Depending on who you were rooting for in the US election, last night was either a shocking and sobering wake-up call to a reality that you don’t feel a part of or it was a jubilant celebration of a victory that was doubted and underestimated by the mainstream political and media establishments. Either way, what’s clear is that there’s a cultural divide in America that’s split nearly evenly between the percentage of people who voted in the election. Trying to understand the other side of the cultural gap can feel like entering into an entirely different parallel universe, and I feel like virtual reality has an important role to play in bringing more empathy and understanding to each side.
I had a chance to catch up with VR Playhouse co-founder Ian Forester at Oculus Connect 3, where he shared with me some of his vision for how VR could change the way that the learn and understand the world. He sees that there are three primary ways that we learn about the world including our direct sensory experiences, our direct observations of other people, and then a lot of indirect cultural indoctrination that comes from the mainstream media, education, and the culmination of all of our social interactions.
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Ian sees that VR has the potential to provide us with a wider range of direct sensory experiences with a diverse range of people and cultures within social VR experiences, and that this has the potential to give us more access to learning from our interactive direct experiences rather than from information that we’re consuming from different sources of external authority.
It feels like the United States is at real crossroads right now with the political culture gap that exists right now, and this interview with Ian starts to discuss how VR could help us move beyond our existing methods of cultural indoctrination. Rather than passive consumption, VR allows us to have interactive experiences that could help engage and connect us to each other in new ways that transcend the capabilities of any other technologically-mediated interfaces.
I tell people the reason I'm working in VR is because of its potential to inspire empathy by connecting very different sorts of people.
— Brian Sharp (@bhsharp) November 9, 2016
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[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. My name is Kent Bye, and welcome to The Voices of VR Podcast. So I'm going to start today's podcast by reading a tweet that sort of captures what I'm feeling right now. This really isn't the reality I was expecting to be waking up to today, but I'm awake now and ready to play my part. It feels like this election is a bit of a turning point for the entire country. And I think a lot of people are kind of questioning, you know, what is their part? What is their role? And what is happening both on the earth, in our society, in our culture, in your career, and what it means to be alive and be a human on this planet right now? And yeah, there's a lot of really deep questions of people thinking about these things. I just see a lot of the discussions. And there was a tweet last night as I was watching the election coverage. I was on Twitter just constantly reloading all the tweets, trying to get some data or facts that would reassure me in a certain way. And Brian Sharp of Oculus Medium made a tweet saying, I tell people the reason I'm working in VR is because of its potential to inspire empathy by connecting very different sorts of people. And I think that's totally true. And VR does, to me, represent this completely new communications medium that is going to allow us to build the future that we want to create. together ultimately and right now it feels like the country is kind of split in half between people who voted for Hillary Clinton and people who voted for Trump and The actuality is that it's probably around like 18% of the total population voted for Trump and about 18 voted for Hillary. But the feeling politically is that we're in the midst of this culture war, of this split, of these completely different parallel universes that we're living in. And I think that a lot of people were shocked last night to see this happen. And a whole other group of people were completely not shocked at all and just had discredited the media and were actually elated to see that this happened. And so I feel like we're kind of living in this split, in these alternative realities, these parallel universes that are side by side, but yet running together as an entire country. And, you know, we have social media environments that are reinforcing this bias, whether it's confirmation bias of who your friends are or, but also, you know, the algorithms that are in Facebook, but also who you choose to look at on Twitter or even what news you choose to read. There seems to be these splits that's happening in our world today, and it's likely going to get worse. So I think that VR represents this technology that, you know, it could actually inspire empathy from both sides for people to understand the grievances of people who are wanting to overthrow the establishment and the whole political elite and, and everything else. But also people who are trying to look at bigger, larger issues about what's happening on the planet and the earth and looking at people who are disenfranchised and how can we really help them feel like they're included within the society. So it feels like this whole country's at this turning point right now. And at the same time, we have these new technologies, both virtual reality, augmented reality, and artificial intelligence. So in today's episode, I'm going to be talking to Ann Forrester. He's the co-founder of VR Playhouse. And I've interviewed his co-founder and partner, Christina Heller, in episode 364 about bringing psychedelic consciousness to 360 video. And so today I'm going to be talking to Ian about some of the deeper philosophical thoughts that he's been thinking about VR, both for how he sees that VR could potentially help counter the cultural indoctrination that we get from both the mainstream media and other sources of just our culture in general, and how VR could play a part in that. Some of those thoughts about whether or not VR could be considered a kind of spiritual bardo state and what that means for being able to go into these realms and bring it back and how do we integrate this information into our lives day to day. So that's what we'll be covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. But first, a quick word from our sponsor. Today's episode is brought to you by the Voices of VR Patreon supporters. Now more than any other time, I think it's really important to support independent media like the Voices of VR. People are losing trust in mainstream news organizations and just how journalism is done in general. And I'm trying to do something completely different here at the Voices of VR by doing shoe leather journalism and going to these events and talking to people and trying to really get a sense of what's actually happening in this field of virtual reality beyond the headlines that come out. So if you find this type of in-depth analysis valuable for what you're doing in your career or just even visioning the type of future that you want to create, then show your support. Just a few dollars a month really does make a huge difference. So you can donate today at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. So this interview with Anne happened at the Oculus Connect 3 conference that was happening in San Jose, California from October 5th to 7th. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.
