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.

Bruce Sterling: what if VR/AR are like science fiction novels?

A bit late, I had a busy week in the newsroom, but here is futurist, cyberpunk author, design-specialist, journalist Bruce Sterling at the closing of SXSW 2017:

What does he say about virtual reality and augmented reality? I quote (9:30):

I totally adore these, decades on end. Mostly because I really like messing with reality. If you are a science fiction writer and you don’t like augmented reality there is something wrong with you in my opinion. So I’m a huge fan of augmenting reality. But just because it’s really really cool and interesting doesn’t necessarily make it important. It might not be even an industry. It can be huge like science fiction games or science fiction cinema or science fiction television, or it could be more like science fiction novels, which are kind of cool and brainy but mostly just hang out in the corners of society covered with spider webs.

Actually this was not the most interesting part of his closing remarks. Far more fascinating are his speculations about the societal consequences of radical automatization.

“Augmented Reality is not a product”

Silicon Valley investor Sunny Dhillon launched a new interview series, and the first episode is about AR, MR and VR with futurist Robert Scoble and VR investor Tipatat Chennavasin.

Scoble shared his information about Apple and more specifically about the three new iPhones which will be released this year and they will all do AR and VR, and Apple will also present glasses. All this started with a conversation between Steve Jobs and Tim Cook seven years ago about the future of television.

All of which means that we’ll be surrounded by as many screens as we want. Scoble refers to Microsoft’s HoloLens which provides him with five virtual screens in his home office. The same will be possible with Apple’s glasses coming out this year.

AR is not a product, Cook said, it will be in your tv, your smartphone, your iPad, your glasses…

AR investments

Tepatat Chennavasin did not really agree about Apple coming this soon with AR across all these devices. In his experience Apple waits a number of years in order to come with a better product.

Scoble has a different view, and asked to have a close look not at what Apple did or used to do but to what they invest in these days. The company invested more than ten billion into startups related to AR. Furthermore the iPhone was not something imitating an existing touch phone, it was a true innovation. Now we’ll have once again a new user interface. 

Be sure to watch the entire video which offers a lot of interesting insights.

 

 

 

Did we just see a massive Augmented Reality IPO?

Snap, owner of Snapchat, is doing very well on its market debut. Maybe, just maybe, one could consider it as a success for Augmented Reality. On C|net Joan E. Solsman calls Snapchat and it’s Specs (the camera sunglasses) “your secret AR ‘gateway drug‘”. That may sound strange since Snap itself does not position itself as an AR-company. I guess they don’t want to frighten the investors.  So why does Solsman situate Snap in the AR-space? She explains:

With Lenses barfing rainbows from your open mouth, and more recently with the $130 sunglass-camera hybrid Spectacles, Snapchat parent Snap has served up the world’s hottest training wheels for AR.

Lenses put a digital layer on the physical reality, and even interacts nicely with the physical layer turning the whole into mixed reality (going further than the initial filters). The Spectacles look cool and non-threatening contrary to Google Glass and even though they are just a camera for now, they could add more functionalities in the future.

Media reported that Snap bought an Israeli AR-company – but very quietly. In November Business Insider UK said that Snap

is working on advanced object recognition that can serve ads, promotions, and other information over physical objects seen through a camera.

Do we have a major AR-company on Wall Street now – even if the company itself avoids that categorization?

HTC brings physical objects into a virtual world

Physical reality, virtual reality and mixed reality: it’s a matter of gradations, not of hard oppositions. The Wall Street Journal shows this from the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona – a tracking system by HTC Vive allowing to incorporate physical objects into a virtual environment:

Then again, I don’t mean to say we shouldn’t make distinctions and end up in a “night in which all cows are black”, as the philosopher Hegel would say. Augmented Reality is different from Virtual Reality, as Niantic’s John Hanke explains on the BBC:

Virtual Reality Games as a Metaphor

“Virtual” is often used as a metaphor for “almost nothing” – like in “it’s only virtual, it’s not real”. I encountered an interesting example of that language usage by a well-known historian – actually what he referred to was more “mixed reality” than “virtual reality”, but his logic was the same: to express the idea that something, in this case religion, is not real, just an illusion.

Derek Thompson  of The Atlantic interviewed the historian Yuval Harari who just published his new book Homo Deus. In the interview, The Post-Human World, Harari describes a scene in which kids almost get into a fight when opposing groups try to catch the same Pokemon Go creatures. The fact that these creatures are “just virtual” does not matter to them. That reminded Harari of Jerusalem: where competing monotheist religions see a holy city, he just sees old stones. In his view those religions live in a virtual (I would say “mixed”) reality – members get good points when performing or not performing certain actions and bad points/punishments when doing or not doing other things. Harari:

There is nothing in reality that corresponds to these rules. But you have millions of people playing these virtual reality games. So what is the difference between a religion and a virtual reality game?

I think he stretches the notion of “virtual” here while at the same time interpreting it too much in the negative sense of “unreal”. Used in this way we could use “virtual” for many if not all other cultural phenomena: we humans constantly give meaning to our physical environment since what we experience is tied up with our emotions and ideas. These ideas and convictions are not tangible but they are part of our social reality. It is also not clear what he means by “religion” as even the big monotheist religions come in many flavors.

In the book Thank You for Being Late Thomas Friedman devotes a chapter to the question “Is God in Cyberspace?”. He mentions Rabbi Tzvi Marx, a Talmudic scholar, who explains that there is a Jewish post biblical view of God. In that view God is present by our own choices and our own decisions. You have to bring in God (or not) “by the moral choices and mouse clicks you make.” I would hesitate calling this “virtual reality” in the sense of “just a game”.

