A Vintage Virtual Reality Interview
This interview captures some of the wild bliss I exuded in my twenties
as I told the world about Virtual Reality for the first time. It was first
published in 1988 or so in the Whole
Earth Review, but was conducted a few years earlier. It was reprinted
many times in many languages.
Adam Heilbrun: "The word 'virtual' is computer jargon. Could you clarify
it for those unfamiliar with the concept."
Jaron Lanier: Maybe we should go over what Virtual Reality is. We are speaking
about a technology that uses computerized clothing to synthesize shared
reality. It recreates our relationship with the physical world in a new
plane, no more, no less. It doesn't affect the subjective world; it doesn't
have anything to do directly with what's going on inside your brain. It
only has to do with what your sense organs perceive. The physical world,
the thing on the other side of your sense organs, is received through these
five holes, the eyes, and the ears, and the nose, and the mouth, and the
skin. They're not holes, actually, and there are many more senses than five
but that's the old model, so we'll just stick with it for now.
Before you enter the Virtual Reality you'll see a pile of clothing that
you have to put on in order to perceive a different world than the physical
world. The clothing consists of mostly a pair of glasses and a pair of gloves.
Exactly what clothing there will be it's too early to say because there
are a lot of different variations that are possible and it's really too
early to predict which will be the most popular ones. A minimal kind of
Virtual Reality outfit would have a pair of glasses and a glove that you
The glasses allow you to perceive the visual world of Virtual Reality.
Instead of having transparent lenses, they have visual displays that are
rather like small three-dimensional televisions. They're much more sophisticated
than small televisions, of course, because they have to present a three-dimensional
world to you that's convincing, and there's some technology involved in
accomplishing that, but that's a good metaphor. When you put them on you
suddenly see a world that surrounds you - you see the virtual world. It's
fully three-dimensional and it surrounds you, and as you move your head
to look around, the images that you see inside the eye glasses are shifted
in such a way that an illusion is created that while you're moving around
the virtual world is standing still.
The images come from a very powerful special computer which I like to call
the Home Reality Engine. It will be sitting there in your room and will
plug into the phone outlet. I'll say some more words about the Home Reality
Engine in a second, but let's stay with the glasses for now.
There's another thing that the glasses do. At the end of the stems they
have little headphone speakers very much like a Walkman, which allow you
to hear the sounds of the virtual world. There's nothing too unusual there;
they're just exactly like your everyday Walkman speakers. The sounds you
hear on them are a little bit unusual in that they're processed to have
three-dimensional quality; they come from certain directions.
The glasses do one other thing too; they have sensors in them that can sense
your facial expression. This is very important because you are a part of
the Virtual Reality and the clothing that you wear has to sense as much
as it can about your body. It uses that information to control the virtual
version of your body, which both you and other people perceive as being
you in the Virtual Reality.
So, for instance, you might choose to become a cat in Virtual Reality, or
really anything. If you're a cat you might very well be wired, so to speak,
so that when you smile in the real world the cat that you are in Virtual
Reality smiles. As your eyes dart around looking, the eyes of the cat dart
around as well. And so the eye glasses also have a function in sensing your
The headset, the eyeglasses - they're sometimes called eyephones -you have
to remember that we're witnessing the birth of a culture here, so a lot
of terms aren't really settled down into being a particular way just yet.
I think we have to give the community of people working in Virtual Reality
a chance to jostle about these different possibilities before we decide
definitely what things are called and exactly what they'll do. But this
is a very plausible setup here that I'm describing.
You wear gloves on your hands. These allow you to reach out and feel things
that aren't really there. The inside of the surface of the glove has tactile
stimulators so that when the Home Reality Engine can tell that your hand
is touching a virtual object (even though there's no object there) you'll
actually feel the object.
The second function of the gloves is that they actually allow you to interact
with objects. You can pick up an object and do things with it, just like
you would with a real object. You can pick up a virtual baseball and throw
it. So it allows you to do things to the world.
It does more than that; the glove also measures how your hand is moving.
This is very important so that in the virtual world you can see a version
of your hand to see your movements. It's important that you wear clothing
that not only transfers sensations to you but measures what your body is
doing. The computer that's running the Virtual Reality will use your body's
movements to control whatever body you choose to have in Virtual Reality,
which might be human or might be something quite different. You might very
well be a mountain range or a galaxy or a pebble on the floor. A piano...
I've considered being a piano. I'm interested in being musical instruments
quite a lot. Also, you can have musical instruments that play reality in
all kinds of ways aside from making sound in Virtual Reality. That's another
way of describing arbitrary physics. With a saxophone you'll be able to
play cities and dancing lights, and you'll be able to play the herding of
buffalo's plains made of crystal, and you'll be able to play your own body
and change yourself as you play the saxophone. You could become a comet
in the sky one moment and then gradually unfold into a spider that's bigger
than the planet that looks down at all your friends from high above.
Then, of course, there's the Home Reality Engine. The Home Reality Engine
is a computer that by1989 standards is a very powerful computer but in the
future will just be a regular computer. It has a lot of jobs to do. It has
to be repainting the graphics that your eyes see, and calculating the sounds
that your ears hear, and calculating the textures that your skin feels,
all the time quickly enough so that the world is realistic. That's a very
big task. It has to communicate with other Home Reality Engines in other
people's houses so that you can share realities with other people, and that's
a very big task. It's quite a special computer and it makes a Macintosh
look like a little speck.
AH: "When you first put on your clothing and become aware of the Home
Reality Engine, are you presented with something analogous to the Macintosh
desk-top, that is to say a work space with tools in it?"
