VR and the Problem of How We Talk About Tech
A pioneering technologist on how tech should improve mankind, not replace it
The first thing you learn, working with virtual reality (VR), is that your eyes aren’t much like cameras and your ears aren’t much like microphones. You don’t perceive the world pristinely; instead, you perceive how your personal history, philosophy, culture, and cognitive habits mix with the world out there beyond your head. When people in VR social experiments respond to avatars, for instance, you can measure their racism. But you can also use VR to become more aware of how you perceive anything in the world.
When I put on a VR headset, I don’t just see a glowing digital world around me. I also get another show, because when I flash back through the years, especially to when I was in my twenties, in the 1980s. I remember what a psychedelic feeling it was the first time such a headset gained a color screen; being doubly disoriented the first time I woke up inside VR after attempting an all-nighter; feeling self-conscious being such a huge, unkempt, and hairy creature showing compact, well-mannered Japanese people how to design kitchens in VR when they visited a fancy Tokyo department store.
Some of my happiest memories are of getting apps to work for the first time, like the first surgical simulator; of playing musical instruments inside VR that would have been at home in a Dr. Seuss book. Other memories recall the intense challenges and stresses, like the messy struggle to get the first assembly line for VR headsets going. That happened in the physical world. Why did we even have to go there?
But then there’s another sphere of experience hovering beyond memory. This is a special sense of place that technologists experience — a sensation of being positioned on a cosmic ramp of progress.
VR was boiling hot again, five or six years ago. Every other young person in San Francisco had a VR studio or startup. It was fun to lay back and not be in the middle of it. Let the kids stay up all night.
Tech manias come and go. It wasn’t long ago when I addressed hundreds of young dreamers who cherished their status because they “got” what blockchain was all about, and blockchain was going to change the world…