Dawn of the New Everything: A Journey through Virtual Reality – Jaron Lanier

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Usually when a man credited with coining a technical term, expounds about his creation, the outcome is inevitably anticipated to be dense, it not downright esoteric – expect for a segment of the populace that terms itself fraternity. Unless such a man goes by the name of Jaron Lanier that is. The author of the best-seller “You Are Not a Gadget”, and “Who Owns The Future”, in his latest book, “The Dawn Of the New Everything”, gives a vantage techno-spiritual overview of the concept of virtual reality. Universally acknowledged as one of the pioneers of this immersion technology, and also the computer scientist who coined the term VR for the first time, Mr. Lanier has penned what can be correctly described as a riveting quasi-memoir.

Here’s summarizing the latest offering of Techverse’s most famous recluse:

  • A deeply personal and touching memoir where Mr. Lanier dwells about the devastating loss of his mother in an automobile accident and how he was left to nurse this scar for a protracted period of time. Writing in a matter-of-fact manner, Mr. Lanier described as to how before turning seventeen he designed his family home, an asymmetric, futuristic, weird angled geodesic dome. Not surprisingly, he chose to call it, “Earth Station Lanier.” This following the burning down of their home in an arson attack. Unable to obtain any compensation from the insurance companies, the prodigious Mr. Lanier and his equally prodigious father Ellery (Ellery went on to obtain a PhD in his eighties), were forced to live for some time in a tent. If this reads unbelieving, wait until you get to the part where he deals with goats and musical instruments;

 

  • Possessing an inveterate and a preternatural zeal for music, Mr. Lanier accumulates musical instruments at a rate which puts even the reproduction capabilities of rabbits to utter shame! From the conventional to the bizarre, Mr. Lanier’s personal collection numbers at least a whopping 1,000!
  • Stretch limos are passé; goat limos are in! Procuring a goat so that he could make money by selling cheese, which in turn would enable the payment of his tuition fee, Mr. Lanier comes to the firm conclusion that many are better than one. Modifying an already modified care – one with a missing back seat – he stuffs bales of hay where there once was a seat and where one rightfully should be too, thereby converting the battered car into a barn. This “goat limo” facilitated Mr. Lanier going about his chores while, “moving the lovely creatures around in style.”
  • In a Where-C.S.Lewis-meets-J.R.R.Tolkien fantasy, while still attending high school, Mr. Lanier gets himself enrolled at New Mexico State University. In the course of studying computer science, he comes across the exploits of Ivan Sutherland, a pioneering tech enthusiast, who, in the 1960s, conceived a head-mounted display permitting an individual to view a digital world, the preserve of computer programs. Another book that gets a special mention by Mr. Lanier is the complex work, “Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid”, popularly known as GEB, penned by Douglas Hofstadter
  • Virtual Reality is a kaleidoscope of a myriad definitions. In this book, Mr. Lanier defines Virtual Reality in more than fifty – yes you read that right – different ways. From the Triptych of Hieronymus Bosch to haptic Data Gloves and Headsets named Sword of Damocles, the medley is just jaw-dropping! However, at the heart of every definition lies a benevolent and benign concept of beauty. The objective of VR is to encourage young people “create beauty” in stark contradistinction to the greedy multinational corporations where hackers, “twitch our marionette strings.”
  • The story of how a group of happy-go-lucky, carefree and creative spirits brought together their eccentricities and enthusiasm to form a formidable VR Company – VPL Inc. – demonstrates in clinical fashion the heights to which an unshackled human spirit full of vibrancy and bereft of the weight of expectancy can soar. However, Mr. Lanier’s story also underscores how swiftly and unfortunately such a vision can disintegrate, if not evaporate as after a bout of differences of opinion, involvement of venture capitalists and gung-ho marketers, Mr. Lanier leaves the very company that he founded. In a typical self-deprecating and humourous manner, Mr. Lanier blames himself rather than castigating any of the protagonists involved in the rupture of VPL. In fact, throughout the book, he refuses to bite the bait, in the form of the lure which a juicy story about a rambunctious board battle could bring both to the author and to the published work. He prudently and steadfastly steers away from making controversial statements of any ilk;
  • VPL existed for all of five years during the course of which Mr. Lanier had the opportunity to engage in eclectic collaborations. Partnering surgeons in an effort to design higher quality prosthetics to working in tandem with military personnel on defense contracts, Mr. Lanier attempted to elevate the utility of Virtual Reality to a height hitherto experienced or ascended. In fact, VR’s coming-of-age movie, The Lawnmower Man featured VPL’s ‘EyePhone’, a headset capable of tracking head movements. VPL’s most famous invention, arguably, the haptic “DataGlove” appeared on the front cover of Scientific American in 1987.
  • A phantasmagoria of characters appears in a whorl throughout this curious book. Ace Hollywood Director Steven Spielberg, Marvin Minsky, the American cognitive scientist concerned largely with research of artificial intelligence (AI), and co-founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s AI laboratory; Andy Herzfeld, the father of the Macintosh Operating System; Larry Tesler, the inventor of the browser; acid Guru Timothy Leary; and the inimitable and brilliant genius Richard Feynman, who taught Mr. Lanier how to form geometrical designs using one’s fingers to think about chirality. This phalanx of geniuses and their indelible contribution to the fields of Science and Technology leaves the reader with a sense of awe.
  • The biggest takeaway from the book however, lies in Mr. Lanier’s clamour about the plummeting ethical standards that has become the cornerstone of today’s technology domain. While multinational corporations are flush with wealth, a predominant proportion of such accumulated riches come, courtesy tracking online identities. Cybersecurity firms ubiquitously prowl the unseen digital world compromising the data privacy and security of millions of gullible and unsuspecting people. In the words of Mr. Lanier, “The strange new truth is that almost no one has privacy and yet no one knows what’s going on.”