JL: Once again this is a cultural question. The point is that in Virtual
Reality there's no need for a single metaphor, whereas there is a need for
a single design metaphor in a computer. We are used to switching contexts
in real life. It's normal to be in your living room in which you behave
one way and in which you do certain things, and then go to work, say, and
you do something totally different, you go to the beach and you're in an
utterly different state of mind, and you go into a temple and you're in
a still different state of mind. All those places are really different streams
of life that we associate with an overall environment.
There's simply no need for one unified paradigm for experiencing the physical
world, and there's no need for one in Virtual Reality either. Virtual Reality
is not like the next way computers will be; it's much much broader than
the idea of a computer. A computer is a specific tool. Virtual Reality is
an alternate reality and you shouldn't carry over into Virtual Reality the
limitations that are necessary for computers to make sense. It's an absurd
limitation. Because what we're synthesizing here is reality itself and not
just a particular isolated machine, there are lot more possibilities than
with the Macintosh.
What will probably happen is that the Home Reality Engine will have a capability
to scan the room that it's in and so will your glasses. The very first thing
that you'll see when you put on Virtual Reality clothing for the first time
will simply be an alternate version of the physical room that you started
out in. So, for instance, if you are in your living room and you put on
Virtual Reality clothing - let's suppose that your living room has a couch,
and it has a set of shelves, and it has a window, it has two doorways, it
has a chair; it has all these things and it has certain dimensions (walls
and ceiling). When you put on your glasses the first thing you'll see is
an alternate version of your living room with the same dimensions. Wherever
there is a thing in the living room there will be something in the Virtual
world. Where there's a chair in the living room there will be a something
in the Virtual world. It probably won't be a chair- it very well might be
a chair, though. The Home Reality Engine will just do a substitution. The
reason for this is that it will prevent you from bumping into anything.
It will have some early tools that you can use. For instance, it will have
the equivalent of directories in computers, but they won't look like directories,
of course. There may be giant trellises, trellises a million miles across,
that are perfectly lightweight, that you can pull yourself through, that
carry with them all sorts of different objects, a veritable museum of different
objects that you might explore. You might have one of those that shows up
in your room. You might very well have a whole bunch of little buckets,
and whenever you put one of those buckets on your head you find yourself
inside another world, another universe. There will be things like that.
"AH: Will these buckets be things that you've created yourself or will
they come as a software package?"
JL: There will be some starter ones. They would have been created over time
communally by the community of users. They would have been started by some
of us. You'll certainly make your own after a while.
But the thing that you have to remember is that Virtual Reality is a much
broader idea than, say, the Macintosh. Its purpose will be general communication
with other people, not so much getting sorts of work done. The Macintosh
was conceived as a way of automating desk-type of work, so they used the
desk-top metaphor. It was quite appropriate and obviously it's been very
successful; it was a cultural match.
Virtual Reality is conceived of as an expansion of reality, the provision
of alternate realities for people in mass in which to share experiences,
and so the types of metaphors that come up are things like cars, travel,
different countries, different cultures. For instance, you might very well
have a virtual car that you ride around even though physically you're in
one place. It would go through different territories in Virtual Reality
so that you could get around them - or transporter booths, perhaps. So you
could have geographical metaphors. There might very well evolve a new geography,
let's say - a fictitious planet with new continents that you can dive into
to find new realities.
In the early Virtual Realities you'll only be able to see the Virtual Reality
when you're in it. Later, there will be more sophisticated ones where you
can blend Virtual objects and physical objects so that you can live in a
mixed reality for a while and be able to see your physical environment as
if you were wearing sunglasses but also have nonphysical objects mixed in
it. That will be a later stage. We're already developing technology to do
that but it's an order of magnitude more complex to pull off.
In Virtual Reality any tool is possible and there will be some wonderful
tools. In Virtual Reality your memory can be externalized. Because your
experience is computer-generated, you can simply save it, and so you can
play back your old experience anytime from your own perspective. Given that,
you can organize your experience and use your experience, use your externalized
memory in itself, as the basis for what you would call The Finder in the
Macintosh. That will be quite a different thing. You can keep whole universes
in your pocket or behind your ear and pull them out and look through them
AH: "Mechanically, how do you go about playing back your memory?"
JL: What would you actually do? See, that's a very personal decision. You
have to understand that in the Virtual Reality, each person might have very
personal idiosyncratic tools that might even be invisible to others, but
it's the shared reality that you affect by using your tools that counts.
That's what's the most important thing. And it's nice to see each other's
tools too; it's kind of intimate but it will be fun.
My way of having my memories might be ... I think I'll keep them behind
my ear. I imagine reaching behind my ear and pulling them out in front of
my eyes and then I'll suddenly find myself wearing bifocals where I wasn't
before. In the lower half of the bifocals I see the virtual world as it
is shared and in the upper half I'm looking into my memories of the past.
These aren't real bifocals, of course. From now on whenever I refer to anything,
I'm talking about virtual things, not physical things.
There will be a machine that looks like that machine at the optometrist's
where you can flick little lenses into place; there will be this machine
that's floating out in front of me, and each of the lenses I can flick into
place filters out different aspects of my history. One will say, "Well,
filter out everything that wasn't in this room." Another will say,
"Filter out anything that wasn't with this other person." And
another will say, "Filter out anything that didn't involve music,"
and so forth. When I flick all these filters into place, I have a narrower
and narrower view of my history, so I'm looking at less and less of it.
Another filter I might flick into place will order it in different ways.
