Luke Robert Mason: You’re lis­ten­ing to the Futures Podcast with me, Luke Robert Mason.

On this episode I speak to the Founding Director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, Jeremy Bailenson. 

The cool thing about VR is you can do things that you can’t do in the phys­i­cal world. Leveraging this para­dox, which is that the brain treats it as real, but you can do the impossible—you can do anything—is a real­ly neat way to use VR.
Jeremy Bailenson, excerpt from interview

Jeremy shared his thoughts on how vir­tu­al real­i­ty expe­ri­ences can change our per­cep­tion of self, increase empa­thy, and lead to new forms of social inter­ac­tion. This episode was record­ed on loca­tion in London, England at the offices of pub­lish­er W.W. Norton.

Mason: So, Jeremy Bailenson, I’ve got to ask you: when was your first Virtual Reality experience?

Jeremy Bailenson: 1994. I was inter­view­ing for grad school at Berkeley. I had a spare day, and I walked down to the Embarcadero in San Francisco, and there was an arcade on the Embarcadero that we had to wait in line—I think we paid 25 bucks back in 94—and they had some­thing called Dactyl Nightmare. It was a video game where you put on the gog­gles, and it was a net­worked VR expe­ri­ence, and you played some type of a video game. Imagine 1994 VR: it was run­ning at a quar­ter of a sec­ond lag, and the track­ing was way off, they had to reboot the sys­tem a cou­ple of times to make it work, but it was still real­ly special!

Mason: Was that the thing that made you think that VR was the thing that you want­ed to be part of? Or was it more of the sci­ence fic­tion that you were read­ing at the time?

Bailenson: Certainly that plant­ed the seed, but for me the icing on the cake was actu­al­ly re-reading Neuromancer in grad­u­ate school. Infact, in the late 1990’s my PhD was in Cognitive Science, where we were learn­ing about how you can mod­el thought in terms of rep­re­sent­ing how rea­son­ing works; how cat­e­go­riza­tion works; run­ning exper­i­ments on humans; and build­ing com­put­er sim­u­la­tions on how to mod­el that. I was kind of stag­nat­ing there, and I was­n’t lov­ing it, and at the time I read this crazy book called Neuromancer and decid­ed, Huh. How about instead of try­ing to build intel­li­gence, I’m just going to fake it. I’m going to build these avatars and study how they work.” And that’s when I decid­ed to shift.

Mason: So what was it specif­i­cal­ly about William Gibson’s Neuromancer that inspired you to work in vir­tu­al real­i­ty? Was it this notion of the con­sen­su­al hallucination?

Bailenson: I mean that was part of it. The fact that you were net­work­ing, the con-sensual, the peo­ple shar­ing their sens­es. That was a lot of it. I’m teach­ing a class at Stanford right now—it’s called Virtual People. There’s 200 stu­dents in it, which is about 5% of the under­grad pop­u­la­tion at Stanford, and there’s two text­books. One is my book, Experience on Demand. The sec­ond is Neuromancer. And, and what we do in Neuromancer is we read it and we pick out every instance of a changed-human. Every instance of a vir­tu­al human where there’s some­thing going on with human iden­ti­ty or, or social rela­tions that’s dif­fer­ent from what you could do in the real world. And there are so many amaz­ing exam­ples of how what it means to be a per­son is just fun­da­men­tal­ly changed in the world of Gibson.

Mason: I won­der whether your stu­dents at Stanford…how that’s slight­ly dif­fer­ent from when you were read­ing Neuromancer. So, they’ve grown up in the age of Facebook and Twitter and social media where these vir­tu­al plat­forms are chang­ing their notions of iden­ti­ty. I won­der if they’re bring­ing an entire­ly dif­fer­ent read­ing of Gibson to that.

Bailenson: Yeah, I sus­pect they are. I mean, what I like about the book is that if you read it, you’ll notice he does­n’t tell you any­thing about tech­nol­o­gy. He does­n’t talk about pix­els or resolution—that is left abstract. So it does trav­el through time a bit bet­ter than oth­ers might where they instan­ti­ate those details, but yeah. Who knows what they’re think­ing. I mean, what I know—what I hear from them most is that, if you’ve read the nov­el, it’s a won­der­ful book but it’s com­pli­cat­ed and that typ­i­cal­ly takes a sec­ond read to real­ly get it, so I tend to get them a lit­tle bit upset that I’m forc­ing them to read this book that they don’t real­ly understand.

Mason: And are they find­ing vir­tu­al real­i­ty through oth­er means? Have they often been inside of VR before they’ve seen sci­ence fic­tion notions or nar­ra­tives around the pos­si­bil­i­ty or vir­tu­al reality?

Bailenson: So I arrived at Stanford in 2003, and back then we were the only VR Lab there. I mean there’s some heroes from VR there: a guy named Ken Salisbury who does hap­tics, and there’s a guy named Pat Hanrahan—that is one of the graph­ics heroes. There’s a lot of peo­ple that do small parts of it, but I was the only VR Lab. Now of course, there are many instances of VR in terms of Labs. But what’s stun­ning to me is there is an under­grad group called Rabbit Hole VR at Stanford, and there’s 900 stu­dents I believe part of their group—affiliated with their group—which is about 20% of the under­grads at Stanford.

Mason: And what does Rabbit Hole do?

Bailenson: It’s a good ques­tion, I’m not exact­ly sure. They do VR.

Mason: They do VR. Do they do any­thing else on top of the VR? I know that’s against your 8 rules for how to do VR safely.

Bailenson: Don’t ask, don’t tell.

Mason: In that case let’s talk a lit­tle more about what Stanford’s Virtual Human inter­ac­tion lab actu­al­ly do. Firstly, why that name—Virtual Human? That seems to con­jure notions of autonomous avatars rather than vir­tu­al real­i­ty experiments.

Bailenson: So when I arrived at Stanford, to get tenure at Stanford University it’s very very dif­fi­cult. And the way one does that is by real­ly becom­ing the world’s expert, or among the world’s experts in a very spe­cif­ic area. And before tenure—my research before 2010—most of my work was about inter­ac­tion, social inter­ac­tion with avatars, or agents mean­ing vir­tu­al humans that were con­trolled by peo­ple or that were autonomous. When we were nam­ing the lab, strate­gi­cal­ly I real­ly want­ed to show the world that I was­n’t just a tech guy, I was­n’t a VR per­son. I was a per­son who stud­ied the way peo­ple inter­act and exist inside these vir­tu­al spaces, and that was what I want­ed the lab to be about.

Mason: So for you, what is vir­tu­al real­i­ty? What’s the lab’s def­i­n­i­tion of vir­tu­al real­i­ty? Because it feels like lots of peo­ple have so many dif­fer­ent def­i­n­i­tions. I know Jaron Lanier in this recent book Dawn of the New Everything’ had 50 def­i­n­i­tions of vir­tu­al real­i­ty, so I won­der what is your def­i­n­i­tion for that term?

Bailenson: Well, when I’m talk­ing to peo­ple who have nev­er tried it, I say instead of watch­ing a movie it’s as if you’re inside of a movie and that’s um…I think our audi­ences can be a bit more nuanced. So to me, VR requires track­ing, ren­der­ing and dis­play. Tracking which is mea­sur­ing your body move­ments. Rendering is redraw­ing a scene based on those body move­ments, and then dis­play is replac­ing your sens­es with con­tent. So in the phys­i­cal world, when you walk towards some­body they get big­ger. When you turn your head towards a sound it gets loud­er. To make VR work, you have to track phys­i­cal move­ments, redraw the scene from a new posi­tion, and redraw sight, sound, touch, some­times smell, and then to replace what you’re see­ing using the hard­ware such that the dis­play ren­ders what is vir­tu­al as opposed to phys­i­cal. And it’s that con­flu­ence of those three events that define VR for me.

