About rolandlegrand

I'm a digital newsroom manager at Mediafin, the publisher of Belgium's leading business newspapers De Tijd and L'Echo. I have a special interest in the intersection of immersive media, business and philosophy.

Virtual Reality, Virtual Worlds and Philosophy: join our reading group

What does philosophy tell us about virtual reality and virtual worlds? I’d like to start with some people who do not belong to the typical college overview of classical philosphers, people who started thinking about the augmentation of human intellect and human emotions such as Vannevar Bush (As Ae May Think, 1945), J.C.R. Licklider (Man-Computer Symbiosis, 1960), Douglas Engelbart (Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework, 1962), Theodor H. Nelson (Computer Lib / Dream Machines, 1970-1974)… all authors and texts which can be found in The New Media Reader (MIT).

book cover of The New Media Reader

What they have in common is the awareness that the world becomes a complex, rapidly evolving and dangerous place. In order to keep up with the challenges we need to augment our intellectual capacities, not only our rational reasoning skills but also our ability for compassion and empathy. Computers in their many forms are a crucial part of that augmentation.

The texts in the New Media Reader are often decades old. They are chosen not only because the authors were able to predict the path of technological change, but also because they show us that those authors had ambitions and visions which have not been realized yet. In other words, they still inspire us to create new things which may be beneficial for the planet. I’m convinced that augmented and virtual reality are offer possibilities in the context of augmenting our faculties – for instance by enabling us to build 3D information structures.

There are many more authors and texts in this hugely inspiring book, among them also more “recognized” philosophers (at least in continental Europe) such as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (A Thousand Plateaus, 1980) and Donna Haraway (A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the late Twentieth Century, 1985).

I participate in a group reading those texts, and trying to develop practices and even tools in this context. The group, Metacaugs, lives primarily on Slack, if you’re interested have a look at our Orientation Guidebook

MixedRealities lives in Sansar

Finally virtual reality platform Sansar is in open beta. I think Linden Lab, owner of Second Life, did a nice job. Will social VR reach more people now or will it just take away people and attention from Second Life? Or will we have to wait for Facebook Spaces to have success in order to pull Sansar along (or would it be destroyed by Facebook)? We just don’t know. It could very well be that for the vast majority of human beings social VR is a solution for a problem that does not exist. Nevertheless, I love it. MixedRealities has a little presence at Sansar, it’s called Philosopher’s Corner. Here you see an image of the construction works:

my place in the virtual world Sansar

I’d love to do something similar at High Fidelity, yet another beautiful VR-platform, but give me some time as it seems far more challenging. But a fascinating world it is, here you see a place called “Playa”:

a scene from the vitual world High Fidelity

Science fiction gets real

It’s the book Neuromancer by William Gibson that really made the word “cyberspace” popular. He describes it as thus:

A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.

That a least was the quote I got in my mind when reading on Singularity Hub about a new way to represent information infrastructure – in the form of a virtual city. The buildings have different shapes, heights and colors and an operator, immersed in this city, can immediately see whether something bad is happening in a very intuitive way. The Colorado-based startup ProtectWise built the tool.

In January 2018 William Gibson will publish a new book, Agency. If you can’t wait reading a great science fiction book, Gibson is very positive about Cory Doctorow’s newest book Walkaway.

Pattie Maes: “next phase is about intelligence augmentation”

I attended a lecture by professor Pattie Maes of MIT Media Lab. She founded and directs the Media Lab’s Fluid Interfaces research group. Some of her main talking points:

– The next phase in computing is about intelligence augmentation, by sensors, Augmented Reality and Artificial Intelligence.
– AR will “edit” our world in a smart way. For instance it will nudge us away from sugar if that is what we want. It will predict our behavior so that we can rectify it.
– One of the systems she discussed remembers who you shook hands with.
– She sees great future for health (mental and physical) applications – VR and AR. We’ll have tag along therapists.
– Pattie Maes is a big believer in glasses and lenses for later phase Augmented Reality. Apple will probably release a smartphone specially equipped for AR, but finally we’ll wear devices which will keep our hands free.
– People tend to be too optimistic about what exists now. In reality a lot of improvement is possible. Accept the future, we already carry digital augmentation with us but it can be made much better and more natural.
– Many concerns regarding smart glasses and AR can be solved with the right design choices. Which are those concerns? Privacy erosion, dependency, lack of understanding, lack of control, unequal access.

