"[Virtual reality] defines our agenda
with machines as being primarily cultural and sensual, as opposed to
When virtual reality became a cultural obsession and took the national
spotlight, Jaron Lanier stood center stage. The diverse scope of
possibilities created through full sensory immersion into
computer-generated worlds caught the collective imagination, and Jaron
became the hero of cyberspace. He began his journey into virtual reality
after quitting high school, when he engineered his own education in
computer science by spending time with mentors such as Mantilz Minsky at
MIT. After a stint performing as a street musician in Santa Cruz, Jaron
began programming electronic sound effects into video games. He quickly
became a pioneer in computer programming, and soon he started the first VR
company out of his home-VPL Research--which produced most of the world 's
VR equipment for many years. He is the co-inventor of such fundamental VR
components as the interface gloves and VR networking.
Jaron coined the phrase "virtual reality" and founded the VR industry.
He appears regularly on national television shows, such as "Nightline "
and "60 Minutes. " His work with computer languages and VR was twice
chosen for the cover of Scientific American, and it also appeared on the
cover of the Wall Street Journal, in a piece entitled "Electronic LSD. "
But music is his first love. Since the late seventies, he has been an
active composer and performer in the world of new classical music. He
writes chamber and orchestral music, and is a pianist and a specialist in
unusual musical instruments. Jaron has the largest collection of exotic
instruments from around the world that I've ever encountered, and the most
remarkable thing is that he can play them all. He has performed with
artists as diverse as Philip Glass, Ornette Coleman, Terry Riley, Barbara
Higbie, and Stanley Jordan.
Jaron has a powerful presence. His large eyes, which alternate between
dreamy reflectiveness and focused intensity, peer out from behind long,
brown dreadlocks. He appears gentle and relaxed, although he gets very
animated when he starts talking about something that excites him. His
nervous system is unusually balanced with a blend of artistic sensitivity,
sharp scientific mindfulness, and great imagination. Referring to the
unique neurochemistry. that must contribute to Jaronís genius, Timothy
Leary once said that he would like a cerebral spinal fluid transfusion
from Jaron S brain. Jaron currently divides his time between New York and
California. He has an album out on PolyGram, Instruments of Change, and
two books in press, one from Harcourt/Brace and the other from MIT Press.
Amid a sea of exotic musical instruments and a tangle of electronic
equipment, we interviewed Jaron at his Sausalito home on February 3, 1993.
David: Jaron, what was it that originally inspired you to
develop Virtual Reality technology?
Jaron: Not that question! Oh no! (laughter) There
are three different things that got me involved with Virtual Reality - or
really, four. One of them had to do with the philosophy of mathematics,
another had to do with direct action politics and the frustrations
thereof. The third had to do with musical instrument design, especially a
really fantastic thing called a theremin and the fourth had to with
the psychology of early childhood, specifically my own. Do you want to
hear about all four of them? (laughter)
David: Well, how about how they all came together?
Jaron: Well, that's the most mysterious of all because,
of course, life is experienced mostly in anticipation and retrospect and
only at rare moments in the present. So, I anticipated wondrous things
without really believing them and then suddenly found they'd happened, but
I can hardly even remember when they did. But somehow this whole Virtual
Reality thing has been taken seriously by the world and has become a field
in it's own right.
David: I first became acquainted with your computer work
many years ago when it was featured on the cover of an issue of
What was that about?
Jaron: That was probably the first of two different
Scientific American covers. It relates to one of those four tracks,
which is the philosophy of mathematics. I studied math in graduate school.
If you've ever been around a math school, you notice a very strange
phenomenon which is that people who have already learned some new math
thing refer to that thing as trivial, while the people who are learning it
for the first time refer to it as abominably difficult. Same people, same
items - just different moments in time.
So the question is; What's going on? Is this just a sort of a hubris,
or is there something particularly unusual about the process of learning
math and understanding it? I was suspicious that the way that math was
communicated and the way it was understood were completely different, that
math had to be understood somewhat visually or perhaps in something of a
process way - playing with images and shapes inside one's imagination.
Math was taught and expressed in notation systems and I thought, maybe
the notation system is the problem. But then as soon as you think that,
you have to ask yourself, what of mathematics is left once you take away
the notation system? And that's a very hard question because the
traditional view of most mathematics almost equates it with at least some
kind of notation system.
David: But isn't the dynamic pattern left, which the
notation system is expressing?
Jaron: It depends on the type of math. Some types of math
are largely a by-product of notation, like algebra - at least, that's my
interpretation. There are some kinds of math which are a little ambiguous.
If you're talking about the mathematics of dynamic flows and that sort of
thing, indeed the flows exist without the math, but a lot of abstract math
might not exist effectively without some kind of notation. It's just not
clear - it's a hard problem.
So, I became interested in the idea of having computer pictures of
mathematical structures, pictorial interpretations that would be modified
in real time to express the movement of mathematical ideas. I was
fortunate to get hired as part of an
NSF project - I was just a
kid in my teens - and I worked with a group of people doing a college
level curriculum in mathematics using pictures which these days would not
be too radical or exciting, but which in those days was pretty unusual.
That project had mixed results, but I became very interested in the
process of programming. I started to think, well, maybe you can look at
computers and computer programming as a simplified mirror of the problem
of mathematics and mathematical notation, but where the situation is much
less ambiguous. There are some similarities. In computers, you have a
notation (a programming language), that tells the computer what to do, and
then there's what the computer actually does. Unlike math, there's no
trouble defining the reality of what the computer actually does, as a
separate matter from the notation.
So you can ask yourself, is there some better way to understand what
the computer is doing than using the usual programming notation? And if
you could come up with something that was an interactive visual
representation of what the computer's doing, would that give you any
inspiration (getting back to the original question) towards being able to
express math ideas in a better way?
David: Was that an original thought? It sounds like a
really unique way of looking at it.
Jaron: No, although I didn't know of his work at the
time, the first person to think about visual programming languages, as far
as I know, was a particularly brilliant guy named
Sutherland who also invented the head-mounted display and computer
graphics in general and who is a very important seminal figure in
twentieth-century culture and science. The idea of a visual version of
math, on the other hand, has fascinated many people, like
So I became immersed in the world of programming language design and I
was very fortunate to be able to spend a lot of time and be somewhat taken
under the wing of some of the people who'd invented the standard
programming languages in use. I started developing a big "virtual"
programming language and it was an off-shoot of that work, which was
oriented towards children, which was on the cover of Scientific
American in 1984.
The early team included some wonderful and brilliant minds, like Chuck
Blanchard, Young Harvill, Tom Zimmerman, and Steve Bryson. The biggest
problem we had, in that early work, was that the screen was too small a
window - a frustratingly tiny peephole into the world in which a program
was visualized. We originally began developing what I decided to call
"virtual reality systems" to have a better way of handling these
programming representations. Of course, when we showed those to the world,
particularly to people who were funding research or investing in
companies, they got excited about the interface and missed the whole point
of the programming languages, and thus we started to focus much more on
Virtual Reality than on the original idea of a new type of programming
I should stress that the programming language we were doing was really
very different from the current generation of visual programming languages
- of which there are many, including commercial ones - in that this one
did not have any sense of source code at all, it didn't have any fixed
representation. Rather it was composed of spontaneously regenerated
representations of the internal state of the computer that simulated the
existence of source code.
David: That sounds like such a paradox. You mean not
using icons, kind of create as you go?
Jaron: Well, the traditional way that computers have been
controlled is by making a differentiation between source code and object
code where source code is a human-oriented representation of what the
computer's going to do. It usually looks like a series of awkward, broken,
written English commands. Object code, on the other hand, is made of the
ones and zeros which the computer itself can read. This scheme was set up
primarily by a very brilliant woman named
Hopper. It dates from a time when hardware interfaces were very
limited and incapable of handling pictures. It made a great deal of sense
to make the best of the computer's ability to read in a string of letters,
and to try to use a natural language like English as a metaphor.
What we were doing, however, is radically different from that in the
sense that rather than having a fixed type of source code - be it visual
or text - instead the computer would analyze it's own code and present one
of a number of visualizations of an infinite variety, so that you could
pick and choose different visualizations of the same material and invent
new ones. The visualization was always spontaneously created and the
source code as such was a passing illusion.
There are some reasons why that turns out to be very useful and avoids
a lot of problems. Mostly what it does is that it forces the computer to
represent and understand it's own code well enough that it can make a
broader based analysis of decisions than it can with the traditional
source code idea, which forces it to have an incredibly narrow point of
view on it's own code in order to turn in into a linear representation.
Rebecca: So the computer can make variations on a theme.
Does this mean that it's actually being creative?
Jaron: Well, this is a whole interesting other diversion
because whenever a computer does something it can only be understood
according to your own psychological projections upon it. You can either
decide you're going to project autonomy onto it and treat it as doing
something, or you can or you can treat it as a tool that you're using.
Both points of view are functionally equivalent and cover exactly the
same actions and events. I prefer not to think of the computer as
autonomous because I feel that creates a more finite metaphor for how I
define myself and I find that that's a dangerous path to go down and leads
to nerdiness and blandness and silicon valley, but that's another story.
Rebecca: Tell us about your childhood influences, you
said this was one of the four inspirations for your work.
Jaron: Well, I think everyone as a small child has an
experience of a drastic contrast between their internal experience of
themselves and what they're able to share with other people. You might
have the same memory as I do, if you remember back to when you were a
little kid, of having this kind of infinite freedom of imagination and
optimism. As you get older, though, you discover something that can only
be described as God's greatest infliction of indignity on children. The
shocking truth is that the only world in which other people reliably
exist, particularly your parents, and the only world in which things like
food exist, is this physical world in which you're a pudgy little pink
weakling. (laughter) You struggle to accept it, it's very, very
hard, and the acceptance of that fact is more or less what adulthood
I think it's one of the two great limitations that we adjust to, the
other one being mortality. I think that the reason people get excited
about Virtual Reality, the reason why it's not just another gadget, is
because it does suggest a new way around the dichotomy between the
infinite interior imagination and the limited shared world with other
David: What is your definition of reality, and how do you
think it's created? In that context, what then is Virtual Reality?