Mason: Are those three things are impor­tant because you’re try­ing to rep­re­sent real­i­ty as it stands out in the real world, or are they impor­tant because of the brain?

Bailenson: What makes VR spe­cial is it responds to your body. What makes VR dif­fer­ent than oth­er media: instead of hit­ting but­tons, you’re mov­ing your body so you’re walk­ing towards things, you’re mov­ing your hands to grab things. It’s per­cep­tu­al­ly sur­round­ing. So with the TV when you turn your head it goes away, when you close your eyes it goes away. With VR, when you turn your head around there are things every­where, and there are sounds that are spatialised—and so the per­cep­tu­al sur­round­ing aspect, and reply­ing to your body. The third thing VR does and you know, this comes at a cost, you men­tioned my arti­cle on safe­ty, is that it com­plete­ly blocks out the light and most of the sound from the phys­i­cal world so that con­tributes to the immer­sion as well.

Mason: I mean is the aim to match the phys­i­cal world or at least the cues that you expect from the phys­i­cal world, or is this some­thing inter­est­ing that can be done inside of vir­tu­al real­i­ty where you can mess with the physics of the real world and see what the brain and the body does in that sort of environment?

Bailenson: My phi­los­o­phy is, you know, there are some great appli­ca­tions where by repli­cat­ing what’s in the phys­i­cal world you can do things that are expen­sive or rare, and that’s a good use for things like train­ing. But in gen­er­al, the cool thing about VR is you can do things that you can’t do in the phys­i­cal world and lever­ag­ing this kind of, this para­dox, which is: the brain treats it as real, but you can do the impos­si­ble; you can do anything—is a real­ly neat way to use VR.

Mason: Is there any ways to trick the brain inside of vir­tu­al real­i­ty? I know your lab is doing spe­cif­ic exper­i­ments with regards to say things like, empa­thy, that it’s not so much tricks to the brain, but it’s, it’s using quirks that we have as human beings and, and using vir­tu­al real­i­ty to play with those, to enable indi­vid­u­als to have these high empa­thet­ic experiences.

Bailenson: In gen­er­al, my col­league Byron Reeves likes to say, the brain has not yet evolved to dif­fer­en­ti­ate com­pelling VR from a real expe­ri­ence.” So, humans have been around for a long time and you know, if you walk towards a lion and it growls at you, you’re going to feel scared. And in VR, if you, if the scene responds to your move­ment, sim­i­lar respons­es occur. So one of the lines of research we’ve been doing since the late 1990s is show­ing that when VR is done well, that the brain tends to treat that expe­ri­ence as if it were real and the body responds accordingly.

Mason: I think you say in the book it’s called pres­ence.’

Bailenson: Presence is the term psy­chol­o­gists use to define that mag­ic expe­ri­ence of when VR is a real­ly com­pelling illu­sion. Matthew Lombard, a pro­fes­sor at Temple likes to say it is, the illu­sion of non-mediation”. When VR is done well, you don’t even know you’re in VR—you’re just hav­ing an experience.

Mason: For you it becomes real­i­ty almost.

Bailenson: It becomes real­i­ty for you in that moment. Absolutely.

Mason: To take the idea of pres­ence one step fur­ther and look at some­one like Mel Slater’s work. I mean, he tries to break down what it is that makes some­one present in VR. And he talks about the two illu­sions: the plau­si­bil­i­ty illu­sion and the place illu­sion. Do you agree with those? As is the notions around which thing that makes vir­tu­al real­i­ty so immer­sive are those two?

Bailenson: I had din­ner with Mel Slater last night here in London and we talked about the pos­si­bil­i­ty illu­sion, and I think he’s one of the schol­ars that has made VR as good as it is. He’s amaz­ing and I’m a huge fan of his work. And, and I like his think­ing on it. So Mel, you know, in the last decade ‑15 years—has real­ly embraced this neu­ro­science approach and he’s doing real­ly trans­for­ma­tion­al work.

Mason: Considering your back­ground is cog­ni­tive psy­chol­o­gy, I mean, how much do you see the col­li­sion between neu­ro­science and VR being the future of this medium?

Bailenson: There is no doubt that, you know, going back to William Gibson and Neuromancer, there was no hard­ware there. You jacked right into the brain and there’s a grow­ing move­ment, includ­ing a lot of Mel’s col­leagues, who are doing brain com­put­er inter­face to use the brain. Not just as a met­ric to under­stand if VR is com­pelling, but also to be able to, you know, con­trol the scenes by using as an input fac­tor, elec­tri­cal activ­i­ty in the brain, and you know we’re still a long way off from that, but there are cer­tain­ly schol­ars that are…that are mov­ing in that direction.

Mason: I mean, is that a direc­tion you’d poten­tial­ly move in with the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab, or are you doing some­thing more nuanced?

Bailenson: I’m a lit­tle bit old to start doing wet work myself. I’m 45, and learn­ing. You know, I did neu­ro­science in grad school, but I’m going to con­tin­ue to be a helper for those that are doing that work. But I’m gonna, you know, my strength is real­ly in mea­sur­ing behav­ior and non­ver­bal behav­ior and atti­tude and behav­ior change and I’m going to kind of con­tin­ue in that domain.

Mason: Well, let’s talk about some of those, those behav­ior change ways in which you’ve been using vir­tu­al real­i­ty because your exper­i­ments have been look­ing at vir­tu­al real­i­ty as an empa­thy machine. I think that’s Chris Milk’s term, and I know you men­tioned Chris Milk in the book and how he’s been using cer­tain immer­sive 360 video to help with empa­thy, but what you’re doing is a lit­tle bit more nuanced, a lit­tle bit more in depth. Could you explain sort of your inter­est around empa­thy in VR?

Bailenson: I just came from the Tribeca Film Festival a week ago. It’s now April and I was just in New York City with Chris Milk, and he and I had a din­ner and drinks togeth­er and talked about his new work, now is also using com­put­er graph­ics. He’s doing a lot of work in net­worked VR and these shared expe­ri­ences. But we pre­miered a piece at Tribeca this year called Thousand Cut Journey and this is a, it’s pre­mier­ing as we speak in New York City about 11 hours a day for eight days straight. The arcade is open at Tribeca, and hun­dreds of peo­ple a day are going through this expe­ri­ence. This is a piece about racism, about black-white racism, and you put on the gog­gles and you look down and you’ve become Michael Sterling, a black male, and you go through his life over time. You start out as a sev­en year old and then you become a 13 year old and then you become a 30 year old. And through­out your life you’re expe­ri­enc­ing racial bias. And the gen­er­al theme of the piece, my col­league Courtney Cogburn, she’s a pro­fes­sor at Columbia University—studies black-white racism—this is based on, on her aca­d­e­m­ic research and her life expe­ri­ences, as well as those of her research team. This is real­ly her vision from a nar­ra­tive stand­point with me, you know, bol­ster­ing it based on what I know in sto­ry­telling and VR, and not just being the tech guy, but real­ly help­ing her achieve the vision that her research is pro­duc­ing. So the theme of it is that you, as a black male, are pun­ished for things that you do, where your white friends and col­leagues do not get pun­ished. And you start out as a kid where you throw a block and your friends have been throw­ing blocks—the teacher yells at you. Then you become a teenag­er and you try to cross a street, and for jay­walk­ing you get pulled over and frisked, when your white friend does not, and then sim­i­lar instances as you do job interviews—and it goes on. So that’s a piece that’s pre­mier­ing as we speak. In gen­er­al for the last 15 years, we’ve run dozens of stud­ies that has you become some­one else in VR. And then we com­pare that jour­ney of walk­ing a mile in some­one else’s shoes to con­trol con­di­tions. Things like role play­ing, or watch­ing videos, or read­ing case stud­ies. And in gen­er­al, not every sin­gle time, and cer­tain­ly not all the time and not in every sin­gle mea­sure, but across all of these stud­ies what pat­tern emerged is that as in gen­er­al, VR tends to out­per­form those con­trol con­di­tions at pro­duc­ing behav­ior change and, and chang­ing the way you behave towards oth­ers and your atti­tudes toward them.