Will we be overtaken by our robotic AI Overlords? Pattie Maes says it was an error to talk about Artificial Intelligence while it’s more correct to talk about Artificial Pattern Recognition. This pattern recognition works increasingly well, but only for very specific activities. This so-called AI can not broaden its scope, generalize or be inspired by very different domains.

Connecting the dots: VR, AR, BCI and space

These past few weeks were remarkable: Facebook-people talking about Full Augmented Reality Glasses and Elon Musk about his Neuralink company, which wants to develop implantable brain–computer interfaces (BCIs). The goal is not just to treat brain diseases but to enhance the human being so that it can compete with AI-powered robots. Even the direct transmission of thoughts – rather than speak or type – would become possible. More about this can be read in the extensive article on Wait But Why.

It somehow makes sense. If you live in an augmented reality (virtual reality being just an option of the Full AR Glasses), and you want constant interaction with the Machines (your virtual assistant, all the electronic affordances you can imagine) it would be very convenient to be able to do so by just thinking. Once you can do that, why not transfer thoughts from one person to the other?


Once we get near perfect telepresence – summoning people to “be” here right next to me (as a kind of holograms) and to be able to look around as if they were actually here (which they would be, in a sense) – we get used to the Other in a spectral form, hence why not dream about beating death itself? Longevity is yet another ambition of Silicon Valley – Alphabet and others investing heavily in the struggle against disease and decay.


But wait, there are about 7.5 billion people on this planet, when we eradicate diseases, avoid using doomsday weapons, lengthen life expectancy dramatically, the population growth will increase dramatically which could become very uncomfortable – so it really makes sense to explore space and establish colonies in space or on neighboring worlds such as Mars.

Politics and ethics

We could throw in easily lots of other new technologies – everything related to smart cities, food production in extreme environments, identity management (blockchain…) and so on. So let’s not be surprised that some of the most passionate debates about politics, philosophy and ethics emerge from this constellation of disruptions. A few examples: transhumanists split in a left- and a right-wing, researchers want to expand human rights to protect us from the abuse of neurotechnology. These debates did not yet go mainstream, but eventually they will. One can only hope that an informed debate will be possible – even though the current state of political discourse makes me feel pessimistic.

Full AR Glasses will augment the homo sapiens

This is a fascinating presentation by Michael Abrash, Chief Scientist at Oculus/Facebook, during the F8 conference. It’s about nothing less than augmenting the capabilities of the homo sapiens. He advocates full AR glasses and boy, they go far beyond Pokemon Go on your smartphone. Abrash refers to J.C.R. Licklider’s famous paper Man-Computer Symbiosis (1960) to underline the importance of the new developments.

The full AR glasses will give us better vision and hearing, will make us more intelligent, productive and connected. Yet they will be stylish, power efficient and socially acceptable. That will be necessary as they will be a constant part of our lives.

The glasses will know about our surroundings, history and needs. They will blend the physical and the virtual world according to our needs and desires.

Unfortunately, they do not yet exist. It will take breakthroughs in materials science, perceptual science, graphics, AI. So give it five or ten years, maybe longer – but imperfect versions will be available sooner and then develop just like happened with the personal computer.

It implies stuff like new brain-computer interfaces allowing us to think our instructions for our tiny but powerful artificial assistent. What Abrash did not say, is that there will be a divide between those owning and using the glasses efficiently and those who don’t have the glasses or don’t use them in a productive way.

Facebook Spaces – in search of applications

Facebook launches the social virtual reality thing Facebook Spaces.