Jaron: You'll be shocked to know that I don't have
definitive answers to all deep philosophical questions. (laughter)
I do have some thoughts on it, though. I'll start with one definition
which is a biological one. Reality is the global expectation of the
nervous system for the next moment. In other words, the most flexible
parts of the psyche and your body mold themselves to a rolling guess of
what will probably come next.
The continuous, cinematic-style experience of reality that we have is
an illusion created by our nervous systems. Our direct perception of this
world is actually highly flawed. For starters, the blind-spot is a great
example. Near the center of each of your eyes is this big, black hole
where you don't see anything, but you're never aware of it. Your mind
fills it in perfectly for itself, which it can do because it holds all the
cards. Even aside from that, what your eyes actually see is not what you
perceive them seeing. Your eyes see edges and boundaries and patterns and
they don't really see the picture that you see - that's constructed on a
running basis in your brain. They just physiologically do not pick up the
picture that you're seeing now.
Rebecca: And there are all those associations you have
developed throughout your life that get psychologically attached to what
Jaron: Yeah. Have you ever had the experience of looking
at something and for a moment it's just an abstraction and it's weird and
you don't quite get it, then you recognize it, then you can only see it in
the proper way, no matter how hard you try to see it `wrong' again?
Sometimes the top of a building in the distance will blend with the sky in
an impossible way. That sort of thing. That's an example of how every
level of your being works together to create your sense of reality. What a
computer person would call a `high-level' idea of recognizing objects like
building tops and understanding their functions and relationships helps
the supposedly very low level function of just interpreting colors and
edges and the visual scene.
So, what's happening is there's a sort of rolling effect... I hate to
use the word model and I'm trying to avoid using it because I don't really
think that your brain represents the outside world in any kind of codified
and consistent way. You don't even need to study the brain to decide that,
you can make philosophical arguments to show that that's an unlikely thing
to be going on.
But, I think on a sort of a more global level, your brain and your body
together are adapting themselves to the reality and that's also the
process that lets you perceive it. So there's this moment to moment
process where your expectations happen to match up with the apparent
consistency of the stimulation from your physical world, and those things
together are reality for you.
David: Isn't that a model?
Jaron: Yeah okay, it's a model, but it's not the usual
kind of model that can be represented as an abstraction. I don't want to
say the word model, because if I do then a bunch of academic philosophers
will write me nasty letters saying, "How dare you say that!?"
(laughter) And yet it's the closest thing you can say easily. Another
definition of reality has to do with the mysterious or sublime
stubbornness of things. There are a few things that are just intensely,
stubbornly there all the time.
David: Philip K. Dick once said that "reality is that
which doesn't go away when you stop believing in it."
Jaron: That's absolutely excellent. There are only a few
things that fall in that category - I think there are three. There's this
everyday, mundane physical world which seems awfully persistent, and the
fact that Marin hasn't made it disappear is good evidence that nobody
could. (laughter) And then there's the world of moods and essences
and artistic feelings and styles, and those things are intensely real to
me on a deep level; the sense of experience itself including the
differentiation of different experiences. The other stubborn item is that
mysterious thing called mathematics - it's just really stubbornly there.
David: And just a brief definition of mathematics in that
Jaron: Mathematics is an inevitable path you go down when
you start thinking about things in some way other than as an
undifferentiated whole - which is any kind of thinking, really.
David: So what is Virtual Reality?
Jaron: Virtual Reality is the use of technology to
generate the sensory experiences of people under human control. Virtual
Reality is the first thing since the physical world that fits into the
same niche between people of being what you call an `objective' reality.
David: Because it's consensual - more than one person
experiences it, and it doesn't go away when you stop believing in it.
Jaron: Right. And also because the neuro-physiological
strategies used to perceive, manipulate and learn about it are the same
that your body has evolved to use. So your experience of it is with the
natural language of your own body as opposed to your intelligence or
culture of perception.
David: How do you adjust then in Virtual Reality, when
you change the physical laws, and do things that you're not accustomed to
Jaron: If you deviate too far, Virtual Reality becomes
imperceptible, because it is too weird for the brain to recognize, but
there is a wide gray zone in which you can experience a radically
unnatural world. You can slow everything down, you can make your arm two
miles long relative to the rest of your body....
David: The brain is still using the same neuro-physiological
Jaron: Right. When you want to really create a surreal
experience in Virtual Reality you don't play with physics, you play with
your sensory motor-loop. For instance, one of my favorite ones is to trade
eyes with another person so that one person's head controls the other's
point of view and vice versa. So you have to a very intimate and trusting
approach to the other person - it's a remarkable experience of a shared
All of the great art that will happen in Virtual Reality I think is
going to be - I hate these words like `all' - playing with the very
intimate sensory motor-loop in that way. (As opposed to the current, early
trend of making weird external virtual environments.)
Another example of an extremely radical experience would be as follows:
It's possible to control a virtual body with more limbs than a physical
body. Ann Lasko, who was at VPL for a long time, made a lobster
body. Initially the extra limbs just kind of sat there. Typically it
showed up as a twelve foot tall big red lobster and it scared people.
(laughter) There are a few approaches to how to control the extra
limbs. A very interesting one is to take all of the movement data from all
over your body and to put it through some tricky algorithms so that you
have a function that relies a bit on all that global data to control just
one local joint on an extra limb. So maybe, even though your body doesn't
understand what this function, what this formula is, that's creating that
control, you can sort of learn it. And so, with relative freedom for each
of your physical body parts you can learn to control extra virtual body
parts, you can squeeze in an extra parameter.
David: Without being totally conscious of how you're
learning it? Is that what you're saying?
Jaron: The whole question of conscious versus unconscious
is a little misleading. The real question is whether your body learns it,
which could also be conscious. There's nothing necessarily inhibitive
about consciously understanding something that your body knows but it's a
different type of knowledge. So you can learn to control new limbs. This
was an enormous surprise to me, that people could learn to control limbs
that were differently proportioned, much less new ones - this is very
strange. You wouldn't expect this to be something people would adapt to
There's another interesting thing you can do. There's a field of study
of tactile illusions which are vital to the development of tactile
feedback in Virtual Reality. One of the illusions has to do with putting
buzzers or vibrators against the skin and creating phantom third buzzers
between them. It turns out that apparently the way the brain understands
that type of sensation is very nicely linear or metrical. So you can put a
buzzer on one hand and another on another hand and create a sensation
that's from an out-of-body point.
Now, if you match up the position of such a sensation with one of these
phantom visually existing limbs that you're controlling, all of a sudden
you have a new limb to your body that you can control and feel. I
just cite this example and the example of trading eyes as two of the types
of things you can do with playing at a deep level with the way you
perceive your own body and the world and how you interact. That to me is
the most fascinating area for aesthetic exploration of Virtual Reality.
Rebecca: What are some of the current applications of VR?
Most of us by now have heard of the virtual kitchens in Japan, what else
is going on?
Jaron: Well, at VPL we put together literally hundreds of
sites using Virtual Reality around the world, so it's really impossible to
summarize. Right now I'm excited about using it in medicine, particularly
Rebecca: What about applications in education?
Jaron: In education, wonderful things have happened both
in K-12 and in college, but there's not adequate funding because our
society doesn't make this a priority. We did a pilot class for fifth and
sixth graders using Virtual Reality systems at VPL and they would put
their dreams into VR and all sorts of stuff, it was great.
David: Put their dreams in it, what do you mean?
Jaron: They would come into class and build their dreams
as a virtual world. What else would you do? (laughter) Sharing
their dreams - they're good at that. The generation of kids growing up
with computers has an enormous facility and their kids will have an even
greater facility - we're really seeing a new type of literacy.
Rebecca: You've talked about VR as a tool for
communication and empathy. You've described exchanging eyes and growing
limbs, but how can VR help someone to really empathize, to understand
Jaron: How does anything help you with something like
that? I want to stress that I'm not claiming that this is any panacea. All
it is, is that our particular culture is completely in love with
technology and gadgetry, so this seems like it might be a slightly more
inspiring sort of pursuit than some others. In another culture in another
time, it might not have any value at all. So I'm not claiming it has any
intrinsic, universal value.
Rebecca: But you feel that perhaps it's greatest
potential is for communication and empathy?
Jaron: Absolutely. But I'm thinking in the very long
term. I'm not thinking about tomorrow but about generations hence. This
really hinges on the idea of post-symbolic communication. Some generations
from now, if we've survived as a species, which is not clear, there will
be many wonderful cheap VR setups around and there will be access points
everywhere and a generation of kids will grow up using tools with great
user-interfaces for inventing stuff in virtual worlds.
So, they're going to grow up differently from previous kids, because
aside from using symbols to refer to the things that they can't directly
create and do, they'll have this other way of just making up any imagined
stuff as objective sensory objects for each other. They'll develop a
facility for `reality conversations', or `intentional waking state, shared
dreaming', or co-dreaming. And that's what I call post-symbolic
David: I can understand that intuitively, but for some
reason I can't seem to quite grasp it rationally. (laughter)
Jaron: That's only evidence that it is a truly new thing.
Post-symbolic communication is genuinely hard to understand and it's
genuinely going to be a generational chasm. I can dream about it, but I'm
sure I don't really quite get it myself.
Rebecca: When you say `post-symbolic,' you're still
talking about the symbol-based language involved in basic visualization,
Jaron: No. Let's go back to symbols and childhood, okay?