Mason: I mean, one of the exam­ples of that is the Virtual Mirror project. Could you explain that a lit­tle further?

Bailenson: So the mir­ror is a tool that caus­es, what Mel Slater calls, body trans­fer. He and his col­leagues and you know, we’ve been using the vir­tu­al mir­ror since 2003, but I did­n’t invent it. The mir­ror was around before I got onto the scene. My col­league Jack Loomis had one in 1999. UC Santa Barbara, and I’m sure oth­ers have had them before then. But what the mir­ror does is it allows you to move phys­i­cal­ly in the world and to see your reflec­tion in VR change. So in this Michael Sterling piece and Thousand Cut Journey, you become Michael Sterling. And the way that we do body trans­fer is that we have a scene between every age jump you see your­self in a vir­tu­al mir­ror. And the way you do body trans­fer is that you move your hands phys­i­cal­ly, you wave to your­self, and you spend some time hav­ing this, what they call syn­chro­nous behav­ior. You move your body, and the mir­ror image responds in time.

Mason: Can you talk a lit­tle fur­ther about syn­chro­nous behav­ior? Is that the thing that com­bines the vir­tu­al of these envi­ron­ments that you are cre­at­ing, and the actu­al of your own body? Is there always this need for a cer­tain degree of cal­i­bra­tion between the two before some­one finds it tru­ly immersive?

Bailenson: Yes. So the syn­chro­nous term comes from the neu­ro­sci­en­tist, actu­al­ly. So there’s a famous line of research called the rub­ber hand illu­sion. And I’ll try to describe this to our lis­ten­ers. With a rub­ber hand illu­sion, imag­ine that you’re sit­ting at a table and you put your hand under the table so you can’t see your hand. And then they put a rub­ber hand on top of the table where your phys­i­cal hand should be. Now when you look down at that rub­ber hand, you see some­body stroking that hand with their fin­ger. So on the rub­ber hand, you see a fin­ger stroking it. Somebody under the table is touch­ing your phys­i­cal hand and feel­ing it stroke. So to sum that up, you’re see­ing the rub­ber hand get stroked and you’re feel­ing your phys­i­cal hand get stroked, but you can’t see your phys­i­cal hand. Over time, the brain tends to treat that rub­ber hand as if it were your real hand because you’re hav­ing that syn­chro­nous move­ment where you’re feel­ing the touch and see­ing the move­ment on the rub­ber hand. Now, the illu­sion does not work when it’s not syn­chro­nous. So the way, one way to mea­sure this, and I know that sounds ridicu­lous, if you take a nee­dle and you stick it in the rub­ber hand, you feel pain in your brain from the rub­ber hand get­ting get­ting stuck by a nee­dle, even though obvi­ous­ly it’s not your real hand. It does­n’t work if the move­ment is not syn­chro­nous. In oth­er words, if the fin­ger you see stroking your rub­ber hand is not in time with the fin­ger that’s touch­ing your phys­i­cal hand, it does­n’t work.

Mason: I want to return, just very quick­ly, back to this idea of empa­thy machines and the sorts of projects that you are describ­ing. The wor­ry is these tools might cre­ate empa­thy, but they also might serve to high­light cer­tain dif­fer­ences between indi­vid­u­als. Is there a dan­ger of how these plat­forms are being cre­at­ed to gen­er­ate empa­thy? Could they also do the inverse in some cases?

Bailenson: I believe full-heartedly that we need to study this thor­ough­ly. And there have been some stud­ies that show that when you become some­one else, that it acti­vates stereo­types, and there’s been oth­er stud­ies that show that noth­ing hap­pens and that it does­n’t go either way. And I believe that it’s an extreme­ly pow­er­ful medi­um if you try this body trans­fer, where you become some­one else in the mir­ror. It’s pret­ty intense, and I love the idea that we need to spend a lot of time work­ing on this.

Mason: Does it real­ly depend on the type of indi­vid­ual? Are some peo­ple more averse to vir­tu­al real­i­ty sim­u­la­tion envi­ron­ments ver­sus oth­ers. Do we know what the quick is with­in each and every indi­vid­u­al’s brain that either makes them hyper-immersed or sort of not inter­est­ed in those sorts of environments?

Bailenson: So in terms of indi­vid­ual dif­fer­ences in presence—we call this pro­cliv­i­ty for presence—there’s not been much work and the rea­son is, up until recent­ly, to run a VR study, it’s real­ly hard. You get this real­ly bulky hard­ware. It would break all the time. You could only bring peo­ple to the lab. Now that hard­ware costs a cou­ple hun­dred bucks and basi­cal­ly runs off a lap­top, we can start col­lect­ing data at scale. So Fernanda Herrera, who’s a PhD stu­dent in my lab, she has now run over 3000 sub­jects through this one empa­thy study we have called Becoming Homeless’, where you basi­cal­ly start a jour­ney where you live in your house and you lose your job and you get evict­ed. You try liv­ing in your car. And we put this in muse­ums. So we have a per­ma­nent exhib­it at the San Jose Tech Museum. We’ve brought it to senior cit­i­zen’s homes, we’ve put it at flea mar­kets. That’s a real­ly large data set with a lot of vari­ants in terms of who the par­tic­i­pants are. So I believe this data site will give us some insights to answer your ques­tion, but there has­n’t been much work to date, because there just haven’t been large sam­ple stud­ies that have enough variance.

Mason: The one thing that is clear is that there are, what you call in the book, media effects’. Media can change peo­ple. Could you explain what media effects’ are and why that’s so impor­tant with regards to vir­tu­al reality?

Bailenson: In the field of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, my lab at Stanford is in the Department of Communication. We study media—in par­tic­u­lar, how media affects peo­ple and media effects’ is the word we use for, you know, what’s the role of watch­ing TV for five hours a day or of hav­ing a con­nect­ed world via the inter­net?” And you know, with VR we don’t real­ly know how media is gonna affect peo­ple because we haven’t been able to run these large scale stud­ies. I just pro­duced a report for…or I coau­thored a report for Common Sense Media. Common Sense Media is an orga­ni­za­tion where par­ents can go to, to help under­stand media and kids. So, you know, I go there for, I have a six year old and a four year old. Is this movie appro­pri­ate for a six year old? It’s hard to tell from the descrip­tion some­times. And what we wrote for com­mon sense is a report about kids in VR. So it’s for peo­ple to try to under­stand in gen­er­al what we know about kids in VR and how media affects kids. In this instance, what we don’t. I mean the short answer is that we have a ton of work to do. And you know, we’ve come up with some rules or guide­lines for how you should think about VR and kids.

Mason: Right now we don’t have any con­sumer devices that are specif­i­cal­ly tar­get­ed to kids though, do we? And by kids, which sort of age group do you mean?