I might want to order it chronologically as I experienced it, or I might
want to have it play back sorted according to its geographical distance
in the virtual geographic space.
Then I have a little device, a knob that I can turn to go forwards and backwards
through my memories and flick filters at the same time. The filters might
also change the ways the filters look. For instance, one object might make
only certain kinds of things bigger and brighter. Like if I only want to
find musical instruments from the past, I might go forwards and backwards
through my history and the instruments will be particularly easy to see
because they'll be bigger and brighter but they'll still be in their context,
so I can still rely on my internal memories, which remember things in context.
Of course, I'm somewhat simplifying things because I'm only using the visual
metaphor now. I'll have the same thing for tactile and sonic memories.
Then, if I see something I want to bring into the present reality, or if
I see an old memory that I want to relive in a different way with the people
that I'm currently with, we can either pull something out of it (simply
reach into that memory and pull it out into the current circumstance) or
we can all climb into the memory - either way. It doesn't matter.
AH: How did all of these memories get from your mind into the Virtual Reality?"
JL: They never were in my mind. You see, they're memories of external reality.
Let's say you're experiencing a few moments in Virtual Reality and perhaps
you're sitting on the rings of Saturn -whatever turns you on. Now what's
happened is that in order for you to perceive everything you perceived,
in order to perceive that you were looking out into the vastness of space
and that if you looked behind you there was this huge planet Saturn and
so forth, in order to perceive that, the Home Reality Engine was generating
those sensations. It was generating the images you saw in your glasses.
It was generating the sounds you heard in your earphones. It was generating
the textures you felt inside the glove. It can simply store these like any
other computer information. There they are. You can play back exactly what
you experienced. Experience becomes something you can store in a computer
I know that might sound rather cold. I'm the first one to criticize this
horrible substitution of information for human experience. I think information
in itself is a dreadful concept. It robs us of the richness of life. It
robs us of the act of the joy of each moment and the mystery of the next.
But it is simply true that the external experience, not the internal experience,
but the external experience of Virtual Reality, is a computer file. And
it's that simple.
Now the reason that the whole thing works is that your brain spends a great
deal of its efforts on making you believe that you're in a consistent reality
in the first place. What you are able to perceive of the physical world
is actually very fragmentary and a lot of what your nervous system accomplishes
is covering up the gaps in your perception. In Virtual Reality this natural
tendency of the brain works in our favor and as soon as there's a threshold,
the brain will tend to think of either the physical world or the virtual
world as being the reality you're inside of. But as soon as the brain thinks
the virtual world is the reality you are inside of, all of a sudden it's
as if all the technology works better. All variety of perceptual illusions
come into play to cover up the flaws in the technology. All of a sudden
the world becomes much more vivid than it should be. You perceive things
that aren't there. You perceive the resistance of objects that actually
have no mass as you try to push on them, and things of that kind.
AH: "For interface shouldn't you be able to talk within your environment?
Current voice recognition technology isn't very impressive."
JL: Well you should be able to and it would be a nice thing but it's not
central at all. In fact, it's pretty superfluous, at least the way I think
about Virtual Reality. I'm pretty sure that it will turn out to be a not
very important aspect of it. It would take a while to explain why, but I
suppose I should!
There are a few special things about Virtual Reality to keep in mind, the
things that make it important. One is that it's a reality in which anything
can be possible, provided it's part of the external world. It's a world
without limitation, a world as unlimited as dreams. It's also a world that's
shared, like the physical world. It's as shared and as objectively real
as the physical world is, no more, no less. Exactly how shared or real that
is, is open to question, but whatever the physical world has Virtual Reality
has as well. The thing that's remarkably beautiful to me about Virtual Reality
is that you can make up reality in Virtual Reality and share it with other
people. It's like having a collaborative lucid dream. It's like having shared
hallucinations, except that you can compose them like works of art; you
can compose the external world in any way at all as an act of communication.
Language comes as a stream of little discrete symbols
... the world is made of continuity and gesture.
The question is: well, given that you have a world where you can change
it, how do you change it? Do you just talk to it and does it become the
way you say it should be? Or do you do something else? Now, there are real
limits to how you can change the world by talking. For instance, imagine
that you were trying to teach a robot to fix a car engine and you tell the
robot, "Okay now, connect this piece to that piece, turn this bolt
and so forth." Well, you can do that to a degree but you can't really
do that with a person. You have to show them. You can't run the world with
language. Language is very limited. Language is a very very narrow stream
through the plain of reality. It leaves out a great deal. It's not so much
it leaves things out as that language comes as a stream of little discrete
symbols and the world is made of continuity and gesture. Language can suggest
things about the world, but no painting could ever be fully described by
words, nor can reality.
The way that you can probe the reality is with a special kind of physics
that can only exist in Virtual Reality. It's what I call Absolute Physics.
For some time now I've been working on software that will be able to make
Absolute Physics work in Virtual Reality.
Coming back to the physical world for a second, there are only a very few
things in the physical world that you can change fast enough to use as forms
of communication. Mostly it's your tongue, and to a lesser degree the rest
of your body. Your body is basically the extent of the physical world that
you can communicate with in real time, but you can communicate with it as
fast as you think. That's the way the body is. But then, beyond that you
can change the physical world but you need tools. You can suddenly change
a room from being dark to light by turning the switch because the switch
is there. Technology in the physical world mostly functions to extend the
human body one way or another so that it can be used as a medium for human
action. The problem is that the kinds of tools that you can have are very
limited. You can't have a light switch that turns day to night or a knob
that makes the room suddenly grow or shrink in size. You can have tools
that can color your face, but you can't have tools that can change you from
one species to another. Basically, all that absolute physics is, is a physics
that has any kind of causality at all, so you can have all these tools.