Remember our child? That was the pudgy weakling that's very frustrated.
When you're a little kid, you find that there's only a very small part of
the world that you can control as fast as you think and feel. Your tongue
and your mouth move as fast as you think and feel, your hands do to a
certain extent as you grow older, and then the rest of your body comes
along. So your body is the part of the world that you can move and change
about as fast as you think and feel; the rest of the world you can't.
Now, symbols are simply a trick where you use the part of the world
that you can change easily to refer to all the other things that you can't
realize. So, for instance, you can compose a sentence out of symbols, like
I can say, "We're all antique lampshades that are sentient and we're
crawling up the back of a giant trilobite."
Now, it's not absolutely inconceivable that such a thing couldn't be
physically realized. You could have nano-technology experts change us into
lampshades, perhaps, and you could have genetic engineers breed giant
trilobites, but it would take centuries and billions of dollars. It's an
enormous project just to realize that one thing that I put together with a
So, that's the power of symbols, that they operate on this vast
time-scale without using resources. They're a trip, referring to the
things you can't do. Post-symbolic communication amounts to a
spontaneous way to create a sensual world between people without
requiring interpretive symbols - it's sort of like cutting out the
middle-man where you actually make stuff instead of just referring
There are a lot of non-verbal, partially non-symbolic attempts to
bridge this tragic interpersonal gap we've been stuck with, too. Like you
can make paintings, you can do architecture, but none of them quite get
there. They all approach it from one direction or another. Architecture's
a little like post-sym but it's way too slow. Paintings can be like that,
but they're not really interactive and from a sensory-motor point of view
they're not real, not what your body treats as reality. Fantasies are
solitary. Movies are kind of like that but they're not inclusive of the
perceiver. Music improvisation comes close, but it's all form, no content.
Each of the ways we've approached this problem in the past hits some
kind of big, monstrous disqualification but so far as I can tell Virtual
Reality just goes right on through and does it. So to talk about what will
this communication be like, it's really hard to imagine...
David: Well, if we were conducting this interview right
now in some kind of post-symbolic world, how would we be doing it?
Jaron: Well, the first thing to say is that the types of
things you'd communicate and your whole world view would start to shift,
and I think this would be in a very wonderful way. There are some things
that we say that you'd only say in a symbolic context, like puns.
Let me also just clarify that language isn't going to disappear.
There's actually a part of our cortex that's specialized to it, that's how
committed we've become to it. This is going to become a new, wonderful
adventure that grows up alongside the adventure of language,
increasing our sensitivity to language.
I know that abstraction doesn't need to exist for communication, which
is something that some linguists don't believe. For instance, if you need
to refer to a quality, you don't need qualities in Virtual Reality to
communicate, because you can have every single thing that's perceived
alike in some way in some giant planet that you can carry around. I mean
why not? Instead of saying something's red, just put everything that's red
in a planet and let someone look at it and perceive for themselves what
these things have in common. So that's an example of how the whole idea of
David: So it'll get more specific then?
Jaron: No. In language we have a notion of a quality like
redness or pudginess or something. In post-symbolic communication, why
bother with those things because there's no limitation. I can bring a jar
and inside it is big as a planet and has everything that I think is pudgy
in it and then the concept of pudgy becomes unneeded because you can look
at them all at once and get what's alike about them experientially.
Rebecca: You've mentioned only sensual
communication which is only one aspect of human reality. How would it be
possible to express feelings, e.g.. love, hate, greed, indignation,
ecstasy etc.... in Virtual Reality, without some kind of symbolic
Jaron: When we use symbols, like words, alone to refer to
our internal states, we are kidding ourselves. But the capacity of symbols
to smooth over differences has probably been vital as a social lubricant
and our survival thus far might have depended on it. Without our blanket
of little white lies we might have killed each other off. The capacity of
symbols to communicate a little bit of truth mixed in with a lot of
illusion is remarkable.
There is a critical non-symbolic component to intimate communication,
though. This stuff will flower in a post-symbolic context. The stuff I
mean is exactly what's absent in an email-only romance.
If you're talking about communicating internal states, then the poetry
of gesture spiced with a little experiential metaphor might be the truest
expression. A metaphor is different from a symbol because the choice of a
symbol is arbitrary; it is only a pointer.
Post-symbolic communication is the ultimate playground for metaphor.
You might experientially meld the moment's activities with childhood
memories and mythical events.
If, on the other hand, what you're talking about is the categorization
of human behavior, then a planet/jar can hold the truth behind the
What's left between these two? The characterization of people in their
essence is a dangerous business, and the difficulty of doing this in
post-sym is actually, I think, evidence of its value.
Rebecca: How could definitions be agreed upon unless the
person already knew me? Someone else might see my planet of beautiful
things as ugly. How do I get my concept of beauty across?
Jaron: Just like you do in language, through ongoing
experience and feedback. You each add things to the planet, and if there
is coherence, you have reached each other to a far greater degree than you
could with the use of words. The difference, really, is that words let you
keep the illusion of commonality longer when it is not present. Anyway,
beauty's just a judgment. That's less important than finding that you
groove on the same jar with someone, or with everyone. Once you're used to
post-sym, the judgment that the jar means `beautiful' fades away as a
symbolic hold-over. You see, what I'm getting at is that symbols require a
sort of characterization and judgment of things that might turn out to be
Rebecca: I'm still grappling with this. You talked of
expressing pudginess, but what about boredom or surprise etc...? if I
listed all the things that surprised me to express that I had been taken
by surprise, for example, not only would it take forever, but the person I
was communicating with would be dumbfounded as to what I was trying to get
Jaron: How do you teach a kid the meaning of the word
`surprise' in the first place? Symbols are actually not primary, though
they do take off on their own and stake out a territory in which they seem
to be indispensable. But what is hardest to understand is what fluency
would be like in post-sym. It might take a long time to express that
moment that you'd now simplify into `surprise', but it might be worth it,
a kind of gourmet communication. Or the post-symmers might become so
fluent that they'll do it fast. I don't know.
Rebecca: Isn't it more likely that there would be some
kind of compromise between post-symbolism and language where some kind of
symbolism is used when things fail?
Jaron: Ha! It is more likely that you'd have to resort to
some VR when words fail, which they often do. But truly, I think that the
relationship between symbols and post-sym in the long term future will be
a little like the relationship between language and music now. You have
language-free music, you have music-free language, and then you have all
the gradations between, like the various kinds of song, from senseless
Irish `mouth music', which uses words without meaning, to rap, which
supplants melody with prose. So sure, there'll be marvelous shades of
gray, but the pure stuff is the most intriguing to contemplate from this
Rebecca: So you're saying that you won't need
descriptions of the world because you would be experiencing things
Jaron: Let me give you a couple of examples that can help
demonstrate this. The simplest example is when you travel to a foreign
country and don't speak a word of the language and still get by. You get
by through projecting emotion and miming and all kinds of things. This is
the same thing, the only difference is that in that case you can't do very
much. You can point to a banana but you can't suddenly create whole
worlds. But that's the basic idea, except that you could make the world
into anything at any time, with spontaneity, if not spontaneously.
David: When you're in a pre-symbolic stage of development
and you experience something, some overwhelming burst of color and
pattern, and then someone lays a symbol on it, all of a sudden it
condenses all that down. Are you saying that post-symbolic communication
can unravel that?
Jaron: I'm not proposing that the purpose of
post-symbolic communication is to experience the world as undivided
sensation, where everything is completely non-contextual and meaningless.
Things would have context and there would be clarity of reference and
clarity of intent but it would be created through the direct interaction
between people rather than through an abstraction held separately from
David: It may not be an English language abstraction but
it would still be a mathematical code abstraction.
Jaron: No it's not. Let me give you another example. This
is subtle stuff and if you want to cause a stampede among linguists this
is the stuff to bring up. (laughter) I want to stress; I'm not
making any judgment against language at all, it's just that mankind needs
big, long-scale adventures.
It's kind of like if you have kids locked up in a house, they're going
to need something to do - so on this planet we need something to do.
That's the justification for it, and it's the only one that makes any
sense. So, it's an adventure, that's the reason for it. Let me address the
issue of whether the perception of things requires symbolizing or not.
When you have a lucid dream, you are able to control the dream, and the
question is, what is the language which you use to tell your dream how to
David: What is the language? Well, it's something to do
with will and intention.
Jaron: But do you actually have to go through concepts,
go through words to change your dream?
David: I'm not really sure. I'm thinking it through in
English I guess.
Jaron: Yeah, but how do you actually change the dream?
What's the interface to your dreaming self? Do you put in a request, I'd
like a fantasy with a red balloon, or do you just sort of feel the world
as it would be and it gets that way.
Rebecca: But you have to isolate from all the
possibilities, where you want the dream to go. I think I use language to
do that, at least I've thought about things I want to do and I've found
myself doing them. But perhaps that didn't make it happen because there
was something else involved like will, whether the thought pre-dated the
will or not, I'm not sure.
Jaron: The process the mind follows in using symbols
might not be so linear as to provide an answer. It's very mysterious and
these are deep, difficult problems. I don't claim to have all the answers,
but it seems to me that we are able to both apprehend the world and
imagine it changed without having to symbolize it. I think dreams are
created directly out of the stuff of experience, not out of
platonic forms, and I
think we will eventually communicate with the same kind of continuity,
instead of a vocabulary.
Rebecca: How would you effect changes in the world in
Virtual Reality in order to post-symbolically communicate?
Jaron: This is the most important practical question. I
think the way people will change the world in order to accomplish
post-symbolic communication is not through some kind of psychic hook-up
but rather through craftsmanship, through using tools with their bodies.
The mind without the body isn't smart enough to do it. I imagine the tools
being a lot like musical instruments that you can learn to use
intuitively, that would spin out changes to the world very quickly with
David: Didn't you say that one of the most exciting
things about Virtual Reality is that it helps to blur the distinction
between imagination and reality?