Bailenson: So in this report we study every­thing we know about any­body under the age of 17. And the rea­son we can do that is there so few aca­d­e­m­ic stud­ies that have looked at any­one under the age of 18. It’s pos­si­ble to review every sin­gle one in a fair­ly short report. So my PhD stu­dent, Jackie Bailey, who grad­u­at­ed last year, she’s now Professor at the University of Texas. Her work while at Stanford looked at hun­dreds of kids who were three years old, four years old, five years old and six years old. And she had them put on the gog­gles and meet Grover from Sesame Street—this is a project spon­sored by Sesame Street—and what we were look­ing at is what’s the dif­fer­ence for kids when they meet Grover in VR com­pared to when they meet him on TV? How does that affect things like exec­u­tive func­tion, how they’re able to resist temp­ta­tion and how it changes the way that they believe these char­ac­ters are real?”

Mason: Nothing sounds more ter­ri­fy­ing than the idea of Elmo in VR, or Elmo VR.

Bailenson: We have it in the lab. When you come to the Bay Area, you can dance with Elmo

Mason: From the per­spec­tive of that report, I mean, those sorts of experiences—very short term. So you put chil­dren in vir­tu­al real­i­ty for short peri­od of time and then you give them some­thing famil­iar, i.e. a char­ac­ter that they rec­og­nize from some­thing like Sesame Street. And I won­der what your opin­ions are on VR and dura­tion? I know you said that 20 min­utes is the lim­it­ed time any­body should spend on VR. But we’re already see­ing artists—there’s an artist in the UK, Mark Farid, who wants to spend 28 days in VR using a project called Seeing Eye. I mean, what do you think and feel when you hear that some peo­ple want to push their expe­ri­ence of these envi­ron­ments and this hard­ware to the extreme?

Bailenson: I’m all for free speech and I believe any­one should be able to do what they want with their own media expe­ri­ences. You know, Mark, go have at it, have fun, be safe. Make sure you have a bud­dy watch­ing you. But that’s an artist, and you know, artists do extreme art, and let’s keep that going. In terms of…all I can, you know, I’m not a gov­ern­ment agent and I can’t and don’t want to do reg­u­la­tion. For my friends and my fam­i­ly, when they ask me what should I do?” 20 min­utes is enough. Pull that thing off after 20 min­utes, touch a wall, have a drink of water, say hel­lo to a friend. Typically we find that there’s not much worth going back in for after 20 min­utes. I mean, there are some obvi­ous­ly artists that are doing this, you know, I think that’s pret­ty neat. But for peo­ple in gen­er­al, I think that there’s very few VR expe­ri­ences that are worth doing for more than 20 min­utes right now. That may change as con­tent gets better.

Mason: Does this align with some of the com­mer­cial inter­ests of the sorts of folks who want to cre­ate com­mer­cial VR? Of course they want to keep people—at least I under­stand it that way—they want to keep peo­ple in as long as pos­si­ble. They want it not to be a 20 minute expe­ri­ence, but to be a whole, a five hour gam­ing expe­ri­ence. I mean, how do you medi­ate the con­ver­sa­tion with those sorts of indi­vid­u­als who come to your lab and go, Jeremy, tell us how we keep peo­ple in here for five hours cause you want to sell the shoot them up game. And we want peo­ple to be ful­ly immersed for that peri­od of time. I mean, eth­i­cal­ly, what do you do in that scenario?

Bailenson: Oh, eth­i­cal­ly it’s real­ly sim­ple. I tell them just what I’m telling you. And even, you know, when, when I’m work­ing with these com­pa­nies and you know, it’s a hard mes­sage to deliv­er. But you know, they’re big men and big women and they, you know, they just choose whether they’re going to lis­ten to me. I’ve real­ly clear­ly, you know, say that, you know, I don’t want you to be doing this every day. I think 20 min­utes is plen­ty. You know, there are cer­tain expe­ri­ences I think peo­ple should avoid in VR that are, you know, pret­ty nasty. And they lis­ten to me. They don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly hear me or, or they hear me, they don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly lis­ten to me. But you know, I keep harp­ing on it.

Mason: Well, what are some of those expe­ri­ences to avoid, if you don’t mind me asking?

Bailenson: That depends on per­son­al ten­den­cies, but, but my guide­line is if there was some­thing that if you did it in the real world—whatever this thing is—when you went to bed that night, you would­n’t be able to sleep. You would­n’t be able to look your­self on a mir­ror. You would­n’t be able to look your spouse in the eye. You would just feel ter­ri­ble at your­self had you done it in the real world. Those are the kinds of things I think we should avoid in VR. And that’s a per­son­al choice on my end. You know, you should do things you can’t do—fly to the moon. You should do things that are dan­ger­ous, like jump­ing off a cliff. That’s great. In VR, you’re not going to get hurt if there’s some­thing that you know the expe­ri­ence would leave you sad about your­self as a per­son because the brain tends to respond to VR in a way that’s real. You should avoid those in VR, in my opinion.

Mason: The counter argu­ment could be, I mean, VR could be used as a safe envi­ron­ment in which to explore the dark­er sides of what it means to be human. For some peo­ple that may be a form of exor­cism. It goes back to the same debate that indi­vid­u­als are hav­ing right now between child sex robots; whether that cures peadophil­ia or not. There are some dark things that can be done in these sort of safe envi­ron­ments where­by arguably noth­ing is at stake that could help cer­tain indi­vid­u­als through cer­tain pro­cliv­i­ties. I mean, is there a blurred line here?

Bailenson: So let’s take aside the instance where there’s a ther­a­pist that’s guid­ing some­body through who’s in a very spe­cif­ic clin­i­cal pop­u­la­tion. Cause that’s out­side my exper­tise. But I will say in gen­er­al in psy­chol­o­gy, this notion of cathar­sis that expe­ri­ences can be used to relieve ten­sion is not one that has much exper­i­men­tal sup­port. So when we talk about video game vio­lence, there cer­tain­ly is debate about whether or not these games desen­si­tize you to vio­lence in the real world. There are some peo­ple that can test that. As far as I know, there’s not many cred­i­ble psy­chol­o­gists that are argu­ing that it caus­es you to relieve ten­sion and hence not be more aggres­sive lat­er on. That is a notion that does­n’t get much more in the literature.

Mason: There’s a fun­ny line with regards to PTSD stud­ies where­by arguably VR is being hyper effec­tive at help­ing peo­ple sort of recov­er from those vio­lent expe­ri­ences. And part of that is to do with degrees of expo­sure. They need to be re-exposed to the sorts of vio­lence that they have been suf­fer­ing. I won­der if we can talk just a lit­tle bit about the PTSD stud­ies and why they’ve shown to be so effec­tive, and where VR com­bines with, with the recov­ery of PTSD.

Bailenson: I think that’s a great tran­si­tion. And Skip Rizzo, who’s prob­a­bly the name most asso­ci­at­ed with this. He says very clear­ly that when you play video games like Call of Duty, he calls it a revenge fan­ta­sy’. And that is, they do that just to explore their dark place. What he does­n’t argue that’s clin­i­cal­ly impor­tant to what he argues: what you use VR for is some­thing called cog­ni­tive expo­sure ther­a­py. So some­one who’s got PTSD, the way ther­a­pists typ­i­cal­ly try to help them is by bring­ing them back, men­tal­ly, To try to get them to imag­ine the time and the place of this trau­ma so that the ther­a­pist can then give them cop­ing strate­gies to try to undo these asso­ci­a­tions. So it’s not real­ly explor­ing a dark place, it’s more, you know, hav­ing to go back there. So the ther­a­pist can give you tools. And so what Rizzo does is he builds, you know, vir­tu­al­ly rock. And when vet­er­ans come back, he puts them in there in the gog­gles and he’s got good sight and sound. Sometimes you use vir­tu­al scent where he can have the burn­ing smell. It’s real­ly intense. And then with a ther­a­pist, the ther­a­pist helps you unrav­el some of that dam­age while you’re there.

