Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Altered States: Will the Forthcoming wave of Cheap Virtual Reality Headsets Change EVERYTHING?

I've just ordered an Oculus Rift development kit (see http://www.oculusvr.com/) Why? Because there's something exciting about it, and at a time of pretty deep depression, we need exciting things (which aren't too expensive). And I've a feeling that, whilst Virtual Reality has been around for a long time, suddenly it will become accessible and desirable for everyone. That, I think will change things - in education, business, social life and personal entertainment. I want to speculate on what these changes might mean.

It's never just one thing that changes everything. Usually it's a number of things that have been gradually growing and suddenly come together. In the 1980s, the computer-on-a-PCB technology came together with a growing movement towards personalisation of entertainment and computer gaming, with greater ease of use of credit cards for relatively large-scale consumer purchases. All of this created the market opportunities for Sinclair, Acorn, Commodore, Atari and others.

What's coming together now? I think there are three important things 'on the boil'. Firstly, there is a profound inquiry going on into the nature of information and the way that our lives, and our decisions, are being shaped by the information environment. Big data, and the analytic work in education and elsewhere are aspects of this, but there are deeper things going on, where people are looking at the nature of the interfaces between humans, machines, data, and decision. This work has many aspects, including the remarkable work going on in semantics in economics and technology. At the ASC conference at the University of Bolton, Bill Seaman from Duke University presented some of his work on Neo-Sentience. I think this is an important emerging area where people are experimenting with new kinds of  interface: 'poetic' and aesthetic interfaces change the relationship between ourselves and our computers (see Bill's book: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Neosentience-Benevolence-Engine-Bill-Seaman/dp/1841504041/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1377721454&sr=8-1&keywords=neosentience). That will impact on the way we make decisions.

Secondly, the data revolution which we have all been part of is reaching a particular stage of maturity where we are becoming more aware of the "ecology of data" and way that politics, freedom, knowledge and technology are tied up together. Most profound is the fact that a tool is now a two-way means-ended thing. There is a means to an end for the user (the tool performs a useful function); but there is also a means to an end for the tool provider (the data captured from the user's use of the tool). That's another way of saying that tools have become 'parasitical' on their users.

Thirdly, there is a biological revolution. It's not just the DNA sequencing (although that has given us many of the technologies used for the semantic analysis!), but most profoundly a deepening awareness of morphogenesis - both at a biological level and at a social level. This relates strongly to the first point, but it is where a deeper understanding of our biological ontogeny relates to the material and informational constraints within which we live and develop that powerful critiques are emerging about the nature of that information environment, our conception of what a 'computer' is, the way economic systems work, and the possibilities for redesigning the whole thing.

So how does this relate to VR? I must confess I didn't really take this seriously until I saw Jennifer Kanary's wonderful "Pscyhosis Simulator" (see http://www.labyrinthpsychotica.org/Labyrinth_Psychotica/psychosis_simulation.html) at the ASC conference. She used a VR headset and wearable laptop running software which transformed images in real-time (I'm guessing MAX/MSP with Jitter) to create what was in effect 'virtual LSD'. The effect was fascinating, not just for the person wearing it, but for everyone else witnessing it (see picture below). This was a kind of 'instant theatre'. The wearer of the device had their perceptual state transformed to the point that their utterances reflected this state, which a volunteer from the audience had to respond to. What I found impressive here was the conversation they had, and the profound effect the state transformation created by the technology had on the communications.

Virtual Reality is about 'Altered States' - and this may be what we need right now. When we have become so logically-driven down the 'hard' road of information, targets and box-ticking by computer technologies which mislead us into thinking that there is some separation between human and machine, the 'altered states' of VR drive home the message that we are one with the world. The Neosentience that Seaman and others talk about is really concerned with re-imagining computers as a way of getting a better grasp on our relationship with information. It may be that things that only philosophers talk about at the moment will become blatantly apparent to everyone. Questions about information, education, learning, love, sex (of course porn in VR will be the early driver for innovation!), empathy and conviviality will be presented to us in a stark way that has never before been possible. This has important implications for everything we do in education: MOOCs may be deathly dull at the moment, but a networked  immersive VR exploration coordinated through the MOOC platforms? Why not!

When the questions we ask about the world change, then there is a true moment of transformation. I wonder if this is it...

5 comments:

David Sherlock said...

Have you seen that the source tools support it. http://store.steampowered.com/news/10962/

Mark Johnson said...

yes - it looks very cool. Are you getting one?

David Sherlock said...

I'd like one but they are still well out of my budget!

Mark Johnson said...

you should treat yourself for Christmas!

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