Jaron: No, what it does is, it creates a new objective
reality between people that is more quickly malleable than the physical
In fact, VR will probably have a clarifying effect on the boundaries of
imagination. In our everyday physical lives, there's a very confusing
division between the internal and external worlds. In Virtual Reality
however, there is much more of a sharp division between what is
objectively created and what is subjectively perceived, because the
external world is exactly defined by computer software.
Now, there are some things about Virtual Reality that are not perfect.
Once again, I don't want to shock you. (laughter) Virtual Reality
will always be of a lower quality than the physical world.
After the next few early decades of development, the veracity of
Virtual Reality will not depend on how good the technology becomes, but
rather on how good we become at perceiving the difference between it and
nature. A good precedent for this is the way stereophiles can compare a
$50,000 pair of speakers to a $70,000 pair of speakers and hear a
difference. But they also can hear a difference between that and natural
So here you have a whole aesthetic of creating ever-better speakers,
but it never ends because we're also increasing our own sensitivity to
sound. Sensitivity is sort of a global or systemic property of perception,
it's not a simple, measurable parameter that can be maxed out. I think it
goes on forever and that you can achieve entirely new, unforeseen
strategies of sensitivity that cannot be predicted. Good media
technologies make us more sensitive to nature by providing a basis for
comparison. That should be treated as one of their best gifts.
David: But if you can directly interface with the senses
how would the brain be able to differentiate?
Jaron: Your brain is so flexible that it's a moving
target. There's no such thing as a final model of the brain and what it
does because brains are changing and moving all the time. You learn your
own sense organs better as you grow and age. A musician is changing their
hearing, changing their hands, changing the way they see throughout their
David: How is it that if you're in direct control of all
the sensory signals entering the body, why are the signals coming from
this reality any more specific or more precise and defined than something
you can generate from a computer?
Jaron: One of the properties of the physical world is
that it's infinitely mysterious and I mean that as a sort of precise
definition. (laughter) In science there's never absolute truth,
only theories that are waiting to be disproven. We can never know that we
have come to the end of understanding ourselves or the way we appreciate
David: I completely understand that, but why wouldn't
anything we create inside this infinitely mysterious universe have those
qualities as well?
Jaron: I think inside Virtual Reality there will be a new
type of infinite mysteriousness, but it's different from the infinite
mysteriousness of the physical world. In the future, when there are a lot
of people using Virtual Reality at once, the intersection of all those
different reality conversations playing on each other and over-flowing
will become a massive wilderness with something of a Jungian nature.
Rebecca: So, you're saying that as this primary world is what we are
trying to simulate, then that situation demands that the virtual world be
inferior in terms of it's precise correlation to this world.
Jaron: One of the things about Virtual Reality is that even though our
creation of objects can be accomplished through our spontaneous
craftsmanship in using these interfaces of the future - which I imagine to
be great musical instrument-like things that spin out all the properties
of reality - everything that a Virtual Reality system does has to be
represented on a computer, which limits it's mysteriousness.
That's because computer programs have to be made out of our ideas to
start with, as opposed to that mysterious nature stuff, which we analyze
after the fact with successive approximation. We're "drinking our own
whiskey", so to speak, when we interact with artificial things. Even if
they are "out of control", as in the artificial life ideal, where we've
let our whiskey ferment. Our sensitivity to the difference between a
possibly very great level of sensual mysteriousness in VR versus the
infinite level that the physical world presents will never disappear. To
say that it will is the same thing as saying that science can be perfected
to absolute completion.
Rebecca: Do you think that Virtual Reality might help people to lower
their inhibitions as they find they are freed up from the conventional
styles of communication?
Jaron: I'm arguing that this is a great adventure, I'm not arguing that
it's going to make people better. I think it has a potential to make
people better but not because of anything specific about it, just simply
because it is an adventure. Whatever increase in empathy and maturity
might happen that might be partially inspired by VR would only rely on the
technology as a fetish object. We're talking about the same old, internal
growth which is very hard and with which we all struggle.
Rebecca: Technology also enables us to de-sensitize and de-sanctify the
world. If you can create virtual environments with virtual trees, and
bring back extinct animals, you can end up having less reverence for the
world outside. Why would you care about the environment and other people
when you can just plug them in?
Jaron: There's a bunch of reasons.(laughter) One thing about Virtual
Reality which I found to be true for almost everyone who uses it, is that
when you leave it you get this thrill of seeing the physical world again.
Actually, one of the patterns of use that I've noticed with people is that
they tend to want to build up some time in VR so that they can experience
that thrill of the transition back to the physical world.
You have such an increased sensitivity to detail when you come out,
it's like your sense organs have been widened. The first time I came out
of Virtual Reality I noticed the rainbows and the individual threads in
the weave of the carpet for the first time. So it actually increases
sensitivity rather than decreases it.
Rebecca: Because of it's limitations, that would seem.
Jaron: That's exactly right, and as I pointed out, that would continue
always. It's very easy to confuse Virtual Reality with television or
movies because that's the media technology we're used to. In those you sit
there and your sense organs are filled with sensation even though your
body isn't doing anything and has no opportunity to affect experience.
That's a very unnatural mode of perception. The natural mode of perception
is entirely interactive and very physical.
So, by having this sort of artificial source of sensation without
action, you turn your body into a zombie, and that's why kids sometimes
look like zombies when they're watching TV. Virtual Reality is entirely
different. The very thing that makes it come alive and what makes it seem
real is its interactivity and by the same token, if you're not physically
active inside Virtual Reality it becomes suddenly unreal and it's magic
pops away. What that means is that you get tired after using it for a
while. It corresponds a lot more to riding a bike than to watching TV.
Another thing about it is that any particular form of a virtual object
at a given moment can become rather dull and uninteresting because they're
all so easily available and so easy to change. Therefore, they become less
real and less valued and the things that become noticeable and real are
the personality of other people and the spontaneous interaction with them
and the movement and the flow of change and creativity.
A long time ago one of my catch-phrases was "creativity is the money of
Virtual Reality" because it's the only thing that can possibly be in short
supply. But it's really not just creativity per se, it's interaction with
other people's personalities and their presence. Other people feel very
real in Virtual Reality, because they are. Since a person can take on any
form, a person viewed from the outside looks like a wave of creative
change with a distinctive personality.
It's kind of like the telephone in a sense, where you only hear the
voice but the gesture, the body music, is also preserved so you have this
real sense of physical presence with them. So real people are truly the
life of the party in Virtual Reality. There might be somewhat amusing fake
people at some point in the future, but our sensitivity to the difference
between fake people and real people will increase well ahead of the
technology. I think that individuality, creativity, sensitivity, the
quirks of personality, individual style - these things are going to be
really highlighted and very highly valued.
Rebecca: That sounds nice, but I'm wondering who's going to end up
controlling this technology. Media entertainment systems, video games and
to a lesser extent TV have been co-opted by military or otherwise violent
themes. Why would VR be any different?
Jaron: In the short term, it's not necessarily going to be different.
There's already been stuff like that and it's very disappointing, but you
have to think in a longer term. Marshall McLuhan was right. The structure
of media tends to become the effective content, so the content of these
things is determined by what they are and also the way they're sold.
The reason why you have military games is because if you're paying to
have an interactive experience, the only way to get it to end, so that you
have to pay more, is either to have THE END flash in front of you or to
have something kill you. Of the two, having something kill you has been
more accepted by the users, because having THE END suddenly appear seems
to crush their autonomy. I'm aware of only one solution to that problem
which is to have live guides who kind of run the show and herd people on
to get them to end on time. That's the approach that we're using at the
Virtual Reality theater project that I'm involved in. Of course the nicest
solution would be to let people interact as long as they want, but that is
not economically compatible with site-based entertainment.
So some of these things are just structural. I have no doubt that
there'll be a great deal of ugly, schmaltzy, crappy Virtual Reality along
the way, but I do believe that the dream is worth believing in, and it's
certainly necessary to replace television with something better, if we are
to imagine a world where we survive.
Rebecca: Except for a few fortunate individuals, corporations are going
to pretty much monopolize this technology. How much freedom will there be
for autonomy in Virtual Reality programming? Will people have to be
content to buy another person's dream?
Jaron: That's the single most important question about the future of
Virtual Reality. Obviously, the way I want it is for everybody to be able
to make their own world all the time. I'd like that to be so standard that
it's spontaneously happening at conversational and improvisatory speeds
all the time. That's the future I want to see but it won't be there right
Rebecca: Do we have the technology now for this to be possible?
Jaron: That's more of a cultural question than a technological one. On
the one hand there's the evolution of wonderful user-interfaces for
creating content of worlds quickly, and on the other hand there's the
social phenomenon of a generation of kids growing up using that with
fluidity and expertise. Both of those things have to happen, and it'll
take a while. The shortest time I can imagine is maybe three or four
David: What potential dangers do you see in terms of government
regulation of VR?
Jaron: That's so complex. Right now I'm pretty optimistic. Right now
the government is playing an active role in peace conversion and the
military is interested in it and all the defense contractors are
interested in it. There's kind of an alignment of interests between people
who are concerned about trying to disarm the world and people concerned
about America being competitive in the world economy. That's a very
fortuitous alignment of interests at this particular time when it's so
critical. But of course, as circumstances change, that alignment could
Rebecca: Do you see censorship being a consideration in VR?
Jaron: Virtual Reality as a solitary experience is not that
interesting, it's as a shared group experience that it becomes fun. So
it's primary mode of use will be over the advanced phone-lines of the
future. One of the interesting things about the telephone is that it's the
most moral of media technologies in that the companies that make the most
money from it do so by simply shipping content around rather than by
affecting the content. And the content is so vast that it's completely
untrackable, it's like a huge jungle. I'm sure Virtual Reality will be the
same way, it will be effectively unregulatable and money will be made by
connecting people together because the content will be too easy to create
and too voluminous to control.