Mason: I think that’s the impor­tant thing that often we miss. It has to be guid­ed VR. Either there has to be a ther­a­pist there or in the cas­es of your lab, you’re on the periph­ery to catch peo­ple when they fall. I mean peo­ple often for­get that there has to be an indi­vid­ual sort of help­ing anoth­er per­son through these VR experiences—it’s not a me and the vir­tu­al envi­ron­ment sce­nario is it?

Bailenson: No, it’s safe­ty first. It’s real­ly unlike oth­er forms of recre­ation. As far as I know the first death just occurred in vir­tu­al real­i­ty. A man in Moscow was play­ing a immer­sive video game and fell through a play class table and bled to death, and you know, it’s, it’s a tragedy. But we’re going to see more of them, if we don’t real­ly take spot­ting and safe­ty in terms of just not col­lid­ing into objects seriously.

Mason: I mean you recent­ly wrote an arti­cle for Slate out­lin­ing some of the eight ways in which we need to be more safe with VR, and spot­ting is one of those. Could you explain what spot­ting is? Because again, I think that’s one of the most over­looked things with regards to VR. People just assume they put their head­set on and off they go. But there always has to be an indi­vid­ual there.

Bailenson: So the way you do VR is you wear these gog­gles and you’re in a phys­i­cal room and it’s almost nev­er the case that the vir­tu­al scene is the same size as the phys­i­cal room. So sim­ply walk­ing into walls is an issue because you know, the VR room is very big and your phys­i­cal room is typ­i­cal­ly pret­ty small. Over the years of giv­ing tours in my lab—and I prob­a­bly demo at least a thou­sand, maybe 2000 peo­ple per year—you know, we’ve had some peo­ple do some pret­ty extreme behav­iors. I was remind­ed this morn­ing that Lord Tony Hall, the head of the BBC was in my lab, and when he did the Superman demo where he lift­ed his hands over his head to fly like a hero, we have a floor in my lab that shakes. The floor shook, and Lord Hall just decid­ed to do a back­flip. When he took off, he raised his hands up and jumped and I was there to catch him. But I think the field of VR would have suf­fered had he con­tin­ued along that trajectory.

Mason: I want to go back a lit­tle bit back to this, this idea of PTSD and how VR can be used in these envi­ron­ments. Because almost it feels like if VR can be used to relieve the symp­toms of trau­ma, or of pain, then sure­ly it also fol­lows that there is a poten­tial to use vir­tu­al real­i­ty to induce trau­ma or to induce pain. To my knowl­edge, I don’t think we’ve had the first case of some­one hav­ing PTSD from a VR expe­ri­ence, but won’t that real­ly prove out the effi­ca­cy of the medi­um, if that was allowance to happen?

Bailenson: Yeah, I know I’m not a clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist and so I can’t speak of what caus­es PTSD per se, but I do believe these intense expe­ri­ences do pro­duce neg­a­tive reac­tions. I mean the clos­est data point I have for you on this, and this is very anec­do­tal because we just pre­miered this Thousand Cut Journey—that’s the piece at Tribeca right now, where you become a black male—when whites go through it, we’re sup­posed to go and you know, feel real­ly emo­tion­al­ly engaged and to rethink our role in how to help racial jus­tice and how to help peo­ple of col­or. When peo­ple of col­or go through it, it’s a trig­ger for some of them, and we’ve had more than one per­son have a fair­ly intense reac­tion. We’re very care­ful. We talked to them before­hand and after. That’s why this one is not up on steam yet for free. We want to be a lit­tle more care­ful with this one. But we’ve had some, you know, some peo­ple that are brought back to the times when this hap­pened to them. And it’s hard

Mason: Again back to—and I hate to keep com­ing back to the dark side of VR—but I think it’s a thing that if we don’t talk about it open­ly, it’s the thing that the press take and they want to run VR as if it’s like vio­lent com­put­er games. They want to assume the worst con­stant­ly. And, and I know that the folks from Be Another Lab, who you might be aware of, have said that VR has the poten­tial to induce severe pain or suf­fer­ing, whether phys­i­cal­ly or men­tal­ly, if it is applied with tor­tur­ous inten­tion­al­i­ty. Most cer­tain­ly the mil­i­tary will short­ly be exper­i­ment­ing with VR as a form of tor­ture if they have not begun already. I mean, does­n’t that con­cern you—the idea that it can be used for these hyper insid­i­ous scenarios?

Bailenson: So first I want our lis­ten­ers to take a deep breath. These are a cou­ple of peo­ple in Boston say­ing that maybe the mil­i­tary might be doing this. That is, we have no data that that is occur­ring. So every­body take a deep breath. That being said, your point is well tak­en and this is a medi­um that’s pow­er­ful and I can’t look you in the eye and say that VR is so pow­er­ful, it can change the way you think about race, but not be used to make you feel bad.’ And I mean, let’s for­get VR for a sec­ond. You can do a lot with a video, you can do a lot with the writ­ten word and, but as I’m argu­ing, VR is a next lev­el thing in terms of its influ­ence and its pow­er. So we’ve got to be care­ful. I mean, look. The book came out January 30th and it’s been reviewed by the New York Times and the Washington Post, The Times of London, The Wall Street Journal, and in gen­er­al, peo­ple love the book. Where I get crit­i­cized is I’m not as atten­tive to the dark sides as I should’ve been. I think I’ve been lumped—or VR has been lumped a lit­tle bit with kind of the dark side of social media right now. In terms of its manip­u­la­tion and abuse and pri­va­cy. And so even though chap­ter two of the book is all about the dark sides of VR, I’ve been pigeon­holed as a hope­less optimist.

Mason: Let’s return then to a lit­tle bit about how VR is being lumped in with social media because I felt Jaron Lanier has done a lot to help that nar­ra­tive. So with the Dawn of the New Everything, he came up with two strong mes­sages which were about the behav­ioral mod­i­fi­ca­tion empires of social media, but also about vir­tu­al real­i­ty and how that could be the next way in which humans are manip­u­lat­ed from both a behav­ioral per­spec­tive or oth­er­wise. And I think Jaron’s done it slight­ly a dis­ser­vice in so far as he’s kind of fright­ened peo­ple into the idea that now real­i­ty’s at stake, cause we already know our real­i­ty is being manip­u­lat­ed through vir­tu­al plat­forms. And we’ve seen Zucks tes­ti­fy in front of Congress, and Zucks of course is one of the indi­vid­u­als who both came to your lab and found VR trip­py, and also has own­er­ship of one of the at least most pub­li­cized cas­es of where a VR com­pa­ny has been pur­chased and wants to be used at scale. Now your inter­est is social VR. You’re very excit­ed about social VR, but it feels like what Zuckerberg terms as social VR is very dif­fer­ent from what you out­lined as social VR in the book. And I won­der if you could just high­light where are some of the dif­fer­ences and where are some of the sim­i­lar­i­ties between your visions, I suppose?

