Tom Furness has been working in virtual reality longer than anyone else on the planet, and he’s starting a new phase of his legendary career. He’s starting to build a coalition of content creators and financial backers through the Virtual World Society to be able to transform living rooms into classrooms. With the support of a network of subscribers, he wants to build the infrastructure to support the production of educational VR experiences that activate our conscience, enrich our minds, and connect hearts together in order to solve real world problems.
In my first interview with Tom last November, he only briefly mentioned his vision of the Virtual World Society. But I was able to catch up with him again at the IEEE VR conference just after he had just won a Lifetime Achievement Award awarded through the IEEE VGTC publication, which publishes the IEEE VR conference proceedings. He gave a speech where he shared his vision of what he sees as the ultimate potential of VR to educate, cultivate empathy, and connect families across generations to transfer the wisdom of elders to the youth as they expand their minds with virtual world explorations.
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Tom was one of the original VR pioneers who was first responsible for bringing augmented and virtual reality display technology into the Air Force starting in 1966. He then started the Human Interface Technology Lab at the University of Washington to research applications of VR in education, medicine, and social sciences, as well as pioneering the virtual retinal display that is part of the underlying lightfield technology at Magic Leap.
In this next phase of his career, he’s build a coalition of like-minded VR enthusiasts who want to produce educational & connective experiences that help solve real-world problems. The Virtual World Society is still in it’s early phases of development, but they want to spread the word to like-minded individuals who are interested in supporting the production of VR experiences that enrich our hearts and minds. You keep posted by signing up for their email list.
After conducting this interview with Tom in South Carolina, I’m pleased to announce that the Virtual World Society will be sponsoring the production of the Voices of VR podcast for the next month. There’s a lot of overlap between the mission of the Voices of VR to explore the ultimate potential of VR, and how the Virtual World Society wants to enable the creation of these types of mind and heart-expanding experiences.
I’ll continue to explore the story and development of the Virtual World Society within the content of my podcast audio introductions, but I’d encourage you to have a listen to Tom’s vision in this interview. He’s been a pioneer in the virtual reality space going on 50 years now, and so he’s got an inspiring message to activate our conscience, connect our hearts and minds, and produce VR experiences that help make the world a better place.
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Theme music: “Fatality” by Tigoolio
[00:00:05.412] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. My name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR podcast. Today, I talked to Tom Furness, who has been doing virtual reality longer than anyone else on the planet. He's actually one of the founders of VR back in the 60s, when he started working for the Air Force and developing different applications for Air Force pilots to both train them and also use augmented and virtual reality within the cockpit. He then started to beat his swords into plowshares, moving from the military into academia, where he became a professor at the University of Washington and founded the Human Interface Technology Lab, or the HIT Lab. And the HIT Lab's been pioneering a lot of research into applications of virtual reality into education, into medicine, and he was even one of the inventors of the virtual retina display, which is part of the technology that is underlying Magic Leap. So Tom is wanting to move into the next phase of his career, which is really focusing on building his vision of the virtual world society. Now the virtual world society is his vision of gathering people around the world who are really wanting to start to support and build educational experiences that help solve real world problems and I had a chance to do an interview with Tom covering these three different phases back in episode 245, but I had a chance to talk to him more at the IEEE VR conference, where he was actually winning a Lifetime Achievement Award for all the work that he's been doing within VR over the last 50 years. And so he was really able to give this speech, fleshing out his full vision of how we're going to activate our conscience in terms of what type of content that we're creating in VR. So that's what we'll be covering in today's episode. Now, I also have some really big news, which is that after I recorded this episode with Tom, he wanted to figure out ways that he could support the Voices of VR podcast, because a lot of what I'm doing here with this podcast is also really exploring the ultimate potential of virtual reality. A lot of the people who are listeners and thinking about these questions are the same type of people that I think would be interested in the Virtual World Society. And so for the next month, I'm pleased to announce that the Virtual World Society will be sponsoring the Voices of VR podcast so that I can continue this work of telling the story of virtual reality as it's unfolding. and talking about the different applications and potential uses, but also start to tell the story of the Virtual World Society as it's still in its infancy phase. It's fundraising and it's still trying to form its identity for what exactly it's going to be. But I just feel honored and extremely happy to get the support from the Virtual World Society to continue the work here at the Voices of VR podcast and also start to build a coalition of people who are of like mind and have similar values and want to create the ultimate potential of educational and connective experiences within VR. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.