[00:05:45.517] Ian Forester: Hey, I'm Ian Forrester. I'm the chief creative officer of VR Playhouse. You interviewed my partner, Christina, a little while ago.
[00:05:52.339] Kent Bye: Great. So yeah, we were just talking a little bit about some of the more esoteric, philosophical, deep things about VR. Maybe we could just start off about how you've been thinking about VR lately.
[00:06:02.461] Ian Forester: Sure. So, you know, it's interesting. I've been doing a lot of thinking about VR as a, from the standpoint of what it is as an audience or as a user interacting with it, and really, like, how different it is from every other medium that's come before it. Because a lot of those other media, especially sensory-rich media, so, like, taking literature and books, because I think that's actually one of the closest forms of media communication to VR that exists. All of the sensory rich media experience that we've been afforded so far in this century and the last century has really been based on the audience performer dialectic. So when cinema came out, you know, that's a form of sensory rich media, but we're still going to a theater, sitting in seats, watching a curtain raise. subjugating ourselves to the import of a performer or performance happening in front of us and that's a tradition that's thousands of years old and with VR we're breaking from that by providing a private experience the same way that a book is a private experience by providing an experience where the user or the audience is the most important person in the room or the most important factor in the scene, which hasn't been the case. When you watch a movie, literally someone's face is two stories tall and they are literally larger than life and so we grant them a higher status. With VR, the status is flipped and the person who's inside the experience has the primary status. But from that, what are we actually delivering? And where I've sort of landed with this is that this is much larger than an entertainment and much larger than a simple media experience, which media experiences by and large represent a form of cultural indoctrination. And I sort of break out these three ways that we form the mental models that then create our reality or that we then use to create our reality. The first is primary sensory experience, right? And this is what we, our most credible driver, the most credible driver of our reality engine is primary sensory experience. I did this once, and this is what happened to me, so therefore I know X and Y about the world, right? So, you know, I touched a metal pan that was on a stove, and it was hot, and it burned me, and so I know that if I do that again, it will burn me again. The second form is secondary sensory experience. So you watch someone do something and, you know, I watched a man walk along a ledge and he fell off and died. And so I know that if I walk along the ledge, you know, you project yourself into the shoes of someone else. The third, and this is by and large how we know most of our world, is cultural indoctrination. And that's enough people have told me or enough people around me believe that if I do X, Y will happen, so therefore I also believe that if I do X, Y will happen. And that accounts for a really inordinate amount of our mental models of the world because the world is large, life is short, experience is limited. What I think VR represents as an opportunity for pretty much across the board and across the human experience is a way to introduce primary sensory experience in a way that has never really been possible until now. So what we'll be able to do with using VR is to create more accurate, more credible ways of delivering people experiences that they will then create mental models about their reality that they can author and decide based on what I did, as opposed to hearing about it second or third hand. And to me, that's very powerful. And to me, I think it's like the real no bullshit way that VR will change everything about the world that we live in.
