, descendants of which are still used in surgical training, aeroplane cabin design, local law enforcement and the military.
For Lanier, VR is the ultimate human-centric technology. All of its hardware is geared toward making a technological world that a human can easily understand and navigate. Using VR, people can visualize things they have problems to explain. This might be a complex engineering feat or a delicate surgical procedure – If humans can’t understand or perceive what’s happening in VR, this technology is considered a failure.
The challenge of AI? It attempts to replace humans with algorithms we can’t see and barely understand. We use algorithms to find relevant information online, to make decisions about what we want to watch on TV, and somehow distinguish real news from fake. These are all tasks that Lanier believes should be in human hands. Technology, he tells us over and over again, should be a tool. It should give us a clearer picture of the world, so we make our own decisions. Creating an AI god to make those decisions for us is the first step toward a future where the human spirit is being left behind.
Ultimately, talks about VR but is not really about VR: The real question behind the book is what we do next, as the future of technology plays out in front of our eyes. Jaron Lanier wants us to embrace and take control of the machine as a human aid, to enhance humanity.