Once you have all these tools, you can start, using whatever body you choose
to have in Virtual Reality, to use the tools to change the world very quickly
in all kinds of ways. Then, you have this idea of being able to improvise
reality. That's the thing that excites me the most about it.
"AH: What does the interface look like? If I wanted to turn this cup
green, what would I do to make it green?"
JL: Okay, here's the deal. There's no one way. There would be a million
ways to change the cup green. You could make up new ones and you could change
that one over there. See, the tools that you use to change reality are somewhat
private. It's the result of the change in reality that's the more social
thing. People will be somewhat idiosyncratic about that and that will be
an aspect of someone's personality.
You have to understand what these tools are. In Virtual Reality .... well,
things are vastly different. You would be able to have all kinds of tools
with you all the time. In fact, memory in Virtual Reality is external. You
have a movie of your life that's there all the time that you can pull out.
It has in it all the tools you've ever used. You can find them quickly.
You'll have all kinds of tools.
Now the way you turn the cup green would probably be with some kind of little
coloring device. The kind of coloring device that I'm going to have is a
little wand thing, a little prism that I pick up. I turn it and it reflects
the rainbow of my eyes. Whenever the color looks right I'll squeeze it and
whatever it's pointed at will turn into that color. That will be my personal
one; you might want something completely different.
Broadcast Media vs. Social Media
AH: ""We are witnessing a breakup of concensus reality in the
external world right now and the political repercussions seem rather frightening
as large segments of society have no common ground, no shared assumptions
about reality. Will Virtual Reality not further undermine consensus reality."
JL: It's a complicated question with many many angles to it. Let me just
cover a few. One is that it's important to understand that notions of consensus
reality are of a different order than what Virtual Reality is. Consensus
reality involves a series of subjective realities and Virtual Reality only
addresses objective reality, that is, the shared reality that is external
to the senses. But there is interaction between the two on many levels.
Another angle is that idealistically, I might hope that Virtual Reality
will provide an experience of comfort with multiple realities for a lot
of people in western civilization, an experience which is otherwise rejected.
Most societies on earth have some method by which people experience life
through radically different realities at different times, through ritual,
through different things. Western civilization has tended to reject them
but, because it's a gadget, I do not think that Virtual Reality will be
rejected . It's the ultimate gadget. It's the culmination of gadgetry in
many ways. I think that it will bring back into western experience something
that has been lost. Why that is so is a big topic.
It will bring back a sense of the shared mystical altered sense of reality
that is so important in basically every other civilization and culture prior
to big patriarchal power. I hope that that might lead to some sense of tolerance
and understanding. But there's more to it than that. I often worry about
whether it's a good technology or a bad technology. I have a little benchmark
I use for that. I believe that if a technology increases human power or
even human intelligence and that's it's sole effect, then it's simply an
evil technology at birth. We're already both powerful enough and smart enough
to accomplish a great deal. All of our problems are self-brought at this
point. If the technology, on the other hand, has a tendency to increase
human communication, human sharing, then I think it's a good one overall,
even though there might be many ways it could be used badly. My chronic
examples of these are that the television is bad but that the telephone
is good. I could go on about that forever.
I do hope that Virtual Reality will provide more meeting between people.
It has a tendency to bring up empathy and reduce violence, although there's
certainly no panacea ultimately. People simply have to grow up and that
could take a long time, too long .
There are some other levels of interaction, too. You see, Virtual Reality
starts out as a medium just like television or computers or written language,
but once it gets to be used to a certain degree, it ceases to be a medium
and simply becomes another reality that we can inhabit. When it crosses
over that boundary it becomes another reality. I think of it as acting like
a sponge where it absorbs human activity from the physical reality plane
into the Virtual reality planes. To the degree that that happens there is
a very beneficial asymmetry that comes into play. When Virtual Reality sponges
up good energy from the physical plane, then what you get in Virtual Reality
is beautiful art, beautiful dance, beautiful creativity, beautiful dreams
to share, beautiful adventures. When Virtual Reality soaks up bad energy
from the physical plane, what we get is some decrease, however small, in
violence and hurt on the physical plane in exchange for events on the virtual
plane which, while they might be uglier, are of no consequence whatsoever
because they're virtual.
Barbara Stack: "Unless they're syndicated, in which case they are educational
propaganda. And don't they have consequence in that they further brutalize
JL: Well, physical reality is tragic in that it's mandatory. Virtual Reality
is multiple channel. People can choose and switch which Virtual Reality
plane they're on. They can also simply take off their clothing if they want
to get out of it. It's easy to take the physical world for granted and forget
that you're inside it. (Well, that's a hard comment to explain.) It's harder
to forget that you're inside of Virtual Reality and therefore it's harder
to suffer it. You can simply take the clothing off.
physical reality is tragic in that it's mandatory
AH: "One of the images that haunts me is growing up watching Tom and
Jerry cartoons, where in an alternative reality you can see somebody squashed
by a steamroller and then pop up and be whole again. I think having absorbed
so much of that king of imagery has numbed us ;we have become a generation
that is unaware of the pain of others."
JL: Virtual Reality is a very different situation than movies or television.
I'm going to say something roundabout but it comes back to exactly the point
you're bringing up. Movies and television are, first of all, broadcast media,
so one facility has to generate the material that you see. Furthermore,
it's very expensive to generate this material so very few people are in
a position to do it. Therefore, the material becomes supernaturally remote
and universal. It has a numbing effect on people and it reduces empathy.
