I just read an article in the New Yorker about Jaron Lanier, whose book You are Not a Gadget is making some mid-sized waves in the world of ideas. In the interests of full disclosure, I haven’t read the book, but I have read similar things such as The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. The point of both books is to examine how the internet is reshaping our society and our individual lives. As you might guess from the titles, neither author is much impressed by it. They point to a number of problems: shorter attention spans, less memory, the anti-intellectual tendencies of Wikipedia.
But while Carr is mostly intent on ticking off problems, Lanier has a multi-faceted approach. He’s at pains to not appear anti-technology overall, and he has the credentials to back it up. He was actually a pioneer in engineering many high-tech gadgets and gizmos. One of these is virtual reality.
And what, I hear the under-20 set asking, is virtual reality? Well, there’s the thing. Back in the recent past, virtual reality was a new fad that was supposed to sweep the world in the near future. The basic idea is that you put on a special helmet and gloves, so that from the outside you look like this:
Inside the helmet are two screens right in front of your eyes. The helmet and the gloves both have sensors, and the purpose of it all is to let you inhabit an immersive three-dimensional world, including the possibility of you moving around in it.
When I was about eight or nine, all the kids’ science magazines were full of articles about the soon-to-arrive greatness of virtual reality. It never arrived in a commercial viable way, and the New Yorker article explains why. The helmet was too clunky, the sensors and the software didn’t work fast enough, and the lag time made the whole experience unconvincing. The whole thing is just a reminder of the fact that while we love to make predictions about technology, most of them simply don’t come true. Which of the current trends won’t play out as they’re expected? I don’t know, but I’m betting that it’s going to be most of them.