[00:03:11.225] Tom Furness: My name is Tom Furness, and I've been working in this field of virtual reality for, now this marks the 50th year. It's been quite exciting. It's been a journey that's had a lot of stumbles and bruises, but a lot of vistas. And certainly in the early days, in the 60s when I first got it started, we began to envision what could be done with this. And it was clear it could be revolutionary. But it's taken us a while to get the technology to a point where it can really do something. So attending this conference, it's really gratifying to me to see that it's actually now reaching fruition. This year, in 2016, we'll have more people exposed to virtual reality in this one year than ever been exposed in total in the past. And we're also going to see a situation where this technology is going to be in homes, because it is now at a price point where it can happen. Furthermore, we also see in homes lots of other stuff. So in the end, there's going to be more technology in the homes than we ever see in the schools. And I believe that the home should become, really, the classroom of the future. And it doesn't take the place of schools, but certainly there's a lot more learning that can take place in homes than perhaps we have in the past. So one of the things that excites me is the possibility, this idea of the living room being a classroom, is to be able to provide to families, and especially the young people, this opportunity to really understand what's going on in the world. One of the things that VR can do is put you into a place. And once you have put people into these places, even virtual places, you put the places inside of them. Because we found that it's amazing what happens when you go into an immersive virtual environment. It's like it unlocked something. That now you're not looking at a screen anymore, you're actually in a place. And you're exposed, the raw you in this place, as you would be in the real world. And because of that, you're activating and unlocking a lot of capability, a lot of perceptual, psychomotor capability in the human that's already been there, but has been somewhat limited in the kinds of tools that we've had in the past with computers and cell phones and things like that. So, the question is, where do you want to go? And that's what I believe we need to be concentrating on. I'm really happy to look around and see my colleagues who are working in this VR space. That, you know, it's coming along and we're dealing with the difficult issues and going to solve them. There are a lot of smart people that are working in this field right now. So I'm not worried about that anymore. I am worried about a few things that we haven't solved that I'm sure we will eventually. One of which, by the way, is just what happens when people spend eight hours a day inside a virtual reality. I don't think we know. We've had people exposed a few hours at a time, but not all day, every day. And so we don't understand that yet. So there are some unknowns that we need to get into. I also think we aren't addressing issues having to do with the peripheral retina. Even with VR and immersion, we're not really getting there yet. because it turns out that our visual system is more amazing than we're taking into account now, especially the periphery, the far periphery. And so those are two of the concerns I have about the technology, but those things I believe are going to be worked. I think it's time for me to switch gears. And to be more of a, for lack of a better word, to activate the conscience of virtual worlds and the conscientiousness that we need in virtual worlds. And that is, what? So what? What do we do with it? We've built these amazing tools and we can get high bandwidth to the brain. What are we going to use those tools for? And what I see happening in terms of the companies that are promoting the use of VR is that really the activities, mind you, they're engaging and exciting and things like that, but they don't do a whole lot to lift the civilization. which we could be doing with it. So what I'm trying to do is get this Virtual World Society organized, which would be sort of like a Peace Corps for VR. It's sort of like the opportunity to go out with our technology and to address these real problems that exist in the world, starting with getting the technology into homes and families where they can get a first-hand view of what really is going on in the world. and then to organize to help solve the problems. Because the larger problems in the world, like global warming and renewable energy and all these kinds of things that we're worried about, but there are also local problems. And there are things like bullying in schools. There are things like loneliness of the elderly people. And I think that there are two amazing treasures that we have on the earth that we are not tapping. One of those treasures is the kids and what they can actually do about it. They have more power than they think and especially now where they're really technology savvy. In many cases more technology savvy than their parents and certainly than their teachers. So they know how to do this. The ability to activate their empathy about what's going on in the world is really important. The other group that's a treasure that we're not tapping are the old people. That's where you have the vitality and the imagination of the youth, but you also have the wisdom of the elders. And generally what we do with old people is we throw them away, when in fact they have stories to tell, amazing stories to tell, experiences they've had. And being able to tap these two treasures to elevate our civilization and help to address and solve these problems. There's a lot of loneliness in the world. We can help solve that problem by being able to help people to go to places and be with other people solving problems. And so that's what the Virtual World Society is about. Certainly technology is an important part of it. It's the platform upon which we build. And it's not just virtual reality. It's everything. It's telecommunications. It's all of the bits and pieces that go into building this confluence of technology that lets us do it. But it's these communities we want to build. Communities that have to do with locality, where we have all of these hackathons and meetups that are happening around the world now. These communities want to do something. They're the people who want to take this technology and do something with it. So I'd like to be able to tap that. and not only have local chapters of this virtual world society, but also chapters that are thematic chapters, that are addressing particular problems, and those communities gathering virtually from around the world to look at these issues, such as the desolating scourges and diseases, and what do we do about idle hands, and water, and all these environmental issues that go along with that. So I believe it's going to be communities and communities of communities that we want to then focus on these problems that are represented both locally and as I mentioned globally, like United Nations, UNICEF, things like that. So it's bringing a number of pieces together, certainly families, these communities of practitioners, the companies that make the technology, and then the people will be the developers. and a lot of people that are surrounding us today in this conference. So that's sort of the Virtual World Society in a nutshell. It's getting started. What we're trying to do is get people to sign up with their interest. Not that we have at this point any member benefits or things like that, but we're going in that direction and we're looking for getting the social capital together. that will help us show that, yes, there is real interest in this, that will eventually let us build the other financial capital that we'll need to raise for kickstarting all of this in a big way. In the endgame, what I would like to see, my dream would be to have 10 million families around the world who are part of this virtual world society that basically are subscribers. They may pay maybe $30, $35 a year to be a member of the society. So you multiply 35 times 10 million and you get $350 million. Wow. $350 million. We can change the world with that. We really can. And working on a lot of these problems and bringing these communities together to work on them. So that's what I'm trying to accomplish. I'd like to get to 10 million at some point. Hopefully I'm alive when that happens. But we do have a movement. We have a number of chapters that are already getting started. We've seeded them. So we have these little clusters that are forming that are part of this larger community where we're trying to make all of it happen.
