All the talk about virtual reality that revolutionizes the gaming industry is "just things from the first day," says virtual reality expert Peter Rubin. Forget about 360-degree video games and video games, he says. That's just the beginning, and concentrating too much on these uses takes away the true potential of virtual reality: a social technology to unite us.
Rubin is a Wired journalist and author of Future Presence: how virtual reality is changing the human connection, intimacy and limits of everyday life, today of HarperCollins. The Verge talked with Rubin about the privacy of virtual reality, its social powers and disadvantages, and why virtual reality pornography is surprisingly picturesque.
The interview has been slightly edited for clarity.
Peter Rubin.Photo by Lauren Crew
Virtual reality is advancing rapidly, but I would not say that it is still mainstream. What are the biggest obstacles to mass adoption?
A large part is technological, but I do not think that it is technological in the sense of problems like the illness of the simulator. When you exceed the level of the mobile headset, those things tend to disappear because you have better tracking. The technological obstacle for me is that we lack the ability to turn it off and go or take it somewhere. The technological obstacle is the painful point of starting things easily, the way people feel comfortable with starting a PC and with the Windows update and all those other things that have become part of the experience. We need devices that are lighter and cheaper, but ease of use is the biggest production problem.
Another problem is that the stigma still exists. It's a kind of revised thing, which is the fear of going crazy with the headphones on and not knowing what's going on outside of the headphones. Using this in public is a no-go. You see it on airplanes, you do not see it on the subway, you do not see it in coffee shops, despite what commercials will make you believe.
And the third thing is, what can I do to keep it from coming back? That is related to a network effect. Everyone who has received a mobile headset knows the experience of downloading everything free they can and going to a virtual museum saying, of course, this is great. Well, what those things are missing is to have someone else there. When you add this type of multi-user network experience, it becomes something different. That's what people turn to: social experiences, including those that are not necessarily online games.
I think one of the biggest problems the industry has right now is that virtual reality is considered purely as a gaming technology, or people see Ready Player One and write it down. For the RV to be adopted, it needs to be easy to use and easy to share, it needs to be something that does not make you feel weird when using it, and it needs to give you something you really want to do and that thing is almost necessarily going to have other people involved.
In his book, he uses terms like "presence", "empathy" and "intimacy" to build his argument that virtual reality will bring us closer together. How are you defining these words?
The "presence" has existed for a long time. It is the abbreviation of "telepresence" and means different things, but it is basically this phenomenon that occurs when the RV is good enough for your brain to relax and the illusion to become the predominant reality.
Jaron Lanier, who popularized the term "virtual reality" and was one of the first pioneers of virtual reality as the consumer's idea, called it "the moment of conversion" or when people begin to believe in the world of virtual reality in the one they meet. The rational brain always knows that things are outside the headphones, but the reptilian brain does not. That unlocks everything we talked about in the book.
There is another level called "presence of the hand". It is the way we move our hands and head in conversations with other people, which has a lot of other subtextual meanings. And then there is the social presence, which is when there are other people around, and you see them and you feel seen by them. The nature of being in a space with someone and sharing an experience with them opens up different emotional transactions.
Empathy is about understanding and understanding another person's experience, but intimacy is about emotion and that's what just started to unlock in the last year or two. The first thing that people think about virtual reality is videogames, but that is not what gives virtual reality its transforming potential. Games are a distraction, but emotional moments become memories, which is fascinating.
You write in the book about how the brain treats the memories of virtual reality as real memories.
There was a study in which German researchers discovered that people get better results in memory tests on the things they saw in virtual reality in front of a 2D screen. Not only that, but it takes them a little longer to respond, and it takes them a little longer to respond because that is consistent with the place where those memories are stored and how they are accessing them. They are accessing them as things they participated in, not as things they saw.
I have memories of shared experiences in virtual reality. I could tell you where in real life I was when I put on my headphones, but my true memory when I think about it is where I was in virtual reality, who I was with since they were virtual reality. It is completely different from experience.
What about the argument that virtual reality is going to make all losers in our own heads? Much of your book is working to discredit that belief, but what is your brief response? If someone told you that at a party, what would your answer be?
I would ask you if you have ever been with someone else in virtual reality! I could guarantee that the answer would be no. It's like describing a dream to another person. Unless they were there, they can not get the first sensory or emotional charge from the experience.
I can almost guarantee that a cocktail in virtual reality is invariably more fun and more rewarding than a cocktail in real life, and maybe that would be my answer: let's do it in virtual reality.
"There is an incredible middle ground between the comfort of knowing that it has little value and the fact that you are giving someone an idea of who you really are."
There has been a lot of talk about the possibilities of telling stories for virtual reality. What do you see in that space?
Any way of telling stories that relegates him to being a passive observer has its limitations, but I believe that telling stories spans worlds of art that we can not even predict yet. To bring Jaron Lanier back, once I asked him the best he could imagine in virtual reality, and what he said was: "Performance artists who, instead of creating art, create reality and do it in real time".
I mention it as an example of something that is unprecedented. There is also a role for AI in this. As the AI begins to filter, as the characters become more intelligent, both in scripted experiences and in scripted experiences, you begin to see the unlocked potential for storytelling in an immersively theatrical way. Think Sleep No More or Westworld, in which storytelling has an emotional and lasting impact of the kind that limits, voyeuristic art does not.
I think you're going to have immersive theater companies in virtual reality, and then AI starts to assume those roles and you start having these immersive experiences amazingly adorned and unlimited in any kind of scenario that you want with a cast of characters that is there with you, answering . You have the opportunity to direct the story. It's having an adventure, which is a kind of narrative that we really do not have.