Television ultimately reduces empathy because people live in a world in
which they can't act or have responsibility or meet each other. The shocking
statistics about the number of hours that people in the United States spend
watching television explain, I think, all too much about our actions in
the world and our lack of empathy. When a person chooses to spend that much
time watching television, it's equivalent to death as far as society is
concerned. They cease to function as a responsible or social persons during
the time that they're simply perceiving media.
Now Virtual Reality is just the opposite. First of all, it's a network like
the telephone where there's no central point of origin of information. But,
much more importantly, since nothing is made of physical matter, since it's
all just made of computer information, no one has any advantage over anyone
else in their ability to create any particular thing within it. So there's
no need for a studio. There might be occasional needs for one, if somebody
has a bigger computer to generate a certain kind of effect, or certainly
if somebody's assembled people of a certain talent or reputation. But in
general there's no built-in difference from one person to another in terms
of ability to create.
This means that there's going to be such a profusion of different forms.
There will be movie studios that get involved in making Virtual Realities,
but I think more there will be little entrepreneurs who will be like Reality
Troubadours who will travel about spinning realities, if anything. What'll
happen is that there will be such an enormous variety of form that "things"
will become cheap. Basically, in a Virtual Reality everything is in infinite
supply, except for one mysterious thing called creativity. And time, certainly,
and health, and other things that are really still inside your body. But
in terms of external things, they're infinite and wonderful and abundant
and ever-varied and all equally valuable because they all can be made as
So what really is of value, what really will stand out as a foreground against
a background in Virtual Reality is quite different than what stands out
in the physical world. In the physical world mere excess or novelty will
often make something stand out. A thousand dollar bill will stand out in
the physical world. In the Virtual world there is absolutely no difference
between a thousand dollar bill and a one dollar bill; they are simply two
different graphic designs and they are both as plentiful as you can make
Other people are the life of the party in Virtual Reality. Other people
are the unique things that will animate Virtual Reality and make it astonishingly
unpredictable and amazing. Personality will be accentuated since form will
be so cheap; since form will be so non-precious, personality will be quite
A good experiment to do is to observe somebody watching television. They
look like a zombie. Then watch somebody using the telephone and they look
animated. The difference is that one is a social medium and the other is
a broadcast medium. In the social medium they're interacting with people.
Virtual Reality is like that, more so than any medium ever has been, including,
I believe, things like spoken language. And so you'll see people activated
and animated. When people get social and see each other, especially in a
context that will be so, let's say, 'illuminating' in the sense .... Virtual
Reality is the ultimate lack of class or race distinctions or any other
form of pretense since all form is variable. When people's personalities
meet, freed of all pretense of that kind in the virtual plane, I think that
will be an extraordinary tool for increasing communication and empathy.
In that sense it might have a good effect on politics.
You can't really ask what the purpose of Virtual Reality is because it's
just too big. You can ask what the purpose of a chair is because it's a
small enough thing to have a purpose. Some things are just so big that they
become the context, or they become the problem.
AH: "That is what we mean by a paradigm shift."
JL: I think Virtual Reality will have an effect of enhancing and, in a sense,
completing the culture. My view is that our culture has been abnormally
distorted by being incredibly molded by technology, but when technology
was astonishingly young. I mean, television is a weird anomaly that will
be remembered as a bizarre technology in the 20th century, and Ronald Reagan
could only exist in television. We have to remember that we're living in
a very peculiar bubble. Virtual Reality, by creating a technology that's
general enough to be rather like reality was before there was technology,
sort of completes a cycle. I think the reasons for having Virtual Reality
are everything. There's recreation, there's education, there's expression,
there's just pure work, there's therapy - all of those things. All of the
same things that you'd find in language or physical reality or any other
very large human pursuit.
AH: There's been a lot of loose talk over the past few years about Gaia,
about our planet being an organism. What kind of vision can we have of Virtual
Reality becoming an externalized consciousness of that organism?"
JL: It's an interesting question. Virtual Reality represents a new mystery
on the order of the mystery that nature presents us. It's a mystery that's
entirely human-made in that it's the intersection of people in Virtual Reality
that creates the mystery, that creates the chaos that will make it into
a full-scale reality that's worthy of being experienced.
I don't view machines as becoming conscious myself. It's not that I'm opposed
to the notion; it's simply that I think that it's the wrong question to
ask. But I do think that there will be a new emergent social consciousness
that can only exist through the medium of Virtual Reality. Virtual Reality
is the first medium that's large enough not to limit human nature. It's
the first medium that's broad enough to express us as natural beings. It's
the first medium within which we can express our nature and the whole of
nature to each other. Actually, that's all rather vague, so let me just
say that when we can make nature ourselves, we can empathize with the nature
that there is and appreciate it fully.
The flow anywhere is the same flow
We've split ourselves off in this culture of ours from nature. Our egos
are very important to us and we really separate ourselves off from environment
and from the overall flow of life. What'll happen is that in Virtual Reality
we'll recreate the flow. The flow anywhere is the same flow, so the flow
that we create in Virtual Reality will be a new flow but it's also a part
of the same eternal flow and we'll become all of a sudden....
See, now there's an opposition. Our power in the world, our power of action,
has always involved doing things to physical matter. It's very slow to do
things to physical matter, so in order to be powerful we have to limit ourselves.
Now in Virtual Reality, all of a sudden we become powerful in terms of -
we can have action without that limitation. It allows us to not wish we
could behave like gods but actually to behave like gods, albeit in a simulation.
