Experience on Demand: What Virtual Reality Is, How It Works, and What It Can Do
By Jeremy Bailenson
Norton. 290 pp. $28.95
Virtual reality is a bizarre idea. Here is technology that so simulates physical and mental experience that it mimics reality. But it’s far more than just a crazy idea. Today there are affordable headsets from multibillion-dollar companies, such as the Facebook-owned Oculus Rift, that enable wearers to “virtually” escape their physical and temporal realities and immerse themselves in alternative universes or states. These electronