David Christopher Lane, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).
How "Mixed Reality" will transform us and the world we live in.
David Lane and Shaun Diem-Lane
“Any real virtual reality enthusiast can look back at VR science fiction. It's not about playing games... 'The Matrix,' 'Snow Crash,' all this fiction was not about sitting in a room playing video games. It's about being in a parallel digital world that exists alongside our own, communicating with other people, playing with other people.”
--Palmer Luckey, founder of Oculus Rift
The very best VR headset in the known universe is our own three pounds of glorious meatour brains.
Humans are augmenters. We have a long history of not only altering our landscape but our very bodies. Given our ancestral past and our evolutionary need to adapt to changing environments we have fashioned clothes for climate protection, disfigured our flesh, and built a kaleidoscope of tools to better navigate our Darwinian sojourn here on terra firma. We are naked apes no longer and perhaps never were once we branched out from our predecessors.
In one very real sense (and echoing the deep insights of Buddha) we are fractured creatures in a cosmos that is filled with unimaginable suffering. In order to survive this requisite death match, our brains developed a sophisticated buffering system that shields us from becoming too aware of our existential plight. Natural selection is not only blind but it has also blinded us from too much data lest we smother ourselves from informational overload.
Like our mythic progenitors Adam and Eve after the Fall, we woke up to a cursed world and we are hell bent (an instructive, if ironic, pun in this context) to change all that is not to our preferences. Indeed, human culture may be defined as our continued attempt to recreate the world according to our desires and wishes. We may fear our tribal god but that doesn't mean we have to like his/her creation.
We have developed several approaches in reframing the cosmos, but two are fundamental: 1. Recalibrating our thoughts (religion and mysticism are forerunners here) to better handle what is on offer. And 2. Manipulating matter to make our daily struggles easier. Both avenues, of course, are not mutually exclusive and are analogously akin to the interface between software and hardware.
Rearranging bits of atoms, however, is a cumbersome project and it has often taken years, even decades, to build our dream monumentswhether it is the great pyramids of Egypt or the exquisite Taj Mahal in India.
Naturally, it is much easier to transform our thoughts about the world at large than to rearrange nature to our fancy.
Yet, we are on the very threshold of doing both in ways quite unimaginable a century ago. Enter the new era of “mixed reality” where we transform the “appearance” of atomic bits into almost anything we wishand all of this by donning a stand-alone virtual reality headset.
Simply put, we now have the technological capability to radically modify our spatial landscapes not by rearranging chunks of elements from one place to another but by overlaying their innateness with dynamic and mind-boggling overlays. Take, as just one instance, your office. Look around at the walls, the floor, the desk, the windows, and whatever else you have filled the room with. Now imagine being able to creatively alter the appearance of all that you see. The walls turn from white to a an exploration of the Milky Way, the wooden floor changes into a blue ocean, the windows transform into portals of ever changing Impressionist art work, and your desk becomes a Star Trek like command module. With a stroke of your hand the music alternates to fit your mood and the very things you touch feel unlike what you expected. And you? You seamlessly assume an alien body such as Klaatu or your favorite animal such as a giraffea panoply of Avataric possibilities.
To be sure, your office material has not commutated one atomic bit, but its entire display and what you see and hear (and, yes, even touch) has undergone a magical metamorphosis. Our imagination can now redraw the contours of our world and do so at the click of button or with a wave of our augmented hands.
That the future is here now came into sharper relief this past week when my technologically literate son, Shaun, and I were fortunate to be invited to attend the Oculus Connect 5 Conference in San Jose, California, where the latest innovations in virtual and augmented reality were on display. The conference is primarily geared for VR developers and thus has a number of very technical workshops on game and film development. What impressed me most, however, were keynote talks by Oculus' CFO, Michael Abrash, and CTO, John Carmack. These two computer-programming pioneers gave extraordinarily lucid outlines of the future of VR and AR.
Mark Zuckerberg speaking at the Oculus Connect 5 Conference, 2018
I had attended the Oculus Connect 4 Conference last year at the same venue, but was a bit shocked to realize how much progress had been made in the intervening 12 months. What those unfamiliar with VR may not realize is how quickly the field has evolved. It was only eight years ago when I was teaching my upper division Science and Religion course at California State University, Long Beach, when a young eighteen year old student with the perfectly appropriate name, Palmer Luckey, at the same institution was tinkering away at home building his own make-shift virtual reality headset from discarded and used components. Just four years later, Palmer sold his headset and company, Oculus Rift, to Facebook for over two billion dollars.
In the past three years, we have witnessed an explosion of VR devices and related products, ranging from HTC's Vive to Samsung's Gear to Oculus' Go. While it is true that the general public hasn't yet truly warmed to virtual reality, the fact remains that the field is still in its infancy and we have yet see its full potential unleashed.
Until now, that is.