Rebecca: Why do you think it is that American industry is so slow in
responding to potential innovative technology, while the Japanese end up
marketing so many US inventions like VCR's and HR TV, semi-conductors and
probably soon, nano-technology?
Jaron: There're a few reasons for that. One of the reasons has to do
with it being too easy to make money in the United States through scams.
The way an economy works is, it's like an ecology.
Especially during the Reagan years, in a climate of decreased
regulation, there were so many ways to make money from scams, like the
savings and loans or the junk bonds or the acquisitions that were phony;
it goes on and on. There were endless weird ideas that people came up with
for making money that were non-productive. When you can make better money
through doing something that's non-productive, it's lower risk because
it's just a scheme. You don't have to worry about whether people want to
buy a product or something like that, and it sucks up all the investment
money away from the productive means of making money. During the critical
Reagan years, the Japanese started manufacturing everything, and we gave
up a bunch of industries because, I believe, our investment capital was
seduced away by scams.
Also, our corporations are not really American corporations, they're
sort of world corporations. When you're in Japan, what's really striking
about the Japanese is that they have a remarkably coherent sense of who
they are and what their self-interest is. It fits into this nice little
hierarchy. There's the Japanese country made of Japanese people who are in
a group of Japanese companies in Japanese cities, and it all sort of lines
up. In America none of those things line up, so the sense of what
self-interest is is completely confused.
I think that power is more or less the same thing as a clarity of
self-interest. When people have an unchallenged sense of what
self-interest is, it's pretty easy to go for it, but it's when life
becomes complicated - through self-searching or through a confusion of
circumstances - that people lose power. The diffusion of national powers
might be a trend and might be a good thing, by the way, as long as it
isn't replaced by something worse.
Part of it should justifiably be called corruption because a lot of
American officials were working with the Japanese promoting their case
during the Reagan years. When the history is written of the Reagan years,
they're not going to be seen as patriotic at all; they're going to be seen
Rebecca: Hasn't part of the problem been that the Republican attitude
to business is very hands-off and is shy of investment, whereas in Japan
they're into consortiums between government and business?
Jaron: It's not so simple. For instance in American agriculture, the
Republican agenda is very hands on.
Rebecca: That's true, but in agriculture you know what you're getting
into, there's not such a risk involved as opposed to investing in a new
technology where you're not going to get the dividends back for possibly
many years. Isn't there something about America's habit of demanding
instant gratification that keeps it from progressing in this area?
Jaron: There's definitely some truth to that. I'm tempted to blame
television again for ruining the attention-span of the people who became
captains of industry in the United State. (laughter)
If you look at what happened with American and Japanese trade in the
Reagan years, it's a little bit like a repeat of what we claim we did with
the Indians - trading beads for Manhattan. They traded us trinkets in the
form of disposables, like tape-recorders and cars, in exchange for hard
goods like real estate and just plain old money. That's a pretty
We're hopelessly in love with gadgetry, and when you know what your
enemy's in love with you have quite an advantage. That brings us back to
why Virtual Reality is valuable. I have a great deal of sympathy for
people who advocate a lessened use of technology in the future, but it's
not realistic because we're just in love with it.
Rebecca: That reminds me of when Bill Moyers asked Ronald Reagan what
his answer to poverty was and he waxed poetic about some guy who had
invented a magnetic soda-can handle. (laughter)
Jaron: The whole American dream is based on a mutual social contract to
maintain a class system that you can switch roles in, with luck. That's
why we're so cruel to our poor, because everybody wants to make a clear
distinction between the rich and the poor so that their own fantasy of
becoming rich has that much more meaning. See, you invalidate the whole
motivation and the dreams of everyone if you take care of the poor -
that's why we treat them so much worse than other industrialized
Rebecca: We touched briefly on some of the applications of VR. What are
some of the possibilities which excite you?
Jaron: Well, education is one of them. Our species evolved in nature,
and our learning was very much keyed to an environmental or social
situation. If you look at the types of stimuli that create the most
recall, they are probably; other people - seeing a friend you haven't seen
in a long time and collectively recalling things - smells are also very
important, and then environments. Environment is the only one of those
that you can really package, using VR.
It's really striking to me that children are expected to learn a
variety of things but always in the same environment, with the same social
group, with the same smells and the same stimulus. You have this
incredible drudgery in which you're supposed to retain variety of memory
and learning. It's completely absurd. Your memory of school just grinds
and collapses into the memory of one room, and that's counter to the
natural way of learning new things. So, one can imagine creating a virtual
world for the express purpose of making a memorable place in which you
learn something new.
So let's use dinosaurs as an example. You can simulate the old forest
and have these big dinosaurs tromping around, but then you can do a
wonderful thing which is, the kids can become the dinosaur, they can
become the thing they're studying and achieve identity with it. They can
become molecules like DNA, or mathematical shapes, it goes on and on. And
of course, kids are interested in themselves - they're egotistical little
buggers, so it's a very effective way of learning something.
Unfortunately, I don't think this society has a commitment to spend any
money on education. I've talked to schools a lot about this and there are
very few that can afford this. Many in the country today can't even afford
a new basket-ball hoop. It'll happen eventually, but it might not happen
very well at first. I'll tell you a scary story.
In the mid-eighties I was very involved with trying to get Virtual
Reality or just quality computer tools into classrooms. I talked with some
of the largest corporations in the United States and their image of the
future of technology in education was truly chilling.
They said, okay, let's look at undeniable demographics which predict
that in the future there's going to be a tremendous shortage of teachers
and of public funds for schools and there's really going to be a
two-tiered school system, inevitably. We can sell all the fancy things we
want to the good schools, but they'll be so small in number that their
market is limited so there won't be a whole lot for them.
The vast number of schools are going to be these other types which
won't have real teachers but teaching technicians or something. Our
customer is not the child or the parent or the teacher but the state
budget. It's going to the governor and saying, "Hey look, we can sell you
this computer which will reduce the cost of your schools." "Great, send
them in, it'll help our deficit." The inevitable trend of demographics,
resources, and so forth indicate that this is a permanent situation. They
had these school automation systems that I thought were horrendous. They
had one image of kids in these cubicles interacting with computers. It was
clearly a security oriented thing, so that the kids couldn't hit each
other and they could be monitored easily, and there was minimal human
contact because they couldn't afford it. It was also notable that the kids
were all minorities.
David: It's reminiscent of the industrial age.
Jaron: Yeah, it is like a retreat to the nineteenth century. It's a
difficult situation. Then there's another player, which is the companies
like Apple and Microsoft, who are creating a software infrastructure. This
particular historical moment is immensely important because we're really
creating the very fabric of ideas in which our own culture will be
represented for a long time into the future.
There's another possibility, which is, if people do get good at
improvising reality, they might get good at improvising the insides of
computers again and just undo everything that Microsoft has done when they
get skilled enough. I'm not saying that what Microsoft is doing is bad -
in fact I think a lot of it's probably quite good - but the point is that
there's this codification of how we represent our culture that's going on
right now in order to computerize it, which is extraordinary. This is
something fundamentally new, and really scary, to me.
David: Tell us something about VR's potential for handicapped or
physically challenged people.
Jaron: There are many approaches because there are so many types of
disabilities. It's something I've been very active in, in fact in the next
month I'm going to three different conferences on that topic. Cal State
Northridge, near Los Angeles, had a wonderful conference on Virtual
Reality for people with disabilities. We actually brought a VR system
there, and during the conference we were building custom worlds for people
to try things out.
There was a woman who had very limited hand mobility and Chuck
Blanchard created a virtual hand for her. She had a glove on her physical
hand which amplified her hand movements so that she was able to learn to
use it and pick up virtual things in a way she could never pick up
I did a juggling teaching demo a long time ago. If you juggle virtual
balls you can sort of simulate the experience of juggling. You don't feel
the balls hit your hand as much with the current types of gloves but you
can still approximate the experience. Let's suppose you decide to make the
balls move slow but keep your hands moving at the natural speed. So now
you have lots of time to get your hand under the balls. That by itself is
just a cheat, but what's really interesting is that you can slowly speed
up the balls, and have a gradual approach to learning a physical skill
that previously required a leap. If someone's recovering from a stroke,
maybe this could give them some learning feedback earlier than they would
get otherwise. So there's a whole range of learning uses.
There are some special things for blind and deaf people. For the deaf
you can use gloves to synthesize sign language and for the blind there's
this three-dimensional sound capability of Virtual Reality. It potentially
gives the blind a portable spatial display, so that they're not left out
of this age of spatial interfaces for computers. It goes on and on.
Rebecca: Do you see VR as being a turning point in humanity's
relationship with the machine?
Jaron: Well, it is in a number of ways. First of all, it defines our
agenda with machines as being primarily cultural and sensual as opposed to
power oriented. For a long time we've had an agenda for doing science and
technology which can be stated very simply as, "Make us more powerful,"
ultimately to conquer death or something like that. But you have to
remember that in the context of when scientific method was born, coming
out of the renaissance, we're dealing with a whole continent of people
living in disease and shit and misery.
So the desire to be able to control the physical world was very
reasonable. We've reached a remarkable moment now that, with the exception
of medicine and natural disasters, every other area of science and
technological development is unneeded.(laughter) The reason for that is
that with the exception of diseases and natural disasters, all of our
other problems are created by our own behavior.
So, if you're working in medicine or natural disasters, you're still on
that front, fighting nature and trying to get control of something that's
important to us. Anything else, you cannot justify objectively any more,
it has to be justified culturally as if it were a work of art. Anyone who
doesn't see that is not really thinking rationally.