[00:09:53.089] Kent Bye: Wow, that's amazing. I think the thing that I love about that is that you're really taking like a 60,000 foot view and looking at how there's so many different dimensions of, like you say, we only have a limited amount of direct experience and we only have a limited amount of things that we can observe other people doing. But yet so much of this model of reality that we have, that's given to us through the cultural indoctrination, which By the way it has, it's all biases in the economic systems and the power dynamics and the structures of who's telling the stories, who's crafting the stories. The stories are often told by the winners and so what are the people who are marginalized or disenfranchised or not having a full inclusion of all the different diversity of voices that are out there and I think that that's happening a lot more right now in the world today. It's just a lot of those voices from the fringes are trying to have a voice, and whether it's Black Lives Matter or what's happening with gay rights or with women's rights, there's all sorts of different threads of that, of this liberation that's trying to happen, of these stories that are being told. And yet we're still left with the traditional 2D medium, which doesn't give us that primary sensory. It's still watching other people, and so the fact that we could have a whole category of experiences to be able to build empathy with these other voices, and to give people a direct experience of what's actually happening in the world, and to tell the truth about the realities for so many people that we don't have any conceptualization of right now, whether it's from refugees, which I think is a lot of the big stories that have been come out in VR, and that's a huge political topic that people can then start to put themselves into the shoes of a refugee and what that is like. But there's just so many different dimensions of our society and our culture that has just been evolving over time that from all the different economic biases and corporate agendas and businesses and people just trying to make a living, you know, so many different people that just need to pay their bills and just make their mortgage payments just puts them in situations where they can't always tell the truth and they just have to go with the flow to survive really. So what you're really talking about is the potential for VR to be able to give people a full expression of the different experiences that are out there so that we can create new mental models as to what's happening and not have those mental models set by the powers that be.
[00:12:13.152] Ian Forester: Yeah, exactly. Like if you think about your mental model of a person that lives in the Middle East or a person that lives in a place you've never been, it will likely be informed in a very subconscious way. It'll be informed by images you've seen on the news. It'll be informed by things you've heard people say. It'll be informed by stories you've heard other people tell. And those stories were told under certain circumstances in which a person could use it to gain some kind of social capital and so they told this type of story or on the news well you know if we show this it's very popular and we get a lot of views so they're going to show that kind of content and it's not necessarily based on accuracy. I've been very very fortunate to travel a lot and Every time I go to a new place and I think, oh gosh, here are going to be some people and they're very different than me, it turns out that we always find a lot in common. And I think people around the world are really concerned with really just a few things, you know, their health, their ability to feel safe and secure, and the love of people around them. And tapping into that through a primary sensory experience of sitting next to them and talking to them and sharing space has been a real education for me and I think that that's something that VR might be able to do for people who aren't fortunate enough to be able to travel everywhere and meet these people in a really personal way. It's interesting, you know, I really do think that this could be a way for us to erase boundaries. And I've been thinking about it too in terms of recently, very recently, in terms of Tibetan spirituality and Buddhism particularly as it relates to the bardo states, which are these states of existence and growth for the soul. So, you know, accepting first that death and impermanence are the only constants, right? That you're going to die, I'm going to die. Everybody listening to this podcast, you're all gonna die. Spoiler alert. Spoiler alert. You're all gonna die. And so if we are ultimately impermanent and everything that we build will crumble, you know the Ozymandias poem that Breaking Bad made popular recently, you know what is left and it's really the the evolution of the soul and the evolution of the spirit inside and And so, from what I understand, and please, out there, internet, I'm sure will correct me, the great consciousness will correct me, the bardo states are states of the soul's education, and there are four primary bardo states, that of life, you know, our life here on Earth, the act of dying, the process of dying, so the transition from life to post-life, the state of being dead, the state of being out of form, and then the state of being born and rebirth. And it might be a little sort of heady, but I think it is possible that VR and existence in VR could represent a fifth state, a state that's not life and not death, and not any of those, but some kind of liminal state where we're able to exist inside a sensory-rich simulation that informs us, informs our spirit, informs our soul the same way that life does, but in a way that has different types of consequences.