[00:12:16.989] Kent Bye: Yeah, the thing that comes to mind is that, first of all, that VR, I think, does have the potential to change the world and using VR as a medium to explore these complex topics and try to connect the dots between the cause and effect of things that we can actually do and perhaps what it would look like if we all did that, how that could change the world. And also think of like TED Talks, like these 18-minute talks that are exploring a piece of information or knowledge in a very specific domain. And it feels like there could be a series of different VR experiences that are educational, trying to teach different principles and perhaps eventually have a whole curriculum that people could use to either supplement their existing curriculum At the IEEE VR, talking to different people who are working with education in VR, there's all sorts of questions about how do you integrate it with existing classrooms, and I think taking the approach of focusing on the living room is something that's very practical, and trying to introduce this technology at scale into the existing educational system, I think there's a lot of barriers that are pretty high but you've done some research in terms of education and the impact of what VR could do in transferring knowledge and so what type of studies have you done and what do we know about the educational power and impact of VR?
[00:13:30.676] Tom Furness: Well, over the years we have been working in education. Certainly as part of my HIT Lab, my Human Interface Technology Lab, education has been one of the big pieces of that. We organized a HIT Lab Learning Center in the Seattle HIT Lab many years ago in the mid-90s. and started doing research, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, of how we can teach complexity to students, complex subjects using virtual reality. Profound results from that, not only in terms of the ability for students to learn rapidly, but also the ability to synthesize from what they've learned, and to retain it. That's the other thing. They always remember being in a virtual world, and we've proven this over and over and over again. Not only that, we've shown that we've been able to take students who are normally failing in school, in subjects in math, chemistry, and found that they catch up with the so-called smart kids. There's nothing wrong with them. It's the pedagogy. It's the way that we're trying to teach kids. Not all the kids are wired the same way. And what virtuality does is let us learn in a natural way. And I think we can capture these minds and hearts much better that way because it's sort of a being and a doing thing that VR affords. So there's no question in my mind about the educational potential of this. The problem is the schools don't have any money. and they don't have the money to do a widespread, at least this point in time, exploitation of the technology. Furthermore, we don't really have the content yet. Your idea of the TED Talks is great in terms of these educational clusters you could put in VR that would give people, and especially students, young students, experiences and this new way of learning that would be really powerful. Certainly they pick up these things on their own anyway, in many cases. Interesting thing that's happened that we can begin to observe now, that certainly when we went to computer games and game consoles and things like that, Children that were watching television sort of stopped watching television, right? Because they can now do something. It was interactive. They could play these interactive games. But what has happened since that time is a new phenomenon, which is Minecraft. And you find that once kids start doing Minecraft, they don't play the computer games anymore. And you know why? Because they're creating. Minecraft is like Legos. It gives you a chance to create. And that's much more exciting and taps something inside these kids that playing the games doesn't tap. Now, mind you, they can mindlessly play these games, but those games are made by adults for kids. Not necessarily kids for kids, but adults for kids. And when we find kids making these things, we find there's not a lot of violence in it. It's amazing when you see kids build these virtual worlds. They're much more enlightening, and when we see the hearts of these kids being reflected that way, we realize we're not tapping that. All games are doing is really playing a lot of violence. I'm not trying to demonize games. I mean, they don't have to be that way, but that seems to be the lowest common denominator. But what if we could look at it another way, in terms of things that help them to learn and grow, as you mentioned, to help them solve these problems and to be aware of what's going in the world. I was really impressed with what the New York Times did with a million Google Cardboards that they sent to their subscribers along with content you could download and play on your cell phone to plug into your Google Cardboard. And the one thing that impressed me was the food drop. You were there. You were in the field. And when the Hercules flew over and dropped the food and you saw the expressions on the faces and you saw the kids and the rushing to get the food and things like that, that's a lot different. Wow. That's a lot different. when you're there, looking around, being there, and the impact it has on what you remember and how you empathize than if you're watching a TV program or even playing a computer game. So that's what we want to touch, the generation of empathy and understanding of what really is going on so that the kids can be part of the solution. They can work together with other kids and with families and families with families around the world saying, hey, let's do something about it. We're expecting governments to do things. Governments don't work very well anymore, you know. But I think the idea of having a movement of children and parents and say, OK, let's forget about the governments. Let's get on with this. We have problems to solve. I believe we can do it. I think we have more power than we think. And I think we have to stop waiting for the governments to do it and get on with it. So back to the education side, I would like to think that that's the largest and greatest application of VR.
