Communications & travel

Posted on Wednesday, January 31, 2007

From an interesting piece by Clay Shirky:

Jaron Lanier is the Charles Babbage of Our Generation

Here we arrive at the furthest shores of speculation. One of the basic promises of virtual reality, at least in its Snow Crash-inflected version, is that we will be able to re-create the full sense of being in someone's presence in a mediated environment. This has been a human desire at least since Shamash appeared to Gilgamesh in a dream. Re-stated in technological terms, this version of virtual reality is a belief that communications will finally become an adequate substitute for travel. We have been promised that this will soon be achieved with current technology since ATT demoed a video phone at the 1964 World's Fair.

I believe this version of virtual reality will in fact come to pass, someday. I do not, however, believe that it will involve a screen. Trying to trick the brain by tricking the eyes is a mug's game. The brain is richly arrayed with tools to detect and unmask visual trickery -- if the eyes are misreporting, the brain falls back on other externally focussed senses like touch and smell, or internally focussed ones like balance and proprioception.

Though the conception of virtual reality is clear, the technologies we have today are inadequate to the task. In the same way that the theory of computation arose in the mechanical age, but had to wait first for electrics and then electronics to be fully realized, general purpose virtual reality is an idea waiting on a technology, and specifically on neural interface, which will allow us to trick the brain by tricking the brain. (The neural interface in turn waits on trifling details like an explanation of consciousness.)

In the meantime, the 3D worlds program in the next decade is likely to resemble the AI program in the last century, where early optimism about rapid progress on general frameworks gave way to disconnected research topics (machine vision, natural language processing) and 'toy worlds' environments. We will continue to see valuable but specific uses for immersive environments, from flight training and architectural flythroughs to pain relief for burn victims and treatment for acrophobia. These are all indisputably good things, but they are not themselves general, and more importantly don't suggest rapid progress on generality. As a result, games will continue to dominate the list of well-populated environments for the foreseeable future, rendering ineffectual the category of virtual worlds, and, critically, many of the predictions being attached thereunto.

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