We can't stop making technology, because we're in love with it, so what
we have to do is shift to a cultural way of choosing our technologies and
justifying them. Virtual Reality is an interesting technology. It's
something that's being taken very seriously, but everybody recognizes that
it's justification is fundamentally cultural. To me, that's a marvelous
shift, it's very positive.
Another aspect of Virtual Reality is that it's sensual, it's embodied.
There's this terrible danger in the use of information technology of
making the world seem more abstract and becoming blind and nerdy as I
mentioned before. Virtual Reality really places the body at the center,
and I think that's also a wonderful development. Then of course, there's
the dream of post-symbolic communication that we talked about before.
David: Speaking of the sensuality of VR, what about the possibilities
for virtual sex, which Howard Rheingold termed `teledildonics.' A lot of
people are very hungry for this kind of technology and it's potential for
Jaron: Howard blames Ted Nelson for the term. The problem I have with
people who talk about Virtual Reality sex is that there's an implication
about what sex is in the way the question is asked, that I think is really
bad. The implication is that sex is a media experience as opposed to being
a mystical communication between people.
David: That's a very blurry distinction.
Jaron: No, I don't think so. The very question implies that the reason
that you're with a real person when you have sex as opposed to pornography
is because the media quality of pornography isn't as good yet. That
implication for what sex is, I think is preposterous because that makes
sex into this really meaningless thing which I think even horny young guys
will eventually not find any pleasure in because it turns it into nothing
but information. (laughter)
David: Right, but virtual sex is a communication medium, and biological
sex is nothing but the exchange of sensory and chemical information.
Jaron: Okay. I was giving a talk at UC Santa Cruz and there were two
questions, both about virtual sex, that to me sounded completely
different. One question was this guy coming up and saying, "Er, could I
experience making love to Marilyn Monroe?" I tortured that person. They
will never ask another question at a seminar again, they are permanently
stunted for life now. (laughter)
Then the other one was a person who asked, "Could me and my lover
become octopi?" and that, I thought, was a very attractive question. So,
these are two different attitudes towards it and they have completely
different sub-texts underneath the question about what they think sex is.
It's not that I'm opposed to the concept of virtual reality sex per se,
but the way the question is asked usually is really abhorrent to me and I
feel like I'm immediately at war with it because it implies a very limited
idea of what sex is.
Rebecca: But it is the prevalent idea as you say, and the combination
of sex and technology is a huge industry.
Jaron: Sure. When copiers first spread, what a lot of people did was to
copy their privates, that was a big thing for a while. Now nobody thinks
about it any more because it just seems stupid, and you have the same
thing going on with 900 numbers now.
David: Right, but telephones have been around a lot longer than Xerox
machines (which by the way, aren't interactive), and the 900 phenomena
doesn't appear to be a passing fad. The interesting thing about phone-sex
is that it's the first time that we have come close to being able to enjoy
non-localized sex, so that people on different parts of the globe can
engage in imaginative, erotic exchanges. Don't you think that Virtual
Reality will open up more dimensions as a medium to explore that type of
Jaron: If you're talking about using Virtual Reality for sex, there are
a few critical questions here. Are you inventing your own body? Are you
making it up? The question about octopi is interesting because there's a
playfulness there, it's kind of like flirting or being at a masked ball.
But suppose you have somebody who gets excited about an experience
that's not like that, where the co-creative experience with the other
person isn't at the center, but they're interacting with a simulated
partner. They're essentially becoming sexually excited about something
which is abstract and also very malleable. What is sex as opposed to what
is not sex? Sex is one of the most interesting concepts because it refers
to so much and so little.
The fact that two people can communicate is a fundamentally mysterious
thing, it's not understood. You can go out and buy books that try and
explain how two people communicate and you will see very clearly that the
authors do not know. It's philosophically mysterious, it's scientifically
mysterious, it's an area of totally wild unknown. There's not even a
beginning of a possible explanation for it.
I think one of the greatest intellectual sins that we've committed is
that we've somehow created this world view that we don't live surrounded
by mystery. This is something which is abhorrent to a real scientist and
to a real artist. Science is based on mystery and on not really trusting
your theories thus far, but having them always subject to change, right?
Jaron: See, technology has been successful enough, that we treat it
like a comfortable net that will always catch us. So sex is one such
communication - it's a mysterious, mystical unexplained thing. To the
degree that you pretend that media technology can capture it or explain
it, you've just extinguished your own experience of life.
Rebecca: Earlier you were talking about how Virtual Reality gave you an
extra appreciation of your senses. In the same way, couldn't VR open
people up to the dimensions of sex they haven't yet explored and give them
a sense of what they've been missing?
Jaron: Anything can happen. But the key is to keep in touch with that
fundamental mysteriousness. I think anybody who "understands" sex has just
lost it. Virtual Reality sex implies a non-mysteriousness to the contact,
and that's the fundamental problem.
David: Why does it imply that?
Jaron: Because it implies that you can capture it as sensory
information and pipe it around. I think you can have authentic
communication which would include sex over media, I'm not saying that
that's impossible, all I'm saying is that it's a question of intention.
Rebecca: What kind of relationship, if any, do you see between nano-technology
Jaron: You might be able to make some pretty good computers with nano-technology,
but you might be able to make some equally good computers using other
techniques. The first thing about nano-technology you have to understand,
is that it's not going to happen quite as fast Eric Drexler says. Just
because you have the ability to move atoms around, doesn't mean you really
know how to program them. It takes a while to figure this stuff out. Also,
a lot of the vision depends on computers becoming smart enough to program
themselves; having a sky-hook thing where suddenly by making a computer
big enough and fast enough, the machine automatically figures out how to
do a lot of stuff.
The idea is that you have this qualitative difference, that makes
computers `smart', that comes about automatically with a quantitative
difference, but there's no way to know that that will happen. So, I'm sort
of in an in-between campus compared to those people who think that the
nano-tech guys are ridiculously over-optimistic and the people who are
sure the world's about the pop into a completely different state.
Rebecca: Do you see it as a big a leap as Virtual Reality?
Jaron: Potentially it's an enormous leap, of course. What's interesting
about Eric Drexler's writings is that he's keyed into the same thing which
comes out of the frustrations of early childhood. What if the world could
be whatever you wanted? And what an extraordinarily different landscape
that opens up.
To me, the key to the future of science and technology is not just
increasing power, but coming up with large-scale cultural adventures that
can last forever. That's why the post-symbolic idea is really more
important than anything specific about Virtual Reality or nano-technology,
because that's really where the action is. I mean, one way or another
we're going to live in a fluid universe.(laughter)
My only comment might be that there might be an ethics in the future
where you would choose the mode of experience that effects other people as
little as possible. In that sense, there might be a lot of situations
where Virtual Reality would be considered a more moral way of attaining
some types of experiences than actually changing the physical world, which
inevitably will have side-effects since there's only one of those physical
worlds, so far as we know.
Rebecca: VR could be a way to experiment with some possibilities
without having to commit to them.
Jaron: VR's a way to experiment with anything that involves human
experience, but if you want to learn about the objective world of nature
using VR instead of physical experiments, that's limited by how good your
Rebecca: But you can experiment with what it would be like to have
Jaron: That's true.(laughter) One of my cohorts over the years is a guy
name Joe Rosen. He had a project for a long time called the `nerve-chip.'
This was a prosthetic nerve made of a computer chip with holes burned in
it by a laser that a severed nerve bundle would grow through so that you
could remap the nerve connections during the healing process. Nerve
bundles heal together with the wrong nerve connections, as things stand.
He's a reconstructive plastic surgeon and he often talked about how you
have some extra things in your body. There's a couple of extra muscles and
tendons that are used in reconstructive surgery and there are even extra
peripheral nerve bundles that don't go anywhere and are just vestigial
He would say, "Why don't we just take some of that with plastic surgery
and just build a tail?" It would seem on the face of it possible. Since
many of my students have been radically pierced, I'm imagining the next
generation will be building new physical appendages in order to annoy
their parents. (laughter)
I also told them that their kids would probably put very powerful,
microscopic video projectors into their zits and project bizarre
animations on the wall as they walk by. See, this generation has sixties
parents, that's why they're into piercing, because what are they going to
do, get drunk and go to rock `n roll concerts and have sex? The parents
will just say go ahead. So the next generation is really going to have to
go all out.(laughter)
Rebecca: Do you see VR becoming as commonplace as television?
Jaron: Yeah, sure.
Rebecca: What abuses do you foresee if this were to happen?
Jaron: VR is a very powerful communication medium just like books, so
if you want to understand the abuses, just look at the abuses of other
communication mediums like books or telephones. It's different from
television, in that it's not a broadcast medium. But in one-to-one type
communication media especially, such as talking or using telephones, you
can find precedents for all the types of abuses that might come up. You
have the person who can yell "Fire!" in a crowded room, you have Mein
When you're involved in creating a new media technology there's a kind
of faith you have that you're empowering mankind in a certain way to
communicate with themselves better. There's a faith that there's a
goodness and a sweetness in people in the broad picture. It's a kind of
optimism, and I believe it's justified. I believe that history has shown a
gradual improvement in our conduct. But certainly there will be many bad
things that will happen.
David: In terms of your reaction to the Wall Street Journal calling
your work, "electronic LSD," I've gotten the impression that you don't
think the multiple-reality perception that a psychedelic generates is a
very good metaphor for understanding VR. Certainly a lot of philosophers
like Timothy Leary and Terence McKenna have often drawn the analogy. Do
you think that long-term exposure to VR could have similar effects to the
long-term effects of psychedelic drugs?
