The history of the future

I’m reading The History of the Future, a book written by Blake J. Harris, author of Console Wars. It contains a foreword by Ernest Cline, author of Ready Player One, the book which used to be or still is required reading for all those working at Oculus VR.

The book brings the fascinating story of Palmer Luckey, who developed an astounding expertise in VR while living as a home-schooled teen in a trailer outside his parent’s house. The book describes how he got into contact with other VR and gaming-experts and was able to start his own company, Oculus VR, which was subsequently sold to Facebook for about 2.3 billion dollar in cash and stock.

In 2017, after issues related to 2016 political contributions to Republicans and public support for then-presidential nominee Donald Trump, Luckey departed Oculus. There is discussion about whether his political views were the immediate cause of his departure.

I’m not even halfway the book now, but it sure is a fascinating story, introducing the reader to many important and colorful characters in the gaming and VR-industry. It’s interesting to note how Luckey believed at the start of the Oculus project that the VR headset would be of a niche interest. VR at the time had a bad reputation after various cycles of hype and doom. It’s only when other folks joined the project and turned it into a real company that the ambitions became much bigger. That would only accelerate after Facebook bought Oculus VR – Mark Zuckerberg dreaming about one billion of users, not only for gaming, but also for other telepresence applications.

Today one may wonder whether the initial niche-orientation of Luckey wasn’t closer to the truth than the wild ambitions of Facebook. Even after the launch of the low priced and easy to use standalone headset Oculus Go the technology is far from being embraced by a mainstream audience.

Will this be different after a more sophisticated version, the Oculus Quest, gets on the market? As described in the book, people invariably have a “oh wow”-experience when they try the headsets for the first time. But those who are not into a niche of hard-core gaming and science-fiction, still are reluctant to actually buy a headset. It seems the wow-experience wears off quickly as there are no must-have applications.

Last week, at the Mobile World Congress, VR and especially AR-headsets were being applauded as these technologies seem to offer good reasons on the consumer-side to roll out 5G. However, a big player such as Microsoft made it clear that their cutting-edge AR-headset HoloLens is exclusively for enterprise-use. Also HTC seems to promote its Valve Focus Plus for “serious use” such as healthcare and security training.

At Microsoft experts say they still need years of development before they can enter the mainstream consumer market.

And where did Luckey go after he had to leave Oculus? He started another company, Anduril, which specializes in military applications such as border protection using AI, sensors, drones, towers and visualization. Virtual Reality, AI and mesh networking meet here for surveillance purposes and battlefield awareness. Another niche.

New media theatre

So many interesting things are happening in and around the virtual world High Fidelity that I can’t keep up. The company raised $35 million in June and combines virtual worlds, virtual reality and the blockchain. Philip Rosedale, creator of both Second Life and High Fidelity, also manages to invite interesting people for in-world talks, and in the aftermath of the capital increase he had a fascinating talk with Charlie Fink, an expert in VR, AR, new media and a columnist at Forbes. He also is the author of an AR-enabled book, Metaverse.

In this video Rosedale explains a bit more about the future of High Fidelity and he and Fink brainstorm about new theatre and movie formats which would convert the spectators into actors – a bit like roleplaying in virtual worlds. All this, like concepts such as volumetric video, is rather new to me. During the discussion I heard about other experiments in virtual environments where spectators were converted into bubbles who could follow the actor around. It is obvious there will be formidable challenges like managing the huge data flows involved and finding an equilibrium between the freedom of roleplaying and the need for narrative structure.

High Fidelity continues the tradition of virtual intellectual “salons”

What I love about virtual worlds are the incredible smart and visionary people one can meet there. This totally applies for High Fidelity, a young and cutting edge virtual world (think decentralized architecture, tokens, blockchain, VR-enabled, avatars who are responsive to their real life users). Founding father Philip Rosedale had this very inspiring chat with Kent Bye, the host of Voices of VR Podcast.

They and their audience of fellow geeks had an in-depth discussion about virtual worlds, virtual and augmented reality, blockchain in virtual worlds and psychology of virtual worlds. What I particularly like is that the chat was not limited to esoteric virtual world tech stuff, but tackled fundamental evolutions such as the emergence of an “Experiential Era”.

In this way High Fidelity continues the great tradition of virtual intellectual “salons“.

I found out about this video via New World Notes.

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?

Longevity

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.

Space

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.