[00:18:30.757] Kent Bye: And so one thing that comes up as I'm thinking about the Oculus Rift and as it's coming out, there's a warning that says that you have to be at least 13 years old to use the Rift. And, you know, what I've heard is that there's different visual systems that are still developing. You know, we talked about last time is the divergence accommodation conflict that is there. What is the response to that? Because it seems like there is, at this point, a lot of lawyers that are looking at, like, we don't really know the long-term impacts of using this technology for people under a certain age. And so, I'm all for using VR for education, but I'm also cautious as to start to throw this technology at people who aren't actually ready physiologically to handle it.
[00:19:12.715] Tom Furness: Well, the problems that you mentioned are real problems, but we're getting a greater understanding of those problems as we go along in doing the research. But what really begins to solve these problems is the fact that we are building better technology. The problems that we were seeing before, the early studies that were done, worried about children, had to do mainly with the latency effects and that you would have a real problem with the update rates on the displays and things like that, which really scrambled your brains, you know, playing around in the old VR versus the new VR. The new VR is much better, much, much better. But we haven't still solved the problem with the divergence and accommodation thing, although Magic Leap will do that. The Magic Leap technology does solve that problem. So we're now getting second-order and third-order effects. The first-order effects, I think, are deficiencies we're solving, especially at latency and update rate issues. It's widely recognized, and we have ways with our new graphics engines and sampling technology to solve that. So we'll address these other problems here in the near future. And so I'm not nearly as worried as I used to be about it. Certainly, we have to be concerned about showstoppers. Because it won't take but a few lawsuits, you know, to shut this whole thing down. When people are getting sick, when they're getting the developmental problems that happen because of some of the artifacts that are in these systems. So I think we have to be careful. And we have to do no harm. And that should be sort of our mantra, to do no harm. We want to do good and no harm. So understanding the problems and spending the time and effort and research dollars to do that is really important right now. And the companies are going to be particularly concerned about that too because certainly there will be lawsuits out there and we want to make sure that we understand what's going on so that we can answer those questions. There's also this whole area of simulator sickness that is going to continue to be an issue, mainly because in VR, you're able to move in VR virtually, but not be moving physically. So that means that there's a conflict, of course, between your vestibular cues and what you're seeing with your eyes. And that cue conflict can cause people to become sick. And so that's another lesson we should take into account while we're building these virtual worlds of how we don't necessarily want to have people to have this conflict. And we can build the world's experience so that we minimize that. But there are other things that we know we can do as well, and that is to, in the process of moving, we limit the field of view and we don't stimulate as much of the peripheral retina, which is, of course, largely responsible for giving us our motion cues in our peripheral retina. So, you know, we have to really address that and do that systematically.
[00:22:24.474] Kent Bye: You mentioned loneliness earlier before in the context of the elderly population that has a lot of wisdom to give. I've also seen loneliness within parents who may be geographically isolated from friends and family. may have a young child, and it takes quite a lot of energy to raise children these days. And, you know, the concern that I see a lot in different parents is the amount of screen time that they're giving their kids. And what I observed and noticed is that when they give someone a television show to watch or an iPad, they kind of go into this altered state where they get completely entranced and focused into the technology. I think the potential for VR is that they could, again, get really immersed into these environments, but yet there could be other people in these environments where there's... I could imagine a time where you could do virtual babysitting, where instead of them just looking at an iPad playing Minecraft by themselves, they could... go into a VR experience and hang out with their grandparents or, you know, maybe some people who are elderly and have extra time to hang out with kids but yet not have the means to be able to physically move around. And so, you know, what is your vision of connecting people socially within these VR experiences, taking into consideration some of the challenges with just random adults, you know, hanging out with children?