But that really doesn't matter because the simulation recreates exactly
the same role that the physical world has to us (it's an external shared
It will reunite us with the flow of nature. Because ultimately, a new flow
we create is just the same old flow of nature popping up in a new place.
We'll just be paying attention to it since we'll be able to feel powerful
in relation to it, which we can't with the physical one. We can do it a
little bit with the atomic bomb every once in a while, but that's about
it. It's actually very limited and I think it frustrates us terribly.
I think we all feel like we did when we were just born; we want so much
but we can do so little. All we can do is scream and then eventually we
learn to talk, and maybe we learn some technology and can do a little more
to the world, but we never overcome that horrible frustration at not being
able to make the world around us that we share with other people as fluid
as our imagination. It's so frustrating! We are of the world, we act in
the world, and yet we're limited in it.
Now of course, Virtual Reality only gives us a temporary limitlessness.
We still live in our physical bodies and we're still mortal. It might highlight
our mortality to a degree that will make it harder to ignore than it is
currently. People imagine Virtual Reality as being an escapist thing where
people will be ever more removed from the real world and ever more insensitive.
I think it's exactly the opposite; it will make us intensely aware of what
it is to be human in the physical world, which we take for granted now because
we're so immersed in it.
AH: "Are these going to be linked up by phone lines ?"
JL: Absolutely. Obviously we're not talking about the current phone lines
but about future phone lines, so this whole project is not something that's
going to happen next year. It's going to wait until the placement of fiber
optic phone lines into American homes. But that's already beginning; there's
quite a few in place already.
I should point out, just for the technologically-oriented readers, that
the bandwidth required for Virtual Reality is actually rather low because
you're only communicating the changes in a database; you don't actually
have to send images or sounds over the phone lines. So it's actually quite
a low bandwidth communication. It's almost conceivable to do it with current
phone lines. In fact, it probably is, if you just have a few of them instead
of one. You can probably do crude ones. So it's not a major bottleneck in
getting the technology working.
AH: Could you give us some idea of the state of current prototypes and how
far down the road until I'll have a virtual reality device in my own home?"
JL: Well, it's very early right now. We're in the same stage with Virtual
Reality that computer science was in the very earliest days. We're about
in the same place computer science was back in 1958 or 1960 perhaps. The
systems being built were rather large and special purpose. Only institutions
could afford them. But that will be changing, and it will be changing much
faster than it did with computers. The first headset, the eyeglasses, were
invented in1969 by Ivan Sutherland, who was also the founder of Computer
Graphics. Actually, Marvin Minsky, the founder of Artificial Intelligence,
did make a pair in 1965, but the person who really got the whole thing going
was Ivan Sutherland. The glove was originally invented by Tom Zimmerman.
The current glove was designed by Young Harvel. Both of those people are
Right now, all of the basic components I've described exist, although in
rather crude forms. The overall system works, although in a rather crude
form. The best ones are behind locked doors in defense contracting companies
and probably have no bearing to any real conversation about the subject.
The most fun one that's working as a complete system is the one at NASA
Ames, which is called the View Lab. It was put together by Mike McGreevy
and Scott Fisher. VPL has some wonderful surprises in store, but part of
the fun is not telling just yet.
You'll start to be able to experience Virtual Reality within a few years.
There will be Virtual Reality rooms at universities that students can do
projects in. I think there will be rather spectacular amusement park rides
that will be tacky and not really worth bothering with. I've toyed with
the idea of opening a Virtual Reality Parlour that would be a little bit
more civilized. It would be sort of like a salon scene where people could
have Virtual Reality conversations and have wild experiences, but they would
be collaborative. It wouldn't be like an amusement park, some dumb experience
designed to get you to drink a certain soft drink and see a certain movie
and buy certain clothes, but rather would be a Virtual Salon. I think that
would be very nice. Perhaps we'll see something like that in a few years.
I hope so. I think so.
A few years is a little bit vague, but I have to be because there are so
many unknowns. But in 3-5 years, let's say, these things will be around.
They'll be too expensive to have in your home, but a lot of people will
be able to experience them through those institutions and businesses. On
the other hand, Mattel has licensed the data glove from VPL and is marketing
an inexpensive version as a Nintendo controller.
In terms of actually having them in your home, I see it as being roughly
around the turn of the century when that will start to happen. It won't
be so much that you buy a set of reality clothing as that it will be through
the phone company. They'll own the clothing itself or they'll own parts
of it and you'll own other parts.
Right now it's rather expensive, but at the turn of the century I don't
think it will be. You'll pay for the time that you use it in very much the
same way the telephone was introduced. I see the telephone, from a business
point of view, as being an extremely analogous kind of technology. Now telephones
are so cheap that you go ahead and buy them. Originally, the telephone company
continued to own the equipment and made the money off of your phone bill.
In a few years we will see medical Virtual Realities, where handicapped
people can experience full motion interaction with others, where people
with movement disabilities or paralysis will be able to experience a complete
Another medical use is having surgery simulators so surgeons can enjoy the
same benefits that pilots do and learn without putting lives at risk. Of
course, surgeons can do that with cadavers, but it's not the same thing.
A cadaver isn't the same thing as a body that really reacts, that can really
bleed. You can't really make mistakes on a cadaver. There are people that
are actively pursuing this. There's Dr. Joe Rosen at Stanford and Dr. Robert
Chase, who are both looking at the problem from different angles. Joe Rosen
might also be familiar to some people as the inventor of the nerve chip,
but that's another story.
Another area is having miniature robots that could enter the human body.