You write about how there is such a friction in taking a friendship online, for example, a chat room friendship, to real life, but virtual reality provides a "third clue" without that discomfort. How do you do that?
It is very difficult to mask who you are in virtual reality. They are your gestures. It's the way your body moves. In virtual reality, you can be "anonymous", you can have a different username, but you can be yourself, with your voice, the way you speak, the way you move, someone is really spending time with you. So you combine that kind of casual intimacy only with the kind of confidence that that slight degree of anonymity gives you.
What is at stake is low. In virtual reality, it does not feel as charged as approaching someone at a party and speaking softly, but you bring with you the true personality from your real life up to here. With everything that is based on text, it is easy to make yourself something you are not, that was the great dream of the Internet.
But when you are just you, this experience without mediation with another person, there is an incredible middle ground between the comfort of knowing that it is low risk and the fact that you are giving someone an idea of who you really are, without accelerating artificially in things like chat rooms and IM and Tinder.
It's not like having this big chain of text messages and getting together and, suddenly, you have to be as resourceful as you are. You know how they sound, how they react to things, you know they are standing, how big is their space bubble, so all these things accumulate in a real and holistic understanding of another person.
It seems that there is a paradox here. On the one hand, you say that virtual reality is good for social anxiety, but on the other hand, you say it's hard to hide who you are, which, I think, can create anxiety.
Well, it's unlikely that the first time I put on headphones I no longer have social anxiety. But it's the same as immersion therapy: you realize that nothing is happening, and maybe there was something you were, it was great, I want to see how that is.
This goes back to what are some of the therapeutic applications of VR, and that is something like immersion therapy for PTSD and phobias. It's a way to accumulate trial and error in the real world in a fraction of the time. I heard again and again: "It can be difficult in real life, but I feel like I found a community here."
Is it possible catfish in virtual reality? What happens with that and the other disadvantages?
Fly fishing is certainly possible, but it is more difficult than it is in the kind of standard Facebook way in which you are sending instant messages or emails or text messages and always pretending to be someone you are not. It is much harder to maintain that façade when you are incarnated.
That does not say it will not happen. It will happen. It is almost guaranteed that it will happen, and like many other misuses, it is possible to anticipate this, but not necessarily know how to prevent it.
The nightmare scenario that everyone likes to mention is The Matrix. But that point in technology is very, very, very far, because you have to recruit all your senses because there is a certain degree of what real life gives you: contact with the skin, texture, etc., which is impossible to replicate in the foreseeable future. "Out there" will always give you things that are not available in virtual reality. But there are also communities for which this will be an intrinsically more rewarding experience, such as for elderly people, people who are confined to their home for various reasons, people who have paralyzing social anxieties.
I think the most worrisome nightmare scenario is that it is misused for data purposes and defrauding people. The dark side of these things is to defraud people. The dark side is cat fishing, it's a platform, a software company or a hardware company that has no regulation on how they use their emotional response. Advertisers would kill for this information: visual tracking, facial expression, because it's like having an infinite focus group at all times, so we need these security measures in place. There are many ways in which this could go wrong. And, like it or not, we're going to get to a point where a regulatory approach will have to come into play.
"Virtual reality can not be bought in the window, it has to be something that is used because it means something."
One chapter of his book is about sex in virtual reality, and you mention that VR pornography makes sex not "action but reaction." What does it mean?
Like many other things, this is something we are seeing now, so it is not a guarantee that it will last. But one of the most interesting things in the first days of virtual reality is that you can put the viewer in a body, but you can not participate for reasons of comfort and to avoid the illness of the simulator.
What ends up happening is that the only action that is on the scene is happening with your partner or your partners, and what you establish is something really interesting. People would start throwing these scenes that had a penetration cut out of the frame. If you were in a man's body, and you had sex in a missionary with a woman, you would see her as hips up, and it was more about what she was telling you, the eye contact you were having, the way she His body moved, and he became this incredibly fascinating emergency adaptation. By putting on stage and not make you move and be intimate because you are with another person, your pleasure is derived from your pleasure.
People who are viewing virtual reality porn, it is logical, they are doing what they would normally do while watching porn, but because you are there in the headphones, because you are there in the virtual scene, the other person's reactions are closer of you. and they are for you and are for what your body is doing.
There is so much erudition in feminist theory about how pornography dehumanizes people by making it about penetration and body parts. VR porn does it on two people (or more, depending on the experience you're seeing), and makes sex holistic again.
It makes it a more consensual feeling, it is more reciprocal, it is more reactive. The porn industry has pushed the limit year after year to this shift to extremities, and this is a change in the other direction, this strange Rockwellian version of porn, there is something almost picturesque about it.
What in VR seems exaggerated to you?
Everything that was in its infancy, about games and watching photos and videos in 360 °. That does not necessarily induce presence. The RV can not be bought in the window, it has to be something that is used because it means something.
When will it happen? What is the timeline?
Part of the book's mission is to think about this in some different timelines, one of which is, what will the next one or two years look like? And more importantly, how are things going to be in 10 years and even more?
Several of these iterative improvements that are happening are spoken, such as positional tracking and gaze tracking. That is happening now.
And, of course, some things take place in the "beyond" category: things like full-body tactile feedback that involves things beyond simple pressure and goes into stimulating temperature and humidity. For that to become a culturally accessible mainstream consumer technology, it looks good for 10 years. People are working on taste and smell, although those are probably the last pieces of the puzzle that will fit into place. People who work in brain-computer interfaces. People who are working on anything you can imagine.