Bailenson: Yeah. First let me start with Jaron Lanier, because I do think he’s still real­ly high on VR. He and I talk very often and I believe, I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but if we can change the eco­nom­ic mod­el such that every­thing’s free and the only way you pay is with your data, I think he’ll be real­ly hap­py. So, you know, you can ask him direct­ly. But I do think he’s opti­mistic in VR, assum­ing we can solve some of these struc­tur­al prob­lems that we’ve had with oth­er social media. On Mark, you know, Mark is…or let’s talk about Facebook. Facebook is real­ly into social VR. They have a huge group—including a num­ber of my for­mer PhD students—that are build­ing Facebook spaces, which is their net­worked avatar space. There’s also a dozen oth­er com­pa­nies in the Valley that are doing it, whether it’s Altspace VR who got bought by Microsoft or High Fidelity, which is a new com­pa­ny from Philip Rosedale who found­ed Second Life, or Sansar, which is the new ver­sion of Second Life run by Linden Lab. So there’s a lot of these com­pa­nies that are out there. I like that it’s a crowd­ed space. If you look at the num­ber of peo­ple who are using social net­work VR right now, the win­ner’ in terms of the most peo­ple using is some­thing called VR chat. And they had 20,000 peo­ple in there con­cur­rent­ly. And that was­n’t on any­body’s radar a year ago. So I think that, you know, we’re all bet­ting on Facebook to win just because of their amaz­ing resources and tal­ent in some ways. But you know, there’s some, there’s oth­er players.

Mason: Phillip Rosendale and Facebook kind of share some­thing inter­est­ing with regards to social VR, because they’re mov­ing slow­ly towards the avatars look­ing in the image and like­ness of you, and it feels like Jaron’s dis­ap­point­ment with VR has come from the fact that we haven’t gone and cre­at­ed these crazy worlds that have formed mor­phogenic algo­rithms, and our avatars aren’t bipedal and human look­ing, but they’re a mesh of two indi­vid­ual human bod­ies that are writhing and thriv­ing in whole new, dif­fer­ent sorts of ways. I just won­der where you stand on that? Does social VR needs to look a lit­tle bit like real­i­ty to get peo­ple over the thresh­old to explore the pos­si­bil­i­ties there? Or should we just embrace full cre­ativ­i­ty when it comes to social VR and cre­ate worlds that we’ve nev­er seen before, nev­er expe­ri­enced before, and embrace that kind of cre­ative chaos that could come with VR?

Bailenson: I mean, the answer is yes—we should do both. So Jaron and I have pub­lished papers togeth­er on his the­o­ry, which he came up with, you know, decades ago, called Homuncular Flexibility, which is the abil­i­ty for the brain to accom­mo­date very weird bod­ies. And we’ve built avatars that have third arms and ones that when you move your phys­i­cal hands, that moves your avatar’s legs. And you know, I’ve run stud­ies where you become a cow and oth­er ani­mals, and become a piece of coral. And I love all that. But you know, for me, the epic win with VR in terms of sav­ing the plan­et: we’re soon going to have 11 bil­lion peo­ple on this plan­et and we can’t all be dri­ving to work both ways every­day and fly­ing across the world to have hour long meet­ings, so some­thing’s got to give. And in the work con­text, you can’t look like a mon­key with three heads. You have to, you know, have some sem­blance of pro­fes­sion­al­ism. So when we’re doing things that require pho­to­graph­ic realisms, giv­en the con­text, we need to have the abil­i­ty to do that. And when you want to, you know, share bod­ies and you know, grow a third arm, you can do that too—but just the right time, in the right place.

Mason: A lot of peo­ple wor­ry that the VR is going to be the dias­po­ra from the self. But in actu­al fact, it could be the medi­um that allows you to explore mul­ti­ple selves, if social media has failed in that respect, i.e. it forces you to have a sin­gu­lar pro­file. And could VR be the thing that returns us back to the sort of mid-nineties world where you’re not judged by your body or your avatar—you’re judged by the sorts of expe­ri­ences that you gen­er­ate and cre­ate. Could it retrieve a lot of the good inten­tions of the mid 90 cyber punks?

Bailenson: Yeah, I mean, look, when you look at the main thinkers in this era, one of our heroes, her name is Sherry Turkle, and Sherry was huge­ly opti­mistic about the dig­i­tal media as it’s going to help us with, you know, self-expression and the selves. And of course she’s turned around a lot on her think­ing. I mean, you see this a lot when you look at the schol­ars who wrote bril­liant­ly and exten­sive­ly in the eight­ies and nineties about social media or about dig­i­tal media has turned around a lot. Jaron—of course—being one of them. Sherry Turkle—another. And I don’t love see­ing that tra­jec­to­ry. It’s kin­da sad. I’m not say­ing that they’re not wrong. It’s always a bum­mer when the heroes that have, you know, real­ly helped pave the way for this vision, you know, are not excit­ed about where it’s come.

Mason: Is it a case of we got what we got what we want­ed, but it was­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly what they expect­ed it was going to be? Do you think that that’s where some of the dis­ap­point­ment with the future that we have now comes from? And do you think that in actu­al fact vir­tu­al real­i­ty is a pos­si­bil­i­ty that this time we could get it right? It feels like VR is being giv­en a much wider berth. The sort of work that you’re doing is real­ly inter­est­ing, and so far as it not rejects or ignores the com­mer­cial appli­ca­tions of VR, but it real­ly proves the effi­ca­cy with­in a cer­tain closed envi­ron­ment whilst all the com­mer­cial VR is prepar­ing peo­ple to have these sorts of incred­i­ble expe­ri­ences through these, you know, very rep­re­sen­ta­tive gam­ing or 360 video. Let the com­mer­cial guys go do that whilst you’re also doing your work, because your work will be the thing that will real­ly help us tran­si­tion from real­i­ty to anoth­er reality.

Bailenson: Well, I mean, the one thing I can say is that what’s a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent now is that we’ve, we’ve made some pret­ty big mis­takes with how eco­nom­i­cal­ly and how struc­tural­ly we’ve allowed social media to play out. And hope­ful­ly we can learn from them. But I don’t have so much hubris that I think that, that, that any­thing I can do can make this dif­fer­ent. And I try to be loud and to, you know, to talk to peo­ple like you and your lis­ten­ers and hope­ful­ly we can avoid some of the mis­takes we’ve made in the past.

Mason: I want to go a lit­tle bit back to talk­ing about how VR is an impor­tant medi­um in terms of immer­sion and in terms of the sens­es, and in terms of agency, because I think the thing that we prob­a­bly haven’t spo­ken enough about is agency. You always have the abil­i­ty to take the thing off with vir­tu­al real­i­ty. Storytelling is all about the agency of the indi­vid­ual, where oth­er medi­ums of sto­ry­telling such as 2D video or cin­e­ma force you to go through from begin­ning to mid­dle to end. How does human agency play and how is human agency so impor­tant when it comes to think­ing about vir­tu­al reality?

Bailenson: When it comes to sto­ry­telling, when you watch a movie, when you read a book, it’s lin­ear. You know, unless it’s a choose your own adven­ture’, you’re pret­ty much read­ing in a line. With film, the director—she choos­es where you’re gonna look by point­ing the cam­era. VR is anar­chy. You can look wher­ev­er you want, when­ev­er you want, and you can walk to places. 

