Will you chose the Red pill, the Blue pill, or the Facebook pill?

Facebook recently bought a Virtual Reality headset company (Oculus) for 2 Billion dollars. There is outrage within the VR community who essentially funded this company’s development through crowd funding. They miss the point.

Jaron Lanier coined the term “virtual reality” over twenty years ago (when VR was in vogue). He has expressed many times that VR would only begin to deliver its promise once the technology caught up. He also said that VR was significant in the sense that it could change people’s relationship to their own bodies and their immediate environment. For Lanier, VR is not so much about creating imaginary worlds, as it is re-modulating our experience of the world. VRML (which died in the 90s?) delivered on a static computer screen entirely misses the point. The Oculus Rift, however, totally nails the point. With technologically realised tiny latencies …. it manages to perceptually convince that one is in another world. It convinces the body … see here (this man falls over):

Place that ability into the hands of a business that has pervasive control in our social worlds … and whose control is not necessarily “bad” but is clearly only really interested in generating profits … and there are some potentially hairy outcomes that we need to consider.

How will Facebook attempt to ‘virtualise’ our social existence?

The movie “The Matrix” didn’t explicitly consider the manufacture of virtual realities aimed at serving the banalities of commercial interests.

Here’s another collection of VR’s renewed ability (through the Oculus Rift) to take control of our perceptual faculties. I wonder if some day we will look at these videos and find them a little less funny:

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6 Responses to Will you chose the Red pill, the Blue pill, or the Facebook pill?

  1. andy mcguiness says:

    lots of cats. instead of being pictures and videos, it’ll be like they’re in the room with us.

  2. (This comment is by Brogan Bunt: http://www.broganbunt.net/)

    In his famous essay on early cinema, “The Cinema of Attraction”, Tom Gunning explained that early cinema was less about telling stories than showing things – often in ways that rendered the relationship between screen space and real space uncertain. Here is a famous example from Edwin Porter’s 1903 film “The Great Train Robbery”.

    Apparently horrified audiences cowed from the screen gunman as he shot directly toward the audience.

    Now with the Oculus Rift we find exactly the same rhetoric of illusionistic absorption employed. No doubt the new technology has greater illusionistic pull than the old film technology, but who is to say that participants won’t adjust, just as film viewers very quickly came to recognise the distinction between cinematic and real space.

    For me, the most interesting thing about new technologies such as this is how they only briefly form a context for illusion. Illusion tends to be the marketing rhetoric, but what actually happens is that they get drawn into a rich media and real world perceptual/interactive ecosystem in which users rapidly/seamlessly shift registers between modes of experiential engagement and information delivery.

    A few years back I was working on an Antarctic cruise ship. The crew were celebrating St Patrick’s Day below deck on a very rough and rolling sea. There were no windows, but you could feel the ship moving – and thus the pull of the sea. At the same, alongside drinking way too much green beer and dancing to loud music, there was a large projection on one wall of a formula one car racing game. The movement on the screen was entirely out of kilter with the rolling motion of the ship, but I somehow discovered some weird capacity to process this perceptual dissonance – to allow both layers to intersect and coincide without total perceptual system collapse. I think we are becoming much better at doing this kind of thing. I guess that I doubt that the Oculus Rift will seem a particularly convincing illusion in 10 years.

    Gunning, Tom. “The Cinema of Attraction: Early Film, Its Spectator, and the Avant-Garde.” Film and Theory: An Anthology. Eds. Robert Stam & Toby Miller. Blackwell, 2000. 229-235.

    Porter, Edwin S, dir. The Great Train Robbery. US. 1903.

    • Hi Brogan,

      Your argument also resonates somewhat with the idea put forward by Gombrich (in Art & Illusion 1956) that the appearance of being real is merely dependent on fulfilling the observer’s expectations of what seems real (rather than coincidence with reality). As people’s expectations change, what previously seemed real may no longer seem real down the track. I’m not sure if Gombrich ever commented on the *conscious* adjustment of expectations … as you describe in playing a car game on a rocking boat.