Or do I misinterpret Harari here?

 

Facebook as the Mixed Reality which really matters

This blog remained silent for more than a year. I continued writing my column Legrand Inconnu for my newspaper De Tijd – about the impact of technology on society and the economy. Part of my writing is about Virtual Reality, Virtual Worlds and Augmented Reality.

I’m still fascinated by VR and VW even though I’m convinced it’s a niche activity. VR tries to seduce hard-core gamers and even that is an uphill battle. Pokemon Go had its moment of mainstream glory, and maybe Apple will give it another boost if reports are true that the next iPhone would enable higher quality AR. Microsoft’s HoloLens seems fascinating but not yet ready for the consumer market.

Mixed Realities is still young and provides endless subjects for thought experiments. What if I could blend my international friends into my physical environment as realtime holograms, enabling them to observe and interact as if they were here? What if I could visualize in AR the emerging Internet of Things around me? Robert Scoble tells us on Inside AR&VR that mixed reality interfaces will be used for all those things: AI, cryptocurrencies, robots, drones, self-driving cars… But it’s still early day.

Conclusion for this blog: it makes little sense to focus on Second Life as I did when I started about ten years ago. Linden Lab, the company behind Second Life, is working on a VR compatible virtual world, and founding father Philip Rosedale has his own VR project, but in my view this will attract mainly a subset of current Second Life users. Technically it will be superior to the current Second Life environment, but will it add new philosophical dimensions to the virtual experience? I’m not sure, but I may be proven wrong.

Facebook

What about the impact on society? I bought an Oculus Rift because Facebook is behind it. I do believe Mark Zuckerberg has this great ambition of making  VR and AR mainstream – in ten years time. For now he has more urgent worries.

Zuckerberg wrote a very interesting Manifesto, Building Global Community. He seems very worried that the dream of an ever more connected world turns into a nightmare of tribalism, political and cultural wars and hate.

He wonders how we can experience each other online as full human beings and not just as partisans of the opposing political group. Maybe VR and AR can help in the longer run, but for now it will be a matter of better designed groups, AI orienting people to groups which could be very important to them, detection of extreme behavior before it really escalates (while still promoting encryption) and stuff like that. The redesigning of our online social structure will be quite a challenge but much-needed. Zuckerberg wants to promote the ‘very meaningful groups‘  (about parenting, patients, education, religion…) which constitute for their members a major part of the online experience but are also crucial for the physical existence of people (hence mixed reality).

The real mixed reality world out there could very well be Facebook/Instagram/WhatsApp with it’s more than 2 billion users. That constellation matters politically and economically, and yes, VR and AR will be part of that, somewhere in the future. As I’m most interested in that societal impact, right now I’m more interested in how Facebook will redesign it’s social infrastructure than in the latest VR rand VW releases.

VR news roundup: increasing competition for Oculus

Some rather important news about virtual reality developments: it seems Oculus is getting some serious competition.

-Playstation 4 VR Headset Project Morpheus could come to market in the second half of 2016. (Roadtovr)

– Valve and HTC unveiled a very impressive system at the Mobile World Conference in Barcelona. This stuff is expected to ship to developers in Spring 2015. TechCrunch John Biggs has a glowing report on it.

– A Secret team at Google is working on new version of Android for virtual reality, so Rolfe Winkler announces on The Wall Street Journal.

– So what is Oculus doing? No hard announcements yet for the launch of a consumer version of their headset. However, Gear VR, the Samsung mobile headset powered by Oculus, would get a full launch with Samsung’s next cycle – probably this Fall (TechCrunch).

I updated the VR wiki mindmap accordingly. 

Big tech in love with VR and AR, so we update our mindmap

Crazy times for virtual reality, or so it seems. ‘It’s the future’, people at Facebook say. Users will not only be able to experience immersive Facebook-experiences, but will also create them, Eric David posts on SiliconAngle. ‘Users’ means not just developer-types, but the average user. However, it is totally unclear when virtual Facebook-apps would hit the market.

While Facebook executives dream about immersing all of us in their product, some people at Apple share that dream for their own products. Apple was awarded a patent titled “Head-Mounted Display Apparatus for Retaining a Portable Electronic Device with Display,” which details a virtual reality headset powered by an iPhone or iPod, according to Apple Insider. The device does look not fundamentally different from other systems strapping your smartphones on your face such as Google’s Cardboard or Samsung Gear VR (powered by Oculus).

But we may still have to wait a long time before Apple presents a consumer-ready device, and that device could also be something rather different from Oculus and be more along the line of Microsoft’s HoloLens – as one could think looking at patents filed two years ago, BusinessInsider says.

Since I started a wiki mind map about Oculus Rift developments, quite some people added useful stuff to it. I now added these latest developments (use the icon with the arrow under the map to maximize):



Create your own mind maps at MindMeister

Microsoft’s HoloLens delivers a new level of augmented reality

Dieter Bohn and Tom Warren at The Verge had an amazing mixed realities experience at Microsoft. They tried out the HoloLens, a headset that projects holograms into real space. They report about having Minecraft on a coffee table and about an amazing experience during which an engineer who was communicating via Skype helped a reporter to fix a light switch, not only by talking but also by actually drawing on ‘his reality’. Sounds very weird but have a look at the video:

The applications go far beyond gaming of course: all kinds of support and learning situations could benefit from this.