It seems to include Messenger (friends who don’t have an expensive Oculus Rift) can join through “windows”), 360 degrees video, real life pictures and Snapchat-like filters. Very mixed reality, but of course there are some challenges here:
– It’s based on Oculus Rift which is not exactly attracting a broad user group
– It’s based on the use of avatars while in this day and age we’re using all sorts of video services to communicate showing ourselves in real life.
– There is not much to do (Wagner James Au on New World Notes).

That being said, Snapchat has its Spectacles, Facebook and Apple probably work diligently on AR/VR glasses, some see the end of the smartphone, so I can imagine a VR/AR fusion in a few years time.

In such a scenario, what application can we imagine which makes a difference to humanity – beyond birthday parties, funny faces and people vomiting rainbows?

Being surrounded by people who love drawing mindmaps and even developing mindmap-tools (Metamaps) I’m wondering about the possibilities of creating 3D-mindmaps, eventually with live updating nodes, and navigating through and around those structures in an immersive environment.

That’s just one, admittedly rather nerdy, possible future development – there must be many more out there.


Don’t say “augmented reality”, say “paint the world”

Snapchat introduces World Lenses, cute 3D objects which can fit in about everywhere.

In the meantime Facebook announced during its F8 Developer Conference that augmented reality is ready to go mainstream.

One obvious point to note is that Facebook is just following Snapchat here. The other: the clever guys at Snapchat, who are masters in detecting trends, carefully avoid to use the words “augmented reality” in their communication. They talk about “painting the world” or something like that.

Could it be they realize the words “augmented reality” are cursed already – not to mention “virtual reality”?

Yuval Noah Harari asks tough ethical questions

Screenshot of the Time Well Spent site

Screenshot of the Time Well Spent site

I’m reading the book Homo Deus these days, written by Yuval Noah Harari, the author of another bestselling book,Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Homo Deus is about “a brief history of tomorrow”, it goes back to the hunter-gatherers and leaps into a largely unknown future of a possible successor of the homo sapiens.I won’t try to review the book here, as others did so very well.

The book made a big impression on me, so I was delighted to discover a long article by Harari in The Financial Times, in which he challenges the “the future according to Facebook” – reacting on Mark Zuckerberg’s Manifesto about the Global Community Facebook wants to build.

I think this discussion is very crucial for those of us who are interested in VR, AR and MR, because Facebook is a big player in these fledgling industries and Zuckerberg has a very articulated vision on the importance of all these realities. In “Building Global Community” Mark Zuckerberg explains how much value the users of his network get from participating in specific groups/communities (parenting, patients… ) and how important this can be also for their offline lives. Harari is critical:

(…) he never acknowledges that in some cases online comes at the expense of offline, and that there is a fundamental difference between the two. Physical communities have a depth that virtual communities cannot hope to match, at least not in the near future. If I lay sick at my home in Israel, my online friends from California can talk to me, but they cannot bring me soup or a nice cup of tea.

People have bodies, so Harari reminds us, and we don’t have (yet?) the means to virtually recreate the depth of physical presence. The problem with Facebook and its business model is that it needs its users to use its services as much, as long and as intensely as possible – even when that’s not in the best interest of the users.

He refers to the designer/philosopher Tristan Harris, an ex-Google person who nowadays promotes the Time Well Spent movement. He wants to make people aware of the design of tools such as smartphones (or headsets I guess) and he asks designers some inconvenient questions: in whose interest do they work? Will they stimulate people to connect to the physical world around them, or will they serve the interests of the shareholders of Facebook, Netflix and other similar companies who have a vested interest in being as sticky as possible?

I think this should not be read as a damning condemnation of all things virtual or augmented. One can imagine virtual experiences which open our eyes to the realities around us, and even more so augmented and mixed reality inciting us to explore the physical world (remember Pokemon Go?). What I like about Harari and Harris is that they confront us with ethical choices in our exploration of VR and AR.