[00:23:43.185] Tom Furness: Very good question. Certainly my whole motto since I've been working in this community is that we're really trying to do two things. One is to unlock minds and the other is to link minds. And virtual reality gives us this opportunity to do a lot of linking. And not only linking us to games and artificial worlds that we can build and things like that, but linking us to other people. And a lot of people say, well, you know, doesn't VR isolate you? I mean, you're putting on this headset, you aren't seeing the real world anymore. You're going into this virtual world. And I'm saying, well, yes, it can isolate you from your local environment. but it can expand you in terms of another environment. It allows you to move your mind. It's a transportation system for your senses. And you move your mind to a place where you want to interact with people, where you can't interact with them otherwise. And there would be loved ones. They're located on the other side of the country. You could be with and spend time with and with your grandchildren when you're not close by. And loneliness is a big deal because people are living longer. and their spouses are dying, you know, in many cases, and they are left alone, and they're in a different place in the country from where their families may be. So I believe that we have an opportunity to bring children and the elderly together into these spaces where they can be there. And as nothing takes the place of human contact, even if it's in the virtual space, A lot of people say, yeah, but you're going to wear this face mask. How are you going to be able to see each other with face masks on? We're not always going to have face masks. That's what we're doing right now. This is really the primitive time in this VR history. We're going to get rid of those things. So they are going to be there in the longer term. We have ways to do that right now with my virtual retinal display, the ways to do that where you don't have to wear anything. So, I think that the future is great for moving minds to other places and other times, and even visit with those who've gone before, who basically can be recorded presences, or maybe even ones where you can visit your ancestors in a way that you appreciate their wisdom that they've had over the years, even though they may not be alive now. It's going to change everything in terms of people-to-people contact. And that's what so excites me about the Virtual World Society because we're talking about connecting families around the world. And what we're going to realize is pretty much families have the same problems. wherever they are, and they can work together and get to know each other and see things from other people's eyes. And that's what it's about, is understanding and not being isolated. I feel we're so isolated, especially in the U.S. And I encourage my students, get out there. Get out in the world. Get out of the classroom. Get out of the university. Get out of the country. Go somewhere else in the world and live there for a while. See what's going on. What their attitudes are. What do they think about the USA? In the case of Americans. But we'll learn so much more by expanding that kind of understanding. Not only in doing it in real life, but also in the virtual worlds.
[00:27:05.289] Kent Bye: Do you have any favorite stories or anecdotes of the impact of VR and what it can do for education?
[00:27:12.929] Tom Furness: Okay, well, a few years ago, very early on when we started the HIT Lab at the University of Washington, we did a project at the Pacific Science Center where we were asked to do a summer camp on virtual reality. And mind you, our technology was pretty clunky at the time, but we did, and we had the kids over a period of weeks. We had six different sessions during the summertime. It was sort of like a summer camp at the Pacific Science Center. And they were ages 9 to 14, and we'd have a number of these kids for a week, you know, and six groups of them throughout the summer. And the whole idea was for them to build virtual worlds. And that's when we found that they could do it. Not only did they do it, it was incredible. And they did it all on their own. I mean, very little instruction from us. We gave them the tools and they took off from there. And so they built these worlds and that's when we found that there wasn't any violence in them. Kids decided, if we can build a new world, why don't we put that in there? and you'd hear them negotiating about it. The process of building the world was amazing in itself. And we never intended this to be a social experiment, but it turned out to be that way because we found the kids had a lot of diversity and didn't even speak the same language. When we had the scholarship kids, especially ones that were not exposed to the technology like the rich kids, we found that they worked together and that they became friends. and they learned a lot from each other in that process of building worlds. Well, that was our first experience in working with children and building virtual worlds. Well, we were approached then by a group of people who were concerned about these so-called throwaway kids. These were children who were expelled from school because they were doing drugs or they were carrying weapons or whatever. And they were kicked out of school, and they were on the streets. And their home lives were awful, and they were on the streets. And the people that we were working with were saying, well, what are they going to be doing? They're going to be getting into a lot of trouble. So they contacted me to see if there's something we could do. to help them with this challenge with these throwaway kids. So I agreed to help out, but I didn't know what we were going to do. So they said that we have, our objective is that we have these 14-year-old kids There are about 20 of them, and our whole objective is to keep them alive one year. If they're alive at the end of the year, we have succeeded. And they said, could you use some of this virtual reality stuff to help us