They would have microcameras and tiny hands. You would transfer your actions
to the robot and the robot would transfer its perceptions to you so that
you'd have the sensation of being inside the patient's body performing microsurgery.
There are actually people now working on this technology. I'm sure none
of the current projects will be the ones that work, but it is already something
that people are attempting to do, and I'm sure that we'll see that sometime.
I think that it will be working by the end of the century.
BS::"When I think about what kind of old age I want as well as what
old age is going to be possible or feasible in a society that's going in
the way it is going ... if I'm going to be locked into a very small room,
I want to be locked into that room with a lot of machines that I love. So
in a way it will liven up our old age and in the process to be connected
not with people who happen to be in that neighborhood rest home but, in
fact, the people who we want to communicate with who are spread all over
the world . But on the other hand, it will be a good justification for their
locking us up because after all, we've got our machine. It will be a cheap
way to deal with us...."
Yeah, that's certainly a horrible thought. I tell you the most vivid experience
of Virtual Reality is the experience of leaving it. Because after having
been in the reality that is man-made, with all the limitations and relative
lack of mystery inherent in that, to behold nature is directly beholding
Aphrodite; it's directly beholding a beauty that's intense in a way that
just could never have been perceived before we had something to compare
physical reality to. And that's one of the biggest gifts that Virtual Reality
gives us, a renewed appreciation of physical reality.
And so, I'm not sure what to say. I'm sure bad things will happen with Virtual
Reality; there will be some pain that it plays a part in because it will
be a big thing and the world can be cruel. But I think overall it will actually
have a tendency to enhance people's sensitivity towards nature, towards
preserving the earth, because they'll have a point of comparison.
AH: Will Virtual Reality have interface with a Xanadu-like database of the
JL: Well, Virtual Reality raises the question: "What is knowledge and
what is world?" As soon as the world itself becomes changeable, it
becomes immediate, and in a sense description becomes obsolete. But this
goes into another realm that might take a long time to describe. Very briefly,
there's an idea that I'm very interested in called post-symbolic communication.
This means that when you're able to improvise reality as you can in Virtual
Reality and then that's shared with other people, you don't really need
to describe the world anymore because you can simply make any contingency.
You don't really need to describe an action because you can create any action.
Yes, there will be Xanadu-like knowledge bases, but then, once again I think
that the Xanadu conception still separates knowledge and the world. Xanadu
is still a way of connecting together descriptions in a network; it is still
very descriptionary. Virtual Reality really opens up a territory beyond
description, that transcends the idea of description.
AH: "It seems to me that having a vast knowledge base, the great ideas
and images from history, would be a wealth of raw materials out of which
to compose our Virtual Realities."
JL: Absolutely, absolutely. That will be wonderful.
AH: "Only it's the stage setting. We have this legacy of sets and props
JL: Yes. Virtual Reality is a very general thing and it can do a lot of
things. You can make up a Virtual Macintosh that would act like a real Macintosh
within it, or a book, or a library, or a Sanskrit tablet, or whatever. It
does all those things and all of those structures within Virtual Reality
that act like things in the physical world are very important because they
serve as the bridge. I think they'll be essential. In fact, I'm going to
be talking to the Xanadu people about interfacing, about what we're doing
and what they're doing, so that we'll have the bridge going from the start.
I don't know how they'll feel about this but I think that from the Virtual
Reality point of view, Xanadu might end up as being a standard interface
to the physical world because it will have the best descriptive universe
in the physical world. Computers live by description. We shouldn't, though.
Let's suppose that you could have a time machine go back to the earliest
creatures who developed language, our ancestors at some point, and gave
them Virtual Reality clothing. Would they have ever developed language?
I suspect not because as soon as you can change the world in any way, that
is a mode of expression of utter power and eloquence; it makes description
seem a little bit limited. I don't fully know what this means. I don't know
what direct reality communication would be like, reality improvisation without
symbols. I doubt if we'll ever leave symbols behind because our brains have
grown to adapt to symbols; you know, there's a language cortex now and all
All a symbol is, is something that we perceive that refers to something
else. And so every symbol has at least a double nature, which is it in itself
if you don't interpret it as a symbol and then, whatever it stands for.
What happens is that in, say, a poem, there are both the thing referred
to by the words as a collection and then there's also the inherent rhythm
and typography and all of the other things that are the nonsymbolic aspects
of it as an artifact. Even those things might also have symbolic aspects.
For instance, a font might symbolize something but it also is a font in
itself. It gets kind of complicated; it gives philosophers jobs. There's
really no nonsymbolic way to communicate a lot of things and our lives are
just built around symbols. By symbols I'm speaking pretty broadly, including
gestures and pictures as well as words. Virtual Reality will inaugurate
a whole new parallel stream of communication.
I've been working on a whole description of what it might be like to communicate
without symbols. It has a different rhythm. For instance, in symbolic communication,
you have the notion of question and answer and this kind of repartée
which defines the flow of communication. In Virtual Reality, since people
are collaboratively changing a shared reality as a means of communication,
what you'll have is nodes of relative static quality vs. periods of very
dynamic quality. There will be this rhythm between when the world is being
changed quickly and when it sort of settles down. That rhythm is something
like what a sentence is in language. In spoken language you have the phenomenon
of finding the next world and going, "Um...um..." The same thing
will happen in Virtual Reality where people will go through an interval
of spacing out from the reality, preparing their next change to the shared
I can point to the direction of what it might be like in the general sense,
but it's almost by definition impossible to make completely compelling examples.
I'll give you a few, though.