      That takes a lot of the heat out of my concern… since it is likely that, as you suggest, the perceptual ‘trick’ will lose its potency as users become accustomed to it and/or consciously adapt.

      However, what if technology’s capacity to develop and evolve has finally reached a stage where it can *match* our constantly changing expectations of the appearance of reality? According to Gombrich, this is exactly was art does… it adapts to our constantly changing expectations of what is real and this contributes significantly to constantly evolving styles. Does technology now also have that capacity? I think this is a big question. The Oculus Rift, as it is today, may be unconvincing in 10 years time… but in 10 years time what other supporting technologies will have arrived?

      I also have socio-political concerns. Facebook survives by putting advertising within our conscious stream. How will it use VR to facilitate that? Is it possible that our ability to be aware of our consumption of marketing messages (which is already arguably low) will be further eroded? As argued by Bernard Stiegler and many others, the role of marketing and advertising is to orient our desires towards consumption. To what extent might successful and engaging VR support that role?

      Lastly, given that Facebook is concerned with social interactions, and these *matter* to us in a way that is different to art (music or film) … is there perhaps some greater conscious willingness to ‘buy into’ a virtual reality in certain situations? This certainly seems to be the case with computer gaming. I wonder if the basic human desire to socialise might support the suspension of disbelief that a Facebook virtual world is not real (and not compete with it, as I argue, in my thesis, occurs between VR and music)

      • (This comment is by Brogan Bunt: http://www.broganbunt.net/)

        What I’m thinking is that perhaps the whole dream of total technologically enabled illusion is waning. Our interaction with media is now across multiple devices, screens and real world contexts. Facebook provides a clear example of this as, for instance, uni students, dip in and out of listening to lectures, attending to Facebook status updates, Instagram images, text messages, YouTube clips, their email, the whispered comments of their peers, etc. Media and experience itself is becoming plainly plural, multi-layered and complex. In McLuhan’s term media is becoming ‘cool’. ‘Hot’ media, which requires close and undistracted action – typically via a single sense register – is becoming more the exception than the rule. Within this context the concern with convincing illusion becomes anachronistic – instead there are partial, good-enough, strictly-bounded instances of illusion within a more complex and less strictly-determinate experiential field.

        I have no idea what Facebook wants to do with the Oculus Rift technology, but I’m wondering whether they quite realise that their current success relies more upon inattention and distraction than any sense of compelling, illusionistic focus.

  3. this comment copy-pasted from a Facebook thread …

    I am not worried about people sitting in rooms with headsets, spending countless hours in a ‘virtual social world’. Nor do I think this has much to do with Facebook … if Facebook goes belly over or not has no significance.

    What I am worried about is the commercial exploitation of a technology that successfully manages to bypass cognition and fool our bodies (or fool our perceptions despite our cognitive abilities).

    If you Google Edward Bernays (Edmond Freud’s nephew) you will see that he is credited as the father of modern marketing techniques, firmly rooted in sound psychological science, in which individuals’ desires are captured and re-oriented towards consuming commercial products. His legacy is well known to late 20th century philosophers … who describe his work as hailing in a brand of capitalism known as consumer capitalism (in the early 20th century). Consumer capitalism is different to free-market capitalism because it uses marketing principles so effectively that it is understood to have a coercive force. In other words, it manipulates people’s desires towards the consumption of products without their being conscious of the mechanics of it. Apple does this very well, as do all successful companies.

    Facebook already manipulates our social feeds to serve their commercial interests. For example, I believe that if you include a comment where you talk about how great the coffee is at Starbucks then more people in your social network will see that comment. ( ) Its not exactly evil … its just creating this huge underlying infrastructure that orients how we live towards consuming the products of whoever can afford to finance the owners of the infrastructure.

    Because of its capacity to tap in directly to our perceptual faculties VR is a potentially extremely powerful channel for marketing, for selling advertising. The Oculus Rift is the first consumer-affordable product that has managed to get VR right. It makes a lot of sense for a company like Facebook to buy them.

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