I can give you an exam­ple: When I was at Tribeca Film Festival, one of the pieces, I did—a new piece,—it’s called a Hero, and it’s a real­ly intense piece. You’re in a Syrian vil­lage, and there is a dog that comes up to you and you play with the dog. And they have these two beau­ti­ful chil­dren that are kick­ing a soc­cer ball. And you know, this is a ful­ly immer­sive back­pack based sys­tem. You’re walk­ing around mul­ti­ple rooms, com­put­er graph­ics, high end graph­ics, real­ly very well done. And you’re sit­ting there play­ing with these kids and then you see a heli­copter come and the heli­copter hov­ers over and you go, Oh man”, you know, it’s com­ing”, and the heli­copter drops a bomb. And when the bomb hits about five meters away from you, unbe­knownst to you, the artists have now wheeled in a fan that’s blow­ing hot air and then they drop some paper or shrap­nel or some, some saw­dust. So you feel shrap­nel hit your face. I mean, that bomb hit­ting and me feel­ing that blast was one of the most intense things I’ve ever done in VR. Obviously real­ly hor­ri­ble. Getting to the point of your ques­tion, what you’re sup­posed to do in this instance—it’s called Hero—after the bomb hits, there’s peo­ple who are stuck under heavy objects and you have to go around and help some of them. One of the men who had got­ten crushed, I just decid­ed I want­ed to help some­body off in the dis­tance, I got up in the sto­ry itself. The direc­tors did­n’t want me going over there. And what hap­pened is that I, you know, ran over to help this guy who was under­neath this big chunk of met­al and I smashed my face, smashed into a two by four that they’d left sit­ting out for the fan because they could­n’t antic­i­pate that I was going to not do what they want­ed me to do in terms of the nar­ra­tive, and I smashed into a two by four and cut the inside of my mouth. 

So it’s real­ly hard to pre­dict what some­one’s going to do in VR and for­get safe­ty for a sec­ond. It just, it harms sto­ry­telling because you know, one of the clas­sic aspects of film is some­thing called plant and pay­off. Early on in the first act you learn this real­ly sub­tle thing about some­body and lat­er on that sub­tle thing, that side long glance or the fact that they had a red shirt becomes how, you know, the twist. And in VR it’s hard to do sto­ry­telling tricks like that because you nev­er know where some­one’s look­ing. And it could be that you’re doing this real­ly com­pli­cat­ed side­long glance and hand­ing some­body some­thing under the table, but you know, the view­er, she’s look­ing up at the ceil­ing and look­ing at the fan and how cool it looks with the light and she miss­es the entire thing. So the agency issue with sto­ry­telling is some­thing that peo­ple are still work­ing on.

Mason: You men­tioned very quick­ly, the idea, espe­cial­ly in that sce­nario, where the bomb went off and you had the feel­ing of the wind and the feel­ing of the heat. I mean, how much do you feel like you have to get all of the sens­es into the vir­tu­al real­i­ty envi­ron­ment? I mean, how many can we get in, and there’s the haptics—there’s the smell that we can do, the touch in tem­per­a­ture to a degree? Do you think that the aim should be to get all the sens­es into these envi­ron­ments, or should we care­ful­ly medi­ate what we do bring in and what we leave out in the real world?

Bailenson: I mean, I think it depends on the sim­u­la­tion that you’re going for. So I don’t think you should over­fit too much and some­times sight’s enough. Sometimes sight plus sound is enough. I mean, doing touch hap­tics is real­ly expen­sive and the devices are hard to do. So you know, for cer­tain things, for exam­ple, when we’re train­ing a quar­ter­back to look around a field and to rec­og­nize a visu­al pat­tern, in that instance touch isn’t as impor­tant because we just need to get the visu­al pat­tern. When we are train­ing peo­ple on how to do surgery and to hold these com­pli­cat­ed scalpels while they’re cut­ting through bones and arteries—haptics is real­ly impor­tant. So I think VR in gen­er­al is hard to do and very expen­sive. And so we should choose our bat­tles in terms of which sens­es we ren­der in order of ones that are most rel­e­vant to the trans­fer of the task.

Mason: Have you had any expe­ri­ence with The Void? I did it about two weeks ago. I remem­ber the first thing I did was look for my hands. Then I looked for my feet. My feet weren’t there, but I found my hands. And the sec­ond thing I did was try and grab my friend’s hand. It was such a vis­cer­al moment of can I touch him, and will I feel some­thing?’. I won­der if that, as a form of VR as enter­tain­ment, that is clos­er to where we should be going, where it should live, instead of in the homes where we sort of self-medicate our­selves for our VR ther­a­pies and VR med­i­ta­tion expe­ri­ences. It should be less about this con­sumer play and more about this full immer­sive expe­ri­en­tial play.

Bailenson: Yeah, the loca­tion based VR—as we’re start­ing to call it—is one, I think, that has a lot of promise. There’s a com­pa­ny in the Bay area called Nomadic, and Nomadic does sim­i­lar to what you described about that expe­ri­ence, but what makes them spe­cial is that half of the com­pa­ny, they’re not just tech peo­ple, they are peo­ple that know how to do pop­up stores. So basi­cal­ly they can descend upon a shop­ping mall and with­in, you know, some short amount of time, have a four room set­up with, you know, the objects in the right place and the fans, and the heat gen­er­a­tors in the right place…and they can do this quick­ly and at scale. And I like the mod­el. So we did a piece for NPR when the book came out and we taped it on loca­tion in an arcade in New York City. It’s called VR World. I grew up in the 80s and going to the arcade was an intense­ly social expe­ri­ence. And what we saw at VR World—it was in the mid­dle of the day—and we had all these school chil­dren, they’re on field trips, run­ning around play­ing with each oth­er. It was spe­cial and real­ly neat. On the oth­er hand, you know, you still have peo­ple in gog­gles and they’re not look­ing at you. So even though they’re in the same phys­i­cal space, it’s not when you went to an arcade in the 80s, you all clus­ter around this machine and you could kind of look at each oth­er. And so it’s, I like loca­tion VR because it brings us out of the house, but I still think, you know, we need to think more about, you know, small doses.

Mason: Have you seen the film—I know you’ve read the book—but have you seen the film Ready Player One yet? Spielberg’s kind of imag­i­nary of what the future of VR may look like. Because I think what’s inter­est­ing specif­i­cal­ly about the film ver­sus the book is Spielberg’s attempt to imag­ine the physics of how these future VR spaces will work. The hap­tic suits, there’s the gen­tle­man who’s set up as the evil char­ac­ter has this incred­i­ble chair that he sits in to expe­ri­ence the VR and yet the final bat­tle at the end (and this is not spoil­er alert), you just have these peo­ple run­ning through the streets with their VR head­sets on and you go hold on—nothing seems to match with regards to the physics here. Some peo­ple are on tread­mills, some peo­ple are just run­ning through the streets, some peo­ple are sit­ting in these chairs.” I mean do you find that’s com­pelling, or do you just think that’s good sto­ry­telling and we should just reject the aes­thet­ics of Ready Player One?

Bailenson: So I saw Ready Player One the day it came out, with all the employ­ees from High Fidelity and all the employ­ees from Linden Lab in San Francisco.

Mason: I bet con­ver­sa­tion in the bar after­wards was fascinating?

Bailenson: Sitting next to Rosedale, and so, you know—had there been an earth­quake, the oasis would have been jeop­ar­dized because all the actu­al peo­ple build­ing it were in that room. And actu­al­ly the bar con­ver­sa­tion, we went back to High Fidelity, both the Second Life employ­ees and the High Fidelity employ­ees, and we had beers and whiskey and talked about a lot of this stuff. And you know, look, one of the most pow­er­ful scenes for me from the movie was right when you start out in the movie—and this is not a spoiler—that you pan down this build­ing and you see every­body in the win­dows alone, in their own room doing stuff that looks real­ly weird from an out­side observ­er. And it just kind of begins with this is our vision of what VR is, you know, and, and it goes back to this, you know, how do you get over this VR is iso­lat­ing. And then when you’re using VR, you look like an idiot”. How do you, how do you get over that? And then that to me is what stood out from that movie, that first scene when you’re like, wow, that’s what we were striv­ing for”.