What Abrash and Carmack and other VR pioneers showed us was that we now have the ability to transform the world around us wirelessly without being tethered to a high-end desktop computer. The natural and artificial worlds are becoming one and what this portends is so radical that it will upend everything we dofrom work to play to lifestyles to sports to communication to our love lives.
As Elon Musk rightly pointed out recently, we have already become cyborgs because of how often we use our smart phones and tend never to go anywhere without them. We have computerized ourselves by amplifying our understanding of the world with a device that allows us access to enormous amounts of information at the touch of button or through the modulations of our voice.
The first step beyond smart phones and watches is enclosed VR and then onwards to AR where we can seamlessly place all sorts of useful objects in real space and time. But both of these are merely steps to the real revolution that awaits us, where we “mix” reality with whatever we desire or imagine. Interestingly, we may not yet get rid of our smart phones since they may serve as powerful computers and battery storage devices in our pockets which can via Bluetooth power up our light weight VR/AR glasses.
A good example of where we are heading, even if at first it may seem far fetched, can be gleaned from the movie version of Ernest Cline's widely read novel, Ready Player One, published in 2011, which Steven Spielberg made into a movie seven years later with dazzling special effects. The plot is centered in the year 2045 where the main character lives in squalor but is freed from his slum life the moment he dawns on his VR headset and his entire surroundings become wondrously transfigured.
I'm surprised that VR has come about so quickly. It's lucky I just happened to write a book imagining virtual reality right on the cusp of it actually happening.
--Ernest Cline, author of Ready Player One
Essentially, we are making our dreams actualized in an externalized realm. As I mentioned in a 2015 essay, months before the first Oculus Rift was shipped and where Google Cardboard was the cheap entry into VR realms:
“If consciousness evolved as a virtual simulator to help us better insource varying survival strategies before outsourcing them, we can readily see that humans have now progressed to the point where we can actualize our imaginings in a real world. Simply put, our technology has finally caught up with our dreams so that we can consciously inhabit what we could only before imagine. >br>We are on the threshold of replacing our spiritual Atman Project with an electromagnetically gifted Avatar Project, where arduous meditational practices are replaced with supremely easy VR headsets so that we can transcend the limits of our physical bodies and fly unencumbered in mental wonderlands. Aldous Huxley was correct when he predicted that we would enter a Brave New World, but it is a different kind of Soma we will daily ingest than the one he anticipated. The drug of the future is virtual and it is information without boundaries.”
Three years ago, some believed such talk was merely hype, but in the interim we can see that what lies ahead is almost beyond our comprehension since where the borders of what is real and what is artificial will blend in ways that will eventually make them appear indistinguishable. Of course, CGI effects in films have already exceeded the Turing Test (where that which is computationally generated is taken as organically real).
With “mixed reality” we will CGI anything we choose whenever we wish and in the process add multiple layers of informational texture on even the most mundane of objects.
But what struck me most during the Oculus Connect 5 Conference was when Michael Abrash demonstrated the next iteration of digital Avatars, where instead of cartoonish surrogates in VR, we can have nearly exact replications of our very faces and bodies in cyberspace. Thus instead of 2D Facetime on a cellular gadget, we can in virtual reality have full incarnations that look and sound just like us, with each mouth, eye, and hand gesture mimicking whatever we do in our own private homes, even if we are separated from our friends or family thousands of miles away.
We will be “present” even when we are not there. The most remarkable feature of great VR is that one feels a sense of presence when other disembodied Avatars appear and join you in Echo Arena or Unspoken or just hanging out in your own self-generated VR living room. It is both a spooky and an uncanny feeling.
This neurological trickery, convincing us that an image is real or an effect is a cause, is what makes VR magical, but when the virtual can overlay the real world (as in “mixed”) then we have crossed over into a completely new experience. We are on the threshold of an informational singularity, which can be likened to a black hole where all we can know now is at the event horizon, but not what is beyond.
Although it is still in a very rudimentary stage, my son Shaun got a partial glimpse into “mixed” reality when at the Conference he tried out the “The Void” which is advertised by the company that operates them around the country as “a full sensory, immersive experience, with you, your friends and family walking around inside the action. It's location-based entertainmentthat means you visit one of our locationsand you walk into real-time hyper-reality that combines interactive sets, real-time effects, and amazing technology.”
Shaun, who has been at the forefront of VR gaming since its inception (he has won a number of competitions around North America), told me that “mixed” reality, though still in its infancy, was quite mind blowing and is clearly where our technological interactions is heading towards.
As for myself, I got the chance to beta test the forthcoming “Oculus Quest” standalone headset that allows for 6 degrees of freedom, motion tracking, and the ability to use it anywhere and anytime. Zuckerberg announced that the commercial product would be released in Spring of 2019.
I was taken to a scaled down version of a tennis court and was allowed to move around as if playing a real game. As I donned the headset on, I was transported into an animated arena and I immediately felt that I was somewhere else and as I played against my opponent (manifested as a cartoon figure reminiscent of a character from the old Wii sports game), I reacted as if in the real world despite it being merely a sophisticated computational simulation being produced by the VR headset I was wearing.
