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Mr. Sebastian Webel

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Pictures of the Future
The Magazine for Research and Innovation
 

Simulation and Virtual Reality

Jaron Lanier on Dignity in the Digital World

In Jaron Lanier's vision, the virtual world will become the place in which each individual can achieve a form of success that suits his or her character.

Jaron Lanier is widely credited with having either coined or popularized the term “virtual reality.” He discusses it's implications for "personhood."

What are the major trends driving the introduction of virtual reality systems?

Lanier: Moore’s law and materials science. On the Moore’s law side, pretty good levels of 3D rendering have become commoditized and are already miles ahead of what we could do not so many years ago for millions of dollars. Cheap, fast computing power is thus the muscle that’s driving this today. Materials science, on the other hand, is bringing us better chips, improved optics, sensors, actuators and displays. These things are driving our experiences in the virtual world and opening up great new possibilities.

Such as?

Lanier: Such as improved sensing that allows us to detect all the details that produce the expression on a person’s face in a truly 3D way. If you can do that, you can project yourself through your avatar in virtual worlds in contacts with others — be it through realistic telepresence or through fantasy worlds in which you are another creature. This is important because humans developed in such a way that face-to-face communication was essential for our survival. We respond to things such as changes in the shape of the mouth and eyes in a fundamental way. So facial sensing is very important in supporting this.

Could advances in this area trigger a significant reduction in transportation use?

Lanier: If you look at humanity’s carbon footprint, about 20 % of it is accounted for by transportation. So, hypothetically, we should be able to implement communication technologies that reduce the need for at least some of that movement. Yet that has obviously not happened as a result of the existence of telephony or email, or websites, or based on the current technology level of video-conferencing. So the question we have to ask is, could it happen if there were a more satisfying level of communication? I believe the answer is yes. So reducing our global carbon footprint could come down to how good an algorithm is at sensing the corner of somebody’s eye. Speaking very roughly, I think that top-quality services along these lines could probably reduce humanity’s global carbon footprint by a tenth in ten to fifteen years.

Wouldn’t whole-body haptics be the ultimate in VR sensing?

Lanier: This is a fascinating modality because it’s the one with the highest bandwidth. It would open access to cognitive powers that seem to be innate, such as the ability of the hands to find harmonically correct paths between chords on a piano without the need for conscious thought. Whole body haptics would allow us to enter, explore and virtually experience structures that we cannot even see.

Will immersion in virtual worlds eventually demand a connection between the human brain and computers?

Lanier: If, like me, you see people as sacred centers of experience that should be surrounded by a kind of moat of respect, you might find it a little creepy to find yourself in a world in which software can be connected directly to the brain. This could create extraordinary artifacts of power where some people might control a transpersonal phenomenon, while others would have no power at all. So I think it’s worth being conservative about the core of personhood.

In what ways might the virtual world enhance our personhood?

Lanier: There is a grand process that has been present throughout the history of humanity that is called neoteny. This process refers to the carry-over of the child phase of life into adulthood. If you look at human history, you find that as we have become more successful, childhood has become longer. The virtual world fits into this because it helps make dreams real. Children flip between the world as they imagine it and the world as it is. But by being able to build a shared objective world that is as fluid as imagination they — and adults — can bring some of the qualities of imagination into a world that is shared with others. I believe that’s what’s actually started to happen. I see VR as an accelerator for the process of neoteny.

How might the virtual world change the world of work?

Lanier: That’s complex because there are so many different kinds of work. But my vision is that the virtual world will become the place in which each individual can achieve a form of success that suits his or her character. That’s what a successful future for mankind looks like. Over the last couple of centuries, every time a technology has gotten better, it has put some people out of work. But it has also created new jobs. And the new jobs are usually more dignified and pleasant than those they replaced. Looking ahead, therefore, the question of human dignity is the only question that matters. It is the only purpose of developing technologies.


Jaron Lanier is widely credited with having either coined or popularized the term “virtual reality.” Lanier received an honorary doctorate from the New Jersey Institute of Technology in 2006 and the IEEE Virtual Reality Career Award in 2009. Over the years, Lanier has played a key role in the development of tele-immersion and real-time facial impression tracking for avatars.

Interview conducted by Arthur F. Pease
Picture credits: from top: 1. picture Chelsea Lauren/WireImage/GettyImages, 2. private