[00:15:24.675] Kent Bye: So I think I'm really interested in seeing how that develops and that's kind of where my head's at with these things Wow, that's I I don't know if I would necessarily go as so far as to say that's an entirely new fifth Bardo state just because I feel like the the process of Being born the life the process of dying and death kind of nails it in a lot of ways I mean If you were to take it that far, I would argue to say that, well, where would dreams be? Because dreams could be some sort of altered state of consciousness. Or even a psychedelic state of consciousness would be yet another kind of luminal state where perhaps your consciousness is leading your body into going into some other dimension of reality. And so how does dreams and psychedelic states, how would that be? I feel like that would be almost like in the same class of virtual reality, and yet where that kind of fits in this Bardo system already.
[00:16:16.134] Ian Forester: Yeah, I mean, I would have to ask the monks, really. But yeah, I mean, I agree. I think thinking about VR as occupying a similar territory as Dreams and as psychedelic experiences is absolutely appropriate and should be where, you know, where our heads are at as creators. And that's, you know, my mission and Christina's mission and the mission of our company. We make a lot of car commercials, but we're also, you know, pushing Seeing where we can push this medium with that, like what you said, the 60,000 foot view of this is really what's next for us as a species because things have to change. We no longer have the luxury of being ignorant to what we're doing to our situation here on Earth. You know, it's interesting. I have a lot of friends who are looking towards space and looking towards Mars, and they're posting all these things about, hey, let's colonize Mars. And I mean, I think that's great really only for the reason that developing technology to colonize Mars probably means you're developing technology to also re-terraform Earth. And it's a lot easier to clean someone else's apartment. So if you're getting ready to terraform Mars, you might be preparing to save the Earth without even really consciously being aware of it. I think that, you know, that first priority has to be here at home. And it's a tough problem, right? How do we deal with the energy needs of modern society and modern economy without becoming Venezuela, without turning a lot of people's lives very miserable? Like, that's a hard, hard problem. There's no simple answer there.
[00:17:50.523] Kent Bye: Yeah, as you're saying that I sort of see there's so many different levels of dimensions of like thinking that going to Mars as a solution to the problems that we've created on Earth. To me there seems to be a fundamental disconnection to our relationship to the Earth and how we can cohabitate with it as a species in a way that is harmonious and kind of living in concert with each other and the idea to go to Mars to be able to start fresh what's to say that we're not going to look at the core problem that we're just going to recreate the you know it's like a symptom of that and then to go to mars as a solution feels like short-sighted in the long run it's just going to recreate what we've done here on earth so it's a paradigm shift to kind of look at our relationship to the earth but You know, going back to VR just a little bit and how I think about it, you know, I think of like Marshall McLuhan and the way that he's talked about new communications mediums are kind of like an extension of our central nervous system. And so if anything, it's all about having new input pathways to their brain. And so we have our five primary senses and that VR is just an extension of that and it's a synthetic stimulation and recreation of what our normal senses would experience in reality. We're trying to have some sort of synthetic simulcrum of that. In my mind, I think the deeper questions of the intention of that is that as you go into the synthetic reality, then you can know how to be present and how to be fully alive in these different dimensions because you go into VR, you remove some of these dimensions of presence and you're adding them in one by one again. So you learn how to have emotional presence and social presence and embodied presence and active presence. Those four major presences, once you are able to really feel those in these synthetic environments, then you're able to come back in real life and be able to actually embody those levels of presence in your everyday living. And so it's just actually making us more present and more alive to what's actually happening and perhaps guided by our intuition to be more connected to the people around us as well as the Earth.
[00:19:50.083] Ian Forester: Yeah, yeah, that's really cool. I'm glad that you're thinking that way. Yeah, I think that McLuhan is a really interesting figure for everybody who's working in VR right now to go back and read. There's actually a lot of men and women, I'm thinking about Susan Sontag and John Barth also, who are writing about media and its effect on us. I think they're all worth another look because they were just saying some really smart things that, as we're unpacking this new thing now, it's worth sort of taking those same lessons.
[00:20:25.447] Kent Bye: Great. And finally, what do you see as kind of the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?