with it? We started working on this project, and we asked them, well, what are they mainly concerned about? And they said, well, these kids are really promiscuous, you know, and they're shooting up drugs and things like that. It would be good if you could sort of dwell on that. And they're concerned about AIDS and HIV, And I said, OK, well, let's build a virtual world about HIV and how the AIDS virus worked. And then we will, you know, they'll get exposed to it that way. And the more we thought about it, I realized, you know, no, let's not do that. Let's get them to do that. So, we organized this, and these kids showed up in my lab at the university, and they scared the daylights out of me. I've never seen kids like that before. They were really rough. Fourteen years old, I wouldn't be afraid to meet one of them in an alleyway. But we started working with them, and we said, okay, here's the deal. You're going to be building a virtual, we showed them what virtual worlds are like, we showed them some of our previous worlds, and you're going to build one. And it's all about AIDS, HIV. And here's some people, here's a library you can go to learn about AIDS. Here are some doctors you can talk to about AIDS. And here's some people who have AIDS, and you can talk to them. And eventually to build this virtual world. It was amazing what they did. Amazing. They went to work on this. And they built this game where you became a T4 cell in this game. And you go into this space, this three-dimensional space, and these AIDS viri would start attacking you and bleeding you of your energy. And you'd slow down. You're slower and slower and slower moving in this world. But you had to go to one of the stations in that world that would help replenish your energy. And the stations were, there was a clean needles, there was a clean needles station. You went to clean needles. There's another station that was a bleach to clean the needles, okay. There's another station that was a condom and another station that was a zipped up pair of pants for abstinence. They came up with all this. We didn't have anything to do with it. And so you had to have a singleness of purpose and moving through this to get to those sites or otherwise your energy would be gone. And by the way, if you don't get there and your energy's gone, you don't move anymore. And that's one thing they realized, that when you're dead you don't move anymore. And so they did this game. They programmed it all, generated the content. We loaded it on our graphics machines. And they wrote a rap song to go with this while they're playing the game. And then they said, can we borrow some video equipment? We'd like to record ourselves playing this game. We said, sure. And they did that recording, made this little movie. And they said, can we take this around to the schools and show the other kids what they said? And they did. The city let them do it. These kids went into classrooms, middle school classrooms. Unbelievable. Let me tell you, those kids in the class really sat up straight when these street kids walked in and told them about it. They wouldn't listen to adults, but they listened to those other kids, and they'd play their video, and it was transformational. Those kids, never before in the history had anybody come to this because the kids just weren't interested. Every day, all those kids were there. Every day. There was nothing wrong with them. They were brilliant. They were mavericks. They just had terrible home lives. They didn't have role models, but we found that they could do it. They had the power. They had the power to create. They had the power to do something good. It amazed all of them. And after that, the city actually hired one, or I can't remember, one or two of those kids as AIDS counselors for middle school kids. So that is an example, a case study of where it probably wasn't about the technology even, but it wasn't exciting enough. to where they're able to build these worlds and prove to themselves that they could do it and what it could tell you, what you could learn from that experience, which made a profound impact on them being in that virtual world themselves and being a T4 cell inside their hypothetical body. So that's one of several examples of working with kids and VR that makes me a believer.
[00:34:17.073] Kent Bye: And finally, what do you see as kind of the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?
[00:34:25.343] Tom Furness: I believe that the ultimate opportunity we have here is in linking minds. It's back to the linking minds thing. and that we're able to learn in a much better way, much faster way. We learn with the whole body, we can learn viscerally, and then work with other people around the world, being there, being together. So it's going to connect us in the world like we've never been connected before. because it puts us in this place where we're with other people. And then we're able to address some of the things that I'm concerned about, some of the things they're concerned about. And it's not all about problems either. It's about having fun and doing things that are fun. So I believe that we have an opportunity to lift our civilization by bringing these minds together. And really what it's about, when we find out what causes the problems in the world, aside from what Mother Nature does to us, you know, it's just a few people that cause most of the problems in the governments, you know. And families, pretty much everybody about the same in terms of what they want to get out of life. They just want to be happy. And if we're able to have a movement of people that are connected and want to be happy and are willing to work together, then we can transcend the limitations of these few people that cause problems for a lot of people. And so that's what I would hope for is the connectivity and as the sort of the ultimate thing that lets us move our minds and eyes and ears and hands to other places and to be with other people.
[00:36:07.228] Kent Bye: And is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say?