Mason: I mean, my lis­ten­ers would hate me if I did­n’t ask you, but what were some of the opin­ions of folks like Philip Rosedale and the Second Life guys? Did they look at that and go, Oh my God, that is exact­ly what we need to build”? Or was it like, Come on, there’s no way that’s gonna ever ren­der in our sys­tems, why the hell would any­body do it that way?”

Bailenson: Well, we’d all read the book and we were all root­ing for it to be great because you know, the VR indus­try will get a boost if the movie…so real­ly the con­ver­sa­tion was about the response that the movie was going to cause for the pub­lic. One of the big ideas behind the book and the movie, and again, not a spoil­er alert, is it’s just about games and you’re play­ing these games. And so for those that have read the book and the movie, there’s a big theme in the book about VR and train­ing and how peo­ple actu­al­ly get an edu­ca­tion in VR. That does­n’t appear in the movie at all. And so, you know, for me per­son­al­ly and a lot of the con­ver­sa­tions I was in, I enjoyed the movie. It was a fun, you know, just nice expe­ri­ence. But I wished that in addi­tion to the gam­ing, that some of these more, you know, use­ful appli­ca­tions of VR would have emerged.

Mason: There’s anoth­er theme in both the book and the film. This idea of escapism, and escapism can be a pos­i­tive thing. In the film it’s escapism from this very kind of grub­by envi­ron­ment in which these char­ac­ters are liv­ing, but also escapism is used as a term that is seen as a neg­a­tive when it comes to think­ing about VR. I mean, where do you sit with this idea of VR being a form of escapism? Cause I think for some peo­ple that’s a good thing. I mean, we com­plained about these kids spend­ing hours and hours and hours in these mas­sive­ly online gam­ing envi­ron­ments. But for some of those kids, that’s where they find their social con­nec­tion. That’s where they find their con­fi­dence. That’s where they find their friends. Okay, they might not be look­ing after their bod­ies and they might be sit­ting with bad pos­ture in front of these machines for an extend­ed peri­od of time. But that’s arguably where they feel human. So then what’s wrong with that?

Bailenson: For my friends and fam­i­ly, I always rec­om­mend mod­er­a­tion. And you know, I do get if you live in rur­al Alaska or if you, you know, you’re not mobile and you can’t leave. And there’s one of my for­mer grad stu­dents, his name is Nikki and Nick has done more work than just about any­one look­ing at the pro-social aspects of these net­work video games. These MMORPG’s. So there’s no doubt you can learn amaz­ing lead­er­ship skills in these games and you can make friends that you’re gonna know for­ev­er. All that being said, it’s hard to watch Ready Player One and find any­thing pos­i­tive from that world as depict­ed by Klein. It’s, you know, it’s pret­ty hard to see any­thing healthy about the phys­i­cal world itself or about, you know, the fact that the entire plan­et’s depend­ing on the suc­cess of some­body play­ing an eight­ies video game. And so I, you know, I see it in your face that you see some pos­i­tiv­i­ty there, and maybe I’m a bit old­er and it was just hard to see the love there

Mason: To end this con­ver­sa­tion. I real­ly want to ask you about your future vision for VR. I mean, what is it for you that makes an envi­ron­ment, or a VR envi­ron­ment, real­ly effec­tive, and should these expe­ri­ences be hyper cus­tomiz­able, hyper social? What sort of VR would you like peo­ple to expe­ri­ence? Because it feels like at the moment, so many peo­ple are hav­ing ter­ri­ble VR expe­ri­ences. A lot of peo­ple are using los­ing their VR-ginity to hor­ri­ble brand­ed exe­cu­tions using pre­ex­ist­ing HTC hard­ware plus a tilt brush soft­ware. And assum­ing that that is the lim­i­ta­tion of VR, I mean every­thing that’s in the book and every­thing that you do in your lab shows that the VR is so much more. So I just won­der what is your vision for the best sorts of VR expe­ri­ences that we can have as human beings?

Bailenson: Yeah, I love the ques­tion and just let me say that I actu­al­ly think the HTC Vive is a pret­ty good sys­tem. I think you can have great experiences.

Mason: I’ve got noth­ing against the HTC Vive. Just against how these head­sets are thrown on peo­ple and then any old con­tent is giv­en to them. It’s brand­ed up as Coca-Cola or McDonald’s. And then there’s the assump­tion that, okay, this is VR and I Tilt Brush on the side of a Happy Meal box and go, Okay, I’ve had a VR experience”. 

Bailenson: Yeah I know, I total­ly agree with your big premise. I just want to be clear that even in my lab we often use the Vive and the Rift and their native track­ing sys­tems, because they’re pret­ty good. And Tilt Brush in and of itself out­side of an advertising/paint the Happy Meal con­text is a pret­ty neat thing to do. But your point is well tak­en and most of the times when I give talks I say how many of you guys have done VR?” And more and more as time goes on, half or two thirds will have done it. And I said, how many guys have used it twice?”, and like the one hand will go up. And then the prob­lem is peo­ple are using either hard­ware that’s not main­tained well, where the track­ing is not per­fect, or the lap­top can’t ren­der at 90 frames a sec­ond, or they’re just doing real­ly bad expe­ri­ences, ones that make you sick. The cam­er­a’s mov­ing real­ly quick­ly and you’re not mov­ing your body are ones that have no point, One thing I’m excit­ed about—to end optimistically—one of the road­blocks in VR is con­tent cre­ation. And it’s hard to cre­ate con­tent. It’s hard for me to cre­ate con­tent. Thousand Cut Journey—we spent a year and a half on this, and my oth­er pieces Becoming Homeless and the Stanford Ocean Acidification Experience; thou­sands of hours. It takes a lot of time. As the tools like Unity and like Unreal and all these oth­er engines are becom­ing eas­i­er to pro­gram and the cost of entry gets low­er, what you’re going to see is more peo­ple learn­ing how to cre­ate good con­tent. And you know, look, if you think about movies, we did­n’t get to Star Wars you know, when they invent­ed the mov­ing pic­ture. It took decades, right? To get to some­thing lofty, to like Citizen Kane. But it takes a while to get to great con­tent and I think what I’m excit­ed about is as the con­tent cre­ation gets democ­ra­tized, some­body’s going to nail it.

Mason: Jeremy Bailenson, thank you for your insight on VR.

Bailenson: I real­ly appre­ci­ate your due dili­gence. Great ques­tions. Thank you.

Mason: Thank you to Jeremy for shar­ing his thoughts on how vir­tu­al space will trans­form human experience. 

You can find out more by pur­chas­ing Jeremy’s new book, Experience on Demand: What Virtual Reality Is, How It Works, And What It Can Do, avail­able now. If you like what you’ve heard, then you can sub­scribe for our lat­est episode or fol­low us on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram @FUTURESPodcast.

More episodes, tran­scripts, and show notes can be found at future​spod​cast​.net. Thank you for lis­ten­ing to the Futures Podcast.

Further Reference

Episode page, with intro­duc­to­ry and pro­duc­tion notes. Transcript orig­i­nal­ly by Beth Colquhoun, repub­lished with per­mis­sion (mod­i­fied).