After the trial, I was wonderstruck thinking about how much life will change in the years to come, especially in the way we relate to each other since distance and presence can be greatly augmented. It is one thing to hear the voice of your brother 8,000 miles away or Facetime in 2D, but quite another when that same family member can teleport his fully formed Avatar into your living room and interact with you. Now add enhanced haptics, where one can “truly feel their environment and interact with it purely through touch, pushing, pulling and grabbing with no buttons or touch pads required,” and the simulated environment comes alive.
There is another angle that is important to remember here. The very best VR headset in the known universe is our own three pounds of glorious meatour brains. We don't see exterior “reality” as it actually is in some ultimate Kantian sense, but rather as our bodily mechanisms filter selected incoming data streams and then recreate temporary models about what is surrounding us. We are, in sum, already living in a virtual reality since all that we experience is done through a channeled medium that conceals much more than it reveals.
Therefore, with VR, we are merely tinkering with our own neurological presets in order to refashion and reframe the perceived physical limits of the world that surrounds us.
This endeavor is not something new, since humans have been monkeying with their environment since the dawn of self-reflective awareness. What is new, though, is how quickly we can amend our various habitats computationally without resorting to heavy lifting of core materials. The information age is indeed exponentially progressive.
The implications of “mixed reality” are staggering and all sorts of best and worst case scenarios come to mind that will have either delightful or disastrous consequences, particularly when such is directly connected to artificial intelligence.
In terms of education, my own field of interest, I can readily see how VR/AR/MR will dramatically change instruction. Instead of lecture halls with professors droning on for hours on end, the student can have his or her own Socrates, Aristotle, Einstein, or Niels Bohr in Avataric garb and interact as if such luminaries were actually present. Couple these digital geniuses with access to the world wide web of information and one can learn like never before, and at the each person's own learning gradient.
Even in religion, it won't be very difficult to have one's chosen Ista-devata summoned on command, whether it is Jesus, Nanak, Buddha, Mahavira, or one's own personal guru. Meditational practices can be greatly enhanced with direct, Avatar guidance where one on one exchanges will become commonplace. The radiant form of those we love and adore will manifest accordingly and we too will assume illuminated garments of our own choosing.
All of this, I know, may seem like techno hyperbole in our overwrought age of all things digital, but if we look back over the past several decades we can readily see why this is not the case.
For instance, envision going back to the Space Center in Houston in 1969 for the NASA moon landing, and showing those operating the vast computer network your iPhone X and what it can do. How would they react, especially when you show off its size as 6.20 x 3.05 x 0.30 inches and that it weighs less than 8 ounces. As zmescience.com points out, “Your smartphone is millions of times more powerful than all of NASA's combined computing in 1969.” What we take for granted today would seem inconceivable 49 years ago.
“If you have perfect virtual reality eventually, where you're be able to simulate everything that a human can experience or imagine experiencing, it's hard to imagine where you go from there.”
-- Palmer Luckey
I recall when I was eleven years ago going to see the James Bond movie, “You Only Live Twice,” with my childhood friend Scott Robbins. It was an early 11:45 a.m. showing at the famous Grauman's Chinese theater and we enjoyed ourselves immensely. However, after we left the darkened theater in the early afternoon, I was overcome with a slight, unnerving depression, as I came into the daylight and walked on Hollywood Blvd., since everything looked quite dab in comparison to the bright clarity of the film's setting in Japan and the wizardry of James Bond's various exploits.
This melancholy feeling was similar, but even stronger, when I would visit Disneyland with my family only to have to leave the magic kingdom at night and enter back into the “real” world through the bleak parking lot that adjoined the amusement park.
I think many of us get these somber feelings whenever we experience something that we really enjoy but which is temporary and which after a set duration thrusts us back (all too soon) to the ordinariness of day-to-day existence. Perhaps this is why having the freedom and the control to remake our worlds is so appealing. VR/AR/MR and their future iterations have become viable technological tools for us to recreate the cosmos that we were born unconsciously into.
As Nietzsche indicated, when we are liberated from the shackles of a prescribed god and a preordained mode of existence we are free to choose our own meanings, our own values, and our own lives. In sum, we now have the technology to recast what before was immovable and too often intolerable. We came into the world and didn't like what we saw and for eons tried to accommodate ourselves to these strange surroundings. Being a stranger in a strange land (to crib one of Robert A. Heinlein's more famous science fiction book titles), we have evolved to remodel our planet and like the Judeo-Christian god of old, we want to make it in our own image and find it good. Instead of one given universe, we wish to live in “Metaverse” where that which is virtual and that which is augmented can intersect with our natural environs and where we live and who we are can be made infinitely elastic so that the only borders are the limits of our imagination and how far it will take us into the new frontier of our digital wonderland.
“What the computer in virtual reality enables us to do is to recalibrate ourselves so that we can start seeing those pieces of information that are invisible to us but have become important for us to understand.”