Jaron: There are very few people who've actually used high-quality VR
systems a lot and I'm not aware of anybody who's very experienced at both
the use of psychedelics and VR. I've never taken psychedelic drugs. I'm
stubborn, you know. Tim and Terence have had some VR experiences, but not
a whole lot. So there's a degree to which we talk about each other's
experiences but we don't really know, so in a certain way it becomes
nonsense. I can say a little bit, though. One is, Virtual Reality doesn't
involve a sudden change of state of consciousness. It might involve a
gradual one or an eventual one, but in terms of the state of consciousness
from being in a normal waking state to going into Virtual Reality, it's
There's little things like that increase in sensitivity I talked about,
but it's not anything like what you'd associate with a psychedelic drug. A
drug, because it's operating directly on your brain, is changing your
subjective perception, whereas Virtual Reality only happens outside your
sense organs, so it only directly addresses what you objectively perceive.
Your subjective style of experience changes, of course, in response to
circumstances, but a lot more slowly and gradually, just as it does if you
go on a vacation or something.
David: You could actually create a drug that would come on very slowly
though, and the external world can have a psycho-active effect on us. The
line between internal and external isn't clearly defined.
Jaron: The word I love to use to describe the VR user's mindset is
craftsmanlike. Virtual Reality doesn't happen to you. If you `space out'
in a Virtual Reality situation the medium literally disappears, because
it's the interactivity that makes it real. The visuals are crummy
compared, even, to TV- it's not a great sensory medium in terms of
conveying passive images. VR feels more real than TV, but looks less
realistic. There will always be a passive visual medium that is higher in
quality than the interactive ones.
David: A psychedelic experience is a very interactive one, though. What
you do and how you respond, what your intention is, all effect what the
experience is like.
Jaron: You're really going to wrestle me to the ground on this one.
(laughter) I think that's probably true, but I think it is different. A
psychedelic experience does have it's own momentum, it lasts a certain
amount of time and it's something happening to you to a certain extent
which you interact with. But a Virtual Reality experience is not happening
to you, it's entirely dependent on your activity with it. There's no
persistence to it whatsoever that's not by your intention.
Rebecca: Long term use of psychedelics, for a lot of people anyway,
gives them this idea that reality is malleable. With long-term use of VR,
do you think you would also form this realization, that you do to a large
extent, create your reality.
Jaron: This is a tricky area. The idea that reality as we know it is
just a passing illusion that can be changed at a moment's notice is sort
of the state religion of Marin county. (laughter) And yet, as obvious as
that is to me, there is this stubbornness of - I don't like to say the
physical world, because I'm not sure if it's the physicality of it that's
the stubborn part - this mundane world out there. I should also say that
the stubbornness of the thing is the only thing that makes science
sensible. So, it's a mysterious area. I don't know that anybody has
articulated a tremendous way to reconcile the stubbornness and the
apparent flexibility which both exist at once.
Rebecca: But your experience of the world is flexible.
Jaron: Our experience is absolutely malleable. Furthermore, in a
hypothetical future world of Virtual Reality, you have the added
experience of the objective world being something that's very fluid and
changing and controllable. Of course, on top of that you'd have your
internal experience which has always been fluid and changeable. It's like
balancing a unicycle on top of a unicycle - you have this more flexible
situation. But I still say that your experience of using Virtual Reality
is probably a lot closer to riding a bicycle (or double decker
unicycles!), or building something, than it is to an altered consciousness
experience... it's more intentional and it's more waking state and more
David: What do you think might be some of the long-term perceptual
changes that would result from someone using VR?
Jaron: Well, this hasn't happened yet, so I'm purely guessing. As I
already mentioned VR can increase sensitivity to the natural world. I want
to stress that sensitivity is a learned, ever-growing capacity, just like
learning to play a musical instrument.
I think that Virtual Reality will create a profoundly increased sense
of distinction between natural and man-made parts of the physical world.
Most of us have only had the experience of building a few things. Things
like houses and streets are just so common that they come at us as if they
were from nature. You discover in Virtual Reality that you can make houses
and streets but you can't make trees. Well, actually you can sort of make
some trees that are okay, but they're not magical like real trees. You're
able to own all those man-made artifacts because you can essentially make
them yourself from an experiential point of view in Virtual Reality, so
they become something that's clearly distinct from that which you can't
make, which is the natural.
I think also there will be a kind of focus on experience. The word
`experience' to me is the most provocative, mystical word in the language,
because that word, in itself, undermines the whole scientific view.
Experience is something which from an experimental point of view can't be
shown to exist at all, and yet it's all we have. It's the only thing that
we have in common that we can't measure - it's not part of the objective
world. In a virtual world, because your experience is more clearly
separated from stimulus, because the stimulus is all defined in a computer
and can be enumerated, your angel self of experience is sort of exposed
and you become more aware of it. That creates a kind of sensuality or a
direct apprehension of oneself.
Virtual Reality might have some other effects. It might change the way
the people walk or something - in all seriousness - because it might give
them a lot more experiences of the ways their bodies work. Who knows?
There might be all kinds of crazy things. The changes are really up to
whoever's there to use the stuff, and I hope all this will be explored as
if life were a work of art.
David: We asked Stephen LaBerge about VR and he described lucid
dreaming as, "high-resolution VR." How would you compare VR and lucid
Jaron: That's true, it's just that it's solipsistic. That's the same
old boundary between the infinite solipsistic universe and the more
limited shared universe.
Rebecca: Some people think technology is going to take us back to the
stone-age due to humanity's love-affair with the science of destruction
while others see it as the answer to all out prayers. How do you see
technology's role in evolution, where do you think it's taking us
ultimately, if anywhere?
Jaron: Evolution only proceeds when people die before they reproduce,
or when they just fail to reproduce as a result of their adaptation to
their environment. Without death you don't have evolution. The way you are
now, almost everything about you, the way your fingers work, the way your
nostrils point down, the way you think, to a large degree; all this is the
result of countless millions of deaths of incredible suffering. It's an
So in that sense, technology reduces the degree to which evolution
takes place, because people don't die in as personal a way in a
technological society. We are sort of breeding a population now that's
tolerant of cancer-causing agents and radiation in the environment, so in
a sense evolution continues, but our environment changes so quickly. An
environment has to stay relatively still for a while to have evolution
occur in a coherent way.
There's a little book I like a lot called, Finite and Infinite Games.
The title almost says it. There are two types of games. There are games
that have to end and there are games that go on forever. So, if we are
playing a `game' with technology that has to end, then we'll end. The
quest for more power goes in only one direction, so it doesn't cycle, it
must end. If not in nuclear war, then in biological war, or something
else. This is basic logic. You have to have something that cycles around
in an infinite dance of some sort in order to have something that
survives. If people find an `infinite game' for technology it will be
based on aesthetics, not power, and it'll involve some sort of massive
cultural adventure with technology; Virtual Reality, nano-technology, God
To address the cosmic long-term, I have this ultimate creation myth I
made up as a way to think about people and technology. Once a long, long
time ago, our ancestors were very highly technological people. They even
built time-machines that worked and transporter booths like they use in
Star Trek. So, what happened is, this certain point came where they had
all this great technology, and they suddenly stopped experiencing
anything. They already had the future at hand, because of their time
machines, so there were no surprises, and everything just kind of stopped.
So they had a meeting, as they knew they were about to, (laughter) in
which they said, "Well, this sucks! Let's create a situation in which we
drop all this technology, forget all of it and we'll become cave men and
women and fight saber-toothed tigers and then we'll just gradually build
it up again. They knew that they and their descendants would go through
tremendous pain, but it sort of didn't matter to them because they could
see the whole future and see that they would just come back to the same
place eventually. And we descended from them.
Rebecca: What are your thoughts on the relation of technology to Gaia?
Jaron: Well, right now, it's somewhat antagonistic.(laughter)
Rebecca: Terence McKenna had a thought about technology being the
earth's way of becoming sentient, that the fear of machines was just the
male ego's fear of relinquishing control to the Gaia matrix.
Jaron: I think that's exactly, perfectly wrong. I think technology is
the male's defense against the wilds of nature. I think men are kind of
scared of nature in general and overwhelmed by it. Technology always looks
as unnatural as possible, that's the aesthetic of technological design.
All the rhetoric about technology is always about overcoming nature, one
way or another. The ultimate fantasy of most computer scientists is
backing themselves up onto a tape, so they don't have to deal with biology
any more, or of course, with death. So I think that Terence McKenna's idea
is just about completely opposite to my point of view on the ultimate
meaning of technology to "men".
Rebecca: A lot of people talk about the importance of `value-free'
science, having no regulation on the use of a scientific discovery. Do you
agree with this or do you think that scientists should have some say in
how their discoveries are used?
Jaron: I wish that scientists would apply the standards of scientific
method to understanding their own motives so that they would be honest
about them. You have to understand, it's irrational and impossible to do
science without an agenda. Science requires resources. The universe is so
large and multi-faceted that there are enormous choices to be made in
what's to be studied. Furthermore, by it's very nature, a lot of science
is wrong at any given time and waiting to be destroyed by the next
generation of results.
So the choice of what to study next is not based on some kind of
magical value-free overview perspective - that's a complete illusion; it's
not available. The engine of science is rigor, but the ignition is
emotion. On the other hand, the reason scientists have to pretend there's
a rigorous ignition is that they have to protect themselves from
counter-forces which are even worse, such as these moralists, who don't
even understand science, going in and telling them, for instance, that
they can't use fetal tissue for research, which is completely lunatic.
[Note: Since this interview was conducted, Clinton was elected and the
fetal tissue controversy was resolved in the favor of the researchers.]
Scientists must develop a cultural agenda to have meaning in the
future. When you do science, that means somebody else is not using
resources for some other research, or for their survival or pleasure or
whatever, so it's really a social decision. It has to have some meaning
for the rest of the culture outside of science.
In a market environment, it seems increasingly necessary to market
scientific agendas to the public with clever campaigns, because there
aren't necessarily going to be products to buy for a long time, if ever.