If we think of an experience where you're describing something to someone
else - let's suppose you're describing what it's like to live in the East
Coast in these grungy violent cities and how you have a completely different
set of expectations vs. living in what seems to be the rather safe and lovely
but rather bland and aimless cities of California - now to describe those
things ... I just did that. I just came up with some brief symbolic descriptions
of what cities in New York and California are like. In Virtual Reality there's
the possibility of simply playing back one's memory with the other person
inside it from the other city. When you directly have at your beck and call
external reality to be played back, created, improvised at will, description
is simply narrow.
Now description is interesting because, in its narrowness it does bring
in possibilities for poetry that probably don't exist in the fullness of
post-symbolic communication where you can just create experience as a whole
all the time. On the other hand, in creating experience as a whole all the
time, you have this possibility of a kind of collaboration that you really
can't have with symbols, where people can be simultaneously molding a shared
I realize these things are hard to describe and that's appropriate. What
I'm trying to describe is communication that is itself beyond description.
The idea might turn out to be wrong; it might turn out that communication
without symbols and description is just a silly idea and a path wrongly
taken. So it's really a grand experiment, and I think it will be a lot of
Of course communication without symbols already happens constantly. First
of all, the clearest example of receiving communication that is nonsymbolic
is to commune with nature. The direct perception you have when nature communicates
to you as you walk in the forest is simply prior to/beyond symbols. There's
no need to prove that. Any linguist who would argue otherwise is beneath
An example of communicating outwards without symbols is when one moves one's
own body. You don't send a symbol to your arm or to your hand; you communicate
prior to symbols to your own body. The most beautiful example that now exists
of an intense sort of communicating outward without symbols is in lucid
dreaming. When you dream lucidly you are aware that you're dreaming and
you control the dream. It's rather like Virtual Reality except that it's
not shared. The means by which you communicate to your dream is without
symbols. There you are spinning the world, spinning anything in the world
without symbols, simply making it be.
Now, of course, those are the purified examples, some purified examples
of nonsymbolic communication that already exist. But, of course, all of
life is deeply imbued with nonsymbolic communication. A book has its nonsymbolic
aspects; I mean, a book is a book as an object prior to being a book that
can be decoded as a bearer of symbols.
Everything has symbolic and nonsymbolic aspects to it. A thing isn't a symbol;
it's just that you can use anything as a symbol. The idea of symbol is a
use for a thing, but everything is also a thing in and of itself; everything
has a primary thingness. (Twisty sentences like that are part of what led
me to the search for post-symbolic communication!)
AH: "How does Virtual Reality relate to the images of cyberspace that
we've had in so much recent SF"?
JL: It's better. I mean, cyberspace is just another set on which to have
adolescent fantasies unfold. In these novels, like True Names and Neuromancer
and so forth, people don't do anything interesting with the artificial reality.
AH: "It's like CB radio."
JL: That's right. Cyberspace is the CB radio of Virtual Reality. That's
an excellent metaphor. It's a trivial use of it.
AH: Considering the freedom that people have to fantasize in D & D games,
it's amazing how restricted the imagination is that's manifested."
JL: I agree completely. And I'm sure there will be mundanity in Virtual
Reality as well, because mundanity is a part of humanity. But I'm not too
worried about it. The whole 'economy' of Virtual Reality is set up to accentuate
creativity since it is, as I said, the only thing in short supply. In a
sense it's the only thing that really exists. Personality and creativity
are perceivable and forms will be less and less noticed because they'll
be so plentiful.
"AH: Where does that leave those of us who collect "stuff"?
What are the prospects of house cleaning now?"
JL: Well, the stuff will seem more precious and the house more dirty because
the physical world will appear amplified in comparison.
I'm not anti-physical world and I'm not anti-symbolic communication at all.
I mean, I love those things.
AH: "Are there any historic images that come to mind that set the stage?"
JL: Oh many, many. God, that's a huge question too. So many, so many. There
are the lost memory arts, the memory palaces. Most of the western cultures
relied on imagined Virtual Realities, these imagined palaces that people
hung their memories in as artworks. People would memorize their palaces
in order to have a way of remembering things, and before Gutenberg that
was a very important thing. It was absolutely as primary as music or the
arts of war to a particular culture. The memory arts sort of vanished because
they were rendered obsolete. But they were remarkably like Virtual Reality.
So many things come to mind about that. It's really too broad a question.
Our attempts to change the physical world. We have raped the physical world
because we don't have Virtual Reality. I mean, technology is just our attempt
to use the physical world as a means of action. The physical world resists
it and therefore we have the ugliness that we live with all the time. But
Virtual Reality is the ideal medium for that type of action. Just architecture,
technology in general, is really the strongest precedent, our attempts to
modify the physical world as a means of human action. That's the strongest
Oh, so much more. The very first time that somebody put on glasses that
had imagery in them actually wasn't - I mean the glasses I mentioned that
were done by Marvin Minsky and Ivan Sutherland were the first ones that
had computer imagery. But some people had attached a stereo camera to a
set of eyeglasses with stereo television sets as early as 1955. Some engineers
from Philco had it rigged up in a periscope-like setup. There was a stereo
camera on the top floor of a building. You could look out through it from
inside the building. It had a limited degree of tracking, so you could have
the feeling of looking over the side of the building. That was a big thrill
back then. It probably still would be now.
AH: I can imagine what a thrill it was for the first people who looked through
their stereopticons back at the turn of the century."
JL: Absolutely. There are so many precedents. I think Virtual Reality is
a major node of culmination of culture. I think there are just enormous
things that are fulfilled by it and an enormous number of things that can
be seen as precedents.
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