Sometimes it’s possible to appreciate history in the making as it unfolds around you. The past couple years, Seattle has planted a flag for virtual reality, and this week we witnessed the community reaching out, welcoming an industry pioneer, and forming alliances. I’ve had many moments recently when I’ve savored the feeling that someday, when I’m decrepit and my brain is being uploaded to the cloud, I’ll be bragging that I was there when and where immersive media was born.
Jaron Lanier was in town Monday to give a talk at University Temple Church, in part to promote his new book. The crowd that packed this place of worship looked to be one part Town Hall event subscriber and one part VR/AR Meetup regulars. I spotted Eva Hoerth taking a picture of Tom Furness and Avery Wagar–three generations of VR pioneers sharing a moment. Kim Voynar, Nathaniel Luke Pinzon, Shawn Whiting, Jing Dai, Steve Turnidge, Jordan Kellogg, Caroline Running Wolf, and many, many other familiar figures from the local VR/AR community were among those in attendence.
Jeez, this is starting to sound like a gossip column. Why, it was a regular whos-who of Seattle VR mucky mucks!
Anyway, the point was to hear from Lanier, the philosopher-technologist who popularized the term “virtual reality” and first tried to bring it to public adoption with his startup VPL Research, which sparked a fair amount of media attention in 1990 or so. Twenty-seven years later, Lanier held forth from the church stage, sounding a warning against “mass behavior modification empires” like Facebook.
Lanier eschews social media, and provided the best explanation I’ve yet heard about how and why it can be damaging. The root of the problem is the communitarian, hacker ethos that taught us to expect content to be free, combined with our tendency to idolize–and inherently trust–visionary tech entrepreneurs.
According to Leyner, once you expect free content, you have to accept an advertising model in order to be sustainable. And the problem with accepting the advertising model is that you open a Pandora’s box of behavior control algorithms that keep us anxiously checking our feeds, steeped in the sorts of negative emotions that make us easier to manipulate.
It was a mostly doom and gloom talk, with some flashes of hope, as when Leyner remarked that “making beautiful things is the path to survival.” The event itself was proof enough to me that good-hearted people are still coming together in a shared commitment to making a better world. Let’s hope that a single, insane tweet from a madman doesn’t doom us all first.
Then, last night, at CoMotion Labs, Aileen McGraw and I hosted another of our series of immersive storytelling events, this time a conversation with some of our counterparts in Los Angeles. We Skyped with these Californian VR creators, who were gathered at the offices of Emblematic, the immersive media company founded by Nonny de la Peña. The LA crew were comprised of journalists, audio engineers, and others who are figuring out what’s possible with this new media in the movie capitol of the world. It was pretty wonderful to share the spirit of making-it-up-as-we-go-along with other West Coast creators.
The purpose of the event was to connect LA and Seattle’s communities and spark opportunities for future collaboration. Aileen and I were thrilled by everyone’s participation and are looking at ways to capitalize on this goodwill for future projects and events. Once I was certain that the Skype connection worked (huge thanks to CoMotion Labs’s Xuny Haley), I marveled again at how we’re constantly making progress by forging connections, sharing insights, and spreading our ideas around. If there’s ever been a time when the future cries out for the imaginations of good people working together, it’s now.