That is, after all, why the concept of "virtual reality" came to be.
Rebecca: Who determines the benefit to the culture, the scientist?
Jaron: I think it has to be pretty broadly based. I do believe there's
a grand adventure in getting to know the universe better, so science has
an adventure value, just like post-sym might someday. But adventure,
including science for science's sake, is like sex; increasing the pace
doesn't necessarily make it better. It's not like we have this manifest
destiny to go into as much science as possible, in every direction as fast
as possible at all times. (laughter) I really feel that scientists have to
share some responsibility with the rest of the society in setting the
agenda, and I think they do. Most of the problems that I notice aren't
coming from the scientific community; they're coming from the religious
community, from a James Bond-like fantasy life in the defense community,
and from politicians and businesses with excessively short term agendas.
Rebecca: Do you think that science and mysticism can ever be
Jaron: They've never been separated, and the best scientists are often
mystics, as a matter of fact. There's this awe at the fundamental
mysteriousness of the universe that drives both science and mysticism.
There's a great book of the writings of the founders of modern physics
called Quantum Questions, and all of these guys wrote beautiful mystical
essays. That's not as true for computer science because it's not a study
of nature, but a creation of a sort of a man-made world, and it doesn't
usually inspire that kind of awe.
Rebecca: But many scientists in seeking to keep up a determinable,
repeatable objectivity in their experiment, have tried to keep the mind
well out of their experiments.
Jaron: What do you expect them to do? Mysticism can be part of one's
personal understanding of the universe revealed by science, and it can be
the `ignition' for science, but it can't be part of the conduct of
science. Science is a specific, philosophically narrow, discipline. The
limitations can be viewed as making it irrelevant to many kinds of
understanding, but they are at the very least beautiful.
I was around Richard Feynman - the Nobel prize winning physicist - one
time when he was on acid. Before he started to come on I asked him, "What
do you really think about the mind-body problem? Now come on, don't just
shove it under the rug. You probably experience yourself existing on the
inside; how do you think that reconciles with the matter of the brain? Do
you think there's any problem there?" He said, "I've thought about that a
lot, and I really just don't understand it." That was just an example of
the immense honesty and integrity that he had.
Rebecca: It was proof that he'd really thought about it.(laughter)
Jaron: Exactly. I asked him again when he was on acid and he said, with
this most wonderful smile and this effervescent glee, "I don't understand
it." That sort of glee at the fundamental mysteriousness of the universe
is just the motivational core of science and you always run into that with
a great scientist. Just to be clear, though, Feynman didn't state any
mystical ideas, he just was rigorous about what he did and didn't know,
which I think is one of the hardest mental disciplines.
David: Around seven years ago, you asked me a question that I've spent
years puzzling over. If you could, through nano-technology, replicate
every single atom in your nervous system, would that structure be you?
Would you care to venture an answer to your own question?
Jaron: That's a trick question. The answer to the question doesn't
matter and the intention does. (laughter) It's really a variation of the
virtual sex question. Do you treat the glaring mysticism of your
experience of every moment as the center of your life, or do you treat
some kind of measurable phenomenon as being the important thing?
I don't know what would happen if you made a copy of somebody's head.
Presumably you'd have two heads that talked, but you wouldn't know if they
were both conscious or not because that's not a measurable, scientific
thing. So, it would be just sort of a confusing result. But I don't think
the result of the question matters nearly as much as the intention with
which it's asked. The key is, are you in touch with the mystical sense of
experience you have, or do you suppress it by the way you categorize and
think about the world?
By the way, I consider my position to not be `dualist', which is the
dirty word used by these new `information positivists' to talk about
anyone who acknowledges the existence of experience. I'm not claiming some
second track of reality for souls or something, I'm just demanding that we
show some humility in assessing our understanding of things. You have to
walk the razor's edge between reductionism and superstition, and you find
your way through humility.
The dominant idea about people in the information world comes from Alan
Turing. He saved England during W.W.II by breaking a Nazi secret code; he
was a really brilliant mathematician and a founding computer scientist. He
also was imprisoned by the English courts for being gay. He was given
female hormones in prison, started to develop breasts, got depressed and
Shortly before he committed suicide he wrote the Turing Test paper,
which is the foundation of computer science culture today. It's a thought
experiment where you have a computer in one booth and a person at another
booth and they're both typing at you. If you can't tell the difference
between them, Turing claims, don't you just have to admit that they're the
same, at that point? Turing noticed that there might be no objective
measurement of consciousness.
David: It's not so much whether I could judge if you were the same
person, I'm wondering what you think your experience would be, if your
head was copied. Do you think there would be some kind of continuity of
Jaron: I have no idea. If you actually did it, you still wouldn't know.
David: The real intention behind the question is whether you think
there's something beyond the physical atoms that make you who you are?
Jaron: You're still asking the question from an objective point of view
- that doesn't matter, that's just a choice among implementations of the
universe. Who cares?(laughter)
David: What do you think happens to you when you die?
Jaron: Well I don't really know.(laughter)
David: I know you don't know Jaron,(laughter) but you must have given
it some thought. There's no mystery greater than death.
Jaron: That's true. It's really impossible to know. I used to worry
about it more when I was younger.(long pause) I think the only thing it's
possible to talk about is how our idea and perception of our own death
effects our life now. I mean, it's just out of the bounds of the possible
for discussion and thought.
As I mentioned before, there are the two big limitations you have to
live with. By a certain age, you've dealt with the lack of total godlike
power over the universe and the limitations of the body, but your own
mortality usually takes longer to come to grips with.
One way to explain mortality is to imagine a universe where we were
unlimited and to see that that wouldn't lead to any experience at all,
like in the techno-creation myth I told. A person with a time-machine is
essentially immortal. The people in my story overcame the two basic human
limitations and the penalty they paid was to cease to have experience.
Now let's suppose my creation myth is true. It's just a techno version
of the old "perennial philosophy", so who knows? Then the ultimate truth
of our situation would be found in the eternal cyclical story of our
ancestor/descendants having their meeting without any sense of surprise or
experience, which results in a perpetual grand cycle of induced amnesia
which allows our lives to happen. Some sort of stillness which has to
forget itself in order to give birth to experience seems like a reasonable
metaphysics. What else could be going on?
Now, if this is right, we don't know how many worlds there might be
between us and that ultimate reality in which there is no experience. So,
maybe there is some kind of afterlife or heaven that's between us and that
ultimate thing, but that ultimate thing must be there however many layers
there might be between us and it.
And in that ultimate place there is no experience. Experience only
happens within the context of ignorance of the next moment and ignorance
in general. So our deaths allow us to experience.
Having said that, it would be nice if life were longer, but that's
another problem. So, death represents a necessary ignorance without which
you couldn't have experience. It's an inevitable thing, and I think that
all beings and all realities in all possible planes of existence have
something analogous to it.
David: That's a pretty good answer for someone who claims to have never
taken a psychedelic.(laughter)
Jaron: I live in Marin.(laughter)
David: How realistic do you think the projections for VR were in the
movie Lawnmower Man?
Jaron: Well, the script was stupid. That's the most economical way I
can express that. The graphical images were probably an accurate
representation of the near-term future of Virtual Reality in terms of
quality. If anything, I think they might have under-shot the mark a bit.
David: Do you think they might have done that deliberately because if
it was as realistic as it could be then it wouldn't have had that
Jaron: Yeah, that might be true. In fact, one of the things I'm
predicting about Virtual Reality is that there will be this whole
retro-look of making it look like very bad VR, something like what
happened with Pixel-vision.
David: What limits do you see in VR?
Jaron: There are plenty. Doing really generalized force and tactile
feedback might be very difficult. Taste and smell pose some problems,
because you'd like to be able to have the machine invent new tastes and
smells and there's not even a theoretical foundation to do that with
predictable results. Taste is hard because the texture of food is a lot of
what taste is and you don't want some hideous objects stuck in your mouth
to imagine that.(laughter)
Einstein dealt us a blow with that speed of light limitation. That does
create an inherent lag that would be noticeable to a sensory-motor system
even in ideal networks running across the globe, unless it turns out
there's a way to get around it. I always wonder if the universe waits
around for people to decide how to be. Like, Einstein is sitting there and
the universe thinks, how shall we make it turn out for this guy?(laughter)
Okay, we'll move everything at the speed of light! But there are plenty of
limitations that will be around at least for a very long time.
David: What are some current projects that you're working on?
Jaron: There's a big project to make an experiential theater and as I
mentioned it uses live guides instead of a timed play, it's very creative.
From a simple near-term economic point of view, it's something to replace
theaters as home entertainment becomes good enough that theaters start to
have their business threatened.
It's also like a new sprocket standard for the movie industry to create
an interactive entertainment formula which will be standardized enough for
producers to not have to undergo unacceptable problems to produce
materials. The materials are called Voomies, not movies - it's a virtual
movie. It's a lot of fun. [Note: The theater project described here was
disrupted by the fall of VPL. It had been a joint venture between VPL and
MCA/Matsushita, but it is now dormant.]
I have two books, one's a pop book about Virtual Reality and the other
is a technical book for MIT graduates. I'm doing a lot of work with
medical Virtual Reality giving the surgeon better control of endoscopes
during surgery. They can simulate `x-ray vision' through the patients
bodies to be able to navigate tiny surgical instruments and use them as if
they were inside, to reduce trauma to the body.
Rebecca: Why do you think humans have this incredible urge to create
Jaron: Because they're frustrated as kids. You have this imagination
inside and you're stuck with this stuff to show other people, and it's
really limited, it just feels terrible.
David: We're coming back to that paradox again - after evolving from
super-divine beings that had no limitation, we're trying to recapture the
limitless feeling we had as children.
Jaron: That's called culture. You have to have some.