[00:20:34.075] Ian Forester: Optimistically, I see it as a way for human society and human culture exists as a function of mutual agreement. And we know that we are creatures of absolute infinite possibility. The way that Sumerian cultures organize themselves, the way that traditional tribal cultures organize themselves, the way that we organize ourselves in urban America, They all make sense, right? We're all just responding to our environments and our basic needs. So my hope is that VR can provide a way for us to understand in a primary sensory way how it is that we are affecting each other in our modern culture and Western capitalist and consumer culture. And through that understanding, you know, make real changes, like affect real change in how we interact with each other, our environments, and basically start playing new games. So games that aren't based around scarcity, games that aren't based around zero sum, games that are based around mutual survival, mutually assured survival, as opposed to mutually assured destruction, you know.
[00:21:47.252] Kent Bye: Awesome. Anything else left unsaid you'd like to say?
[00:21:50.633] Ian Forester: No, just thanks, Kent. Thanks for interviewing me today, and thanks for doing what you do. It's really important.
[00:21:55.234] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, thank you so much. Thanks. So that was Ann Forrester. He's the co-founder of VR Playhouse, and they produce 360 videos, as well as they did one of the very first digital light field camera productions with the Lightrow demo video. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all, I think it's a really interesting idea what Ian is saying is that basically from his conceptualization that we kind of gather information from three primary ways. The first one being our direct sensory experiences of the world. The second being observing others and seeing what happens within our own kind of immediate sphere of influence. And then the third is cultural indoctrination, which is essentially all of the different ways that people outside of ourselves that have some sort of authority are telling us, whether that's the mainstream media, whether that's cultural taboo that is not directly communicated, but subtly communicated about what is and is not okay. I think that if there's any one thing that I see happening right now is that there's just a vast rejection of so many different dimensions of cultural indoctrination that have been happening in this culture. Primarily the biggest one I think is the mainstream media. I think it's pretty universal between all different political stripes in this country that there's something about our mainstream media that is fundamentally broken. And there's so many different ways that journalism isn't necessarily working today. And that's sad and scary as we move into this new phase of alternative media and being able to basically promote conspiracy theories or things that aren't necessarily fully vetted. It just becomes more difficult to have a cultural agreement as to what the actual truth is in any given topic or subject. One of the things that VR really represents is this medium that is really active. When you go into a VR experience, you have a certain amount of free will and agency that you have the ability to express. And that right now, most of the media that we have out there is just kind of cultivating people to be consumers of knowledge and information, where people who have some sort of authority are able to come up from up high and be able to deliver the truth to people. And I think that by and far, whether it's from the political establishment or with the mainstream media, that just doesn't fly anymore. And I think that people want to have more of a direct experience with information in different ways. So whether or not it's having an interactive experience where you can allow people to really discover different things about the world, but also to be able to really connect to each other in different ways, because we have so much kind of lack of understanding between these worldviews that we have right now. Maybe there's some sort of way that VR could provide a neutral meeting ground for people who actually want to work on problems that they want to solve together and kind of put their political differences to the side. So that's, I think, the dream and the vision of what VR could enable is that right now we have just a lot of geographic boundaries of the rural areas and the urban areas and what if VR provided a way for us to feel like we were actually having a human connection with other people that went beyond what you're able to do via email or text or these abstracted ways of communicating to each other. The thing about VR is that you're able to communicate in nonverbal ways and have a sense of embodied presence with another person and Like Walter Greenleaf says, it just triggers your mirror neurons in a new way. And as we get more and more emotions and eye tracking and facial expressions within VR, then that's going to just keep improving what's going to be possible for being able to really have this sense of a shared space with other human beings. So I think there's a lot of potential of what VR could do in that realm. And I think it's just a matter of what are the types of experiences or games where it's going to actually bring people together to have those types of experiences. And also just figure out how VR can play a part of what you're doing day to day and how it could fit into this larger story of how it could change our culture and be able to create the future that we all want to live in. So that's all that I have for today. And I just wanted to really thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, then please do tell your friends, spread the word and become a donor. Just a few dollars a month really does make a huge difference. So you can go to patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.