[00:36:11.112] Tom Furness: Several years ago, one of the first commercial applications of virtual reality was done by Jonathan Waldron, who had a company called W Industries. And Jonathan had these kiosks that he'd built. It was really pretty good at the time, you know, very well industrial designed. And so there were these kiosks in these computer game areas and entertainment centers. And I had a father that came to me and told me about his experience. Because what happened is you could play against each other in a virtual world. So you would go in this virtual world, you had this sort of laser gun, and you would go in and hide, sort of hide and seek kind of thing. And so he was playing with his son. And so they were running around inside this place trying to find each other. And the father found his son, and he said, okay, now's the time for me to shoot him, which is what the game was about. So he's lowering his gun. to shoot this image, virtual image of his son in this virtual world. And he realized, wait a minute, what am I doing here? I'm play acting, shooting my son. And at that moment, his son turned around and saw him and blew him away, you know. And he thought, what are we doing with this? And that really was really poignant to me and helped me to realize, you know, we have a powerful play acting capability in virtual reality. What is that going to mean in the future? So let's fast forward to just a few months ago. Now we have a situation where a manufacturer, I won't say whom, has this incredible VR system. Great headset, great resolution, high update rate, very high quality medium. But when they demonstrated it to me, it was the message in the medium that bothered me. Because you went into this world where you again were shooting, and it was so graphical. I mean, you felt like you were really there. And when you shot people, they bled and died, and their brain matter was sprayed all over the place and things like that. And I was thinking again, what are we doing here? Is this the way we want to entertain ourselves? Because now it's a lot different than it was before, because this is high quality. It's like you're really there. And so this idea of what is my thinking process, my rational thinking, oh, this is just a game, versus the real world, that really gets blurred, very dim, because it's almost like you're there. That's what scares me. And it scares me that we have progressed so far with this technology only to use it for these kinds of things. I've stated before that I believe what we've done here is like splitting the atom. We've unleashed an enormous power. The question is, how do we use it responsibly? And this is particularly true in how we're going to use this in these kinds of games, using responsibly. So with everything that's happening right now, this high sea state we're in, we used to be sailing on smooth seas. We had the nice wind blowing. We could see the destination. We had a good navigation system. We had a good compass. We had a sextant. We could shoot the stars. And so we generally knew the direction we were trying to head. But now we have truly reached the singularity where there's this very high sea state, the wind is blowing, clouds are in the sky. We can't shoot the stars. We can't even see the horizon. Our compass isn't working anymore. We are lost in this and what we're being driven by, just what's happening around us without any direction, I believe. And I see this everywhere. People just don't know. They feel that they ought to be doing something, but what are they going to do? Well, let's just make another game, you know, where we're killing something or something that's really does not lift civilization. So I believe that we need a new kind of compass. We need a new kind of navigation system. We can't look to the rising, of course we can't see it. We need what I'm calling an extant. An extant is the next sextant. that lets us know where to go. And where is that next step? How do we get access to it? Well, it's already there. It's inside of us. It's our own conscience. We know inside, deep down inside, what's right and good, I believe. And these visceral and abhorrent feelings that we get when we go into these worlds that are shooting people, we should listen to that and use that to guide us into these things that take the technology in another direction. Not just wasting cycles, blowing people away, but doing the education side, doing the enterprise side. Games can be really good for learning. We know that. And it can accelerate learning. And so that's what we need to be doing. And that's why I want us to do this virtual world society. To build this next and help people to realize that we already have this navigation system. We just need to activate it.
[00:41:54.085] Kent Bye: So over the last couple of years I've had a number of discussions with different game developers kind of talking about this. Ben Conchero wrote an article in Polygon saying, you know, can we just stop shooting zombies in the face? And when I talk to people who have created these survival wave shooters with zombies coming at you and you're shooting them in the face, Their statement is kind of like well, this is the lowest hanging fruit. This is easy We need to provide the technology. We need to understand the mechanism, you know shooting things is easy It's a thing that we know how to do do. Well, we need to figure out how it works first in this new realm and so I Definitely see both sides where this is the first step towards where you want to go And maybe we just need to have people shoot people on the face a lot of times before we can do the real Like next level of education. I mean, that's an argument that the game developers would put forth But I'm just curious of your reaction to that, that with any medium, like Marshall McLuhan says, you kind of replicate what we did before, before we start to really expand and grow into what we really discover and the strengths of that medium. And I think one thing that I'm seeing in the trend in the virtual reality community is that we are having this replication of first-person shooters into like these survival wave games. But there's also these exploration games where it's more about exploring a world and taking in an environment rather than going out and exerting your will into it in this kind of violent way. And so I feel like we're kind of in this transitional period, at least at this point, where we are going to see a lot of this violence that's replicated. But to me, I do have a lot of concerns that there are going to be large implications that we don't even know, you know, in this experience of the London heist that you know I had my own personal experience of shooting someone in VR for the first time with this virtual body ownership illusion feeling like I had my hands in the game and it was disturbing it gave me pause and you know with the PlayStation 4 with you know 35 to 40 million units out there if they get a 10% attachment rate that's 4 million kids that would potentially be going through this same experience that I think could be Potentially triggering of their existing trauma or it could potentially even create new trauma. I don't know it's hard to say whether or not you can create trauma out of a video game experience and so there's been a lot of debates within the video game industry in terms of like there's no correlation or causation between violence and video games and violence in real world and that I It's a case that even went to the Supreme Court to be able to protect video games as a First Amendment right. So these game developers have the right to create this, but yet I think there is a higher conscience and morality involved here in terms of, yeah, we can do it, but is that what we really want to put our energy and attention and focus into?
[00:44:32.298] Tom Furness: Well, you said it. I don't believe it. I don't believe what the gamers have come up with, that it is correct. I think that any time you're going to kill a person in VR, or any kind of game, but especially in VR, It has to affect you. It has to dull your senses. It has to put a greater barrier between you and really what is right and good and true. And back to what the people say, well, this is the lowest hanging fruit. I don't believe that either. I believe that that's what we've devolved to thinking, but I don't think it's correct, because when we actually see what the kids do, when they're given the opportunity to create themselves, they don't create those things. I mean, what we see happening with Minecraft, you know, and this activation of these creative juices, and the experience that I've had with kids over many years who've built their own virtual worlds and given the opportunity to build whatever they want to build, no violence in there at all. So this is coming from the adults. This is what the adults are thinking is the low-hanging fruit. I don't believe that's really what the kids... They're taking it, they're sucking it up because that's what's being given to them. But I believe there's other things that can take the place of that. Back to the exploration that you mentioned. That can be exciting. Exploring new worlds. and creating, making new worlds, and learning about things, and solving problems. It can all be fun, and a lot more fun than just this inane, over and over and over again, killing, the rack up the points, or whatever. Last time I checked, there were, you know, like 200 billion people had been killed in Halo 3, or whatever it was. Really? I mean, What are we doing? What are we accomplishing with that? So I don't believe what these game developers are saying. I don't believe it's true because when you really get down to it and find out, once given the opportunity, what the kids will do, they don't go in that direction.
[00:46:48.637] Kent Bye: It sounds like the antidote that you're proposing here is really tuning into your intuition, your conscience, and your heart.
[00:46:55.151] Tom Furness: Yes, absolutely. We have it already. You know, I don't know, we're born with it. And so there's this innate thing inside of us that tells us the good things that we should be doing with what we have. That's what's kept the world at bay, well, somewhat at bay up to this time. I mean, even when you think about war and people killing each other in war and the Holocaust and all this kind of thing. That was all perpetrated because we let it happen. There were a few people instigated this, but the rest of the people went along with it, right? Even though their conscience didn't want them to go there. And that's happening with computer games, with these games of violence. We're letting it happen. Just because, you know, that's what everybody's doing. And that's not right. We should be listening, listening to this next step that we have.
[00:47:49.708] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for your time, Tom. You bet. You bet. It's always a pleasure. So that was Tom Furness of the Virtual World Society, and he's at the University of Washington at the Hit Lab, and also one of the original pioneers and founders of virtuality back in the 60s. So a couple of quick takeaways is that, first of all, I am just extremely honored that Tom would be willing to become a sponsor of the Voices of VR podcast to support the work that I'm doing, but also just for me to be able to share his vision and flesh it out a little bit more to my community of listeners. Also, I think there is a lot of potential for education in VR, but there is not a lot of financial incentive at this point. There are some educational startups in VR, there's some great experiences like the Apollo 11 experience and Titans of Space, and Those are some of my favorite experiences, and I'd love to see more. But it does take a lot of time and effort and resources to be able to put these quality experiences together. So I would really hope that the Virtual World Society would be able to start to gather a coalition of people to produce more and more of this content of being able to funnel the resources and the finances into the people who can actually create these experiences to be able to share with the wider virtual reality community. Now, like I said, the Virtual World Society is still in its infancy. It's going to be going through a fundraising process, and they're just getting started in terms of the logistics of how all this is going to work. But I will be keeping you informed of how you can get more involved with the Virtual World Society for at least the next month. And I also wanted to unpack the violence in video games discussion just a little bit because I do feel that Tom does want to have experiences that are fun and engaging and interactive in some ways. And I think a lot of the games within VR are trying to explore that, like what actually is fun in VR? What do people keep coming back to? I know there's experiences like Tilt Brush and Fantastic Contraption which are more about content creation and building and expressing your imagination in VR. But there's also a lot of different survival wave shooters where you actually are shooting zombies in the face. So I think that there's an element of story here where sometimes at the end of the day you want to just zone out and get immersed into an amazing story. And sometimes that story could be that you are having these fantasy adventures. But I do agree with Tom that we can do a lot better in terms of trying to create these educational experiences that enrich us and make the world better. And at the same time, There may be mechanics and insights that are coming from these different games that lead into that eventually. Maybe we're not quite ready for that just yet. Maybe the medium of VR has to evolve from everybody's input. And I think that's the message that the Voices of VR that I want to put out is that I'm trying to gather everybody's input and try to see what people have to contribute so that we can create the ultimate potential of experiences that is highly interactive, dynamic, and fun, and at the same time may enrich and grow your mind. So with that, I want to say that I still am relying on and depending on a lot of your very generous Patreon contributions to continue the Voices of VR podcast. I'll be looking to supplement the Voices of VR with additional sponsors, but I still very much both appreciate and need the support from my listeners to continue this and to support future travels as well as my livelihood as I Bring you all these latest thoughts of virtual reality so if you are interested and willing then please consider becoming a contributor of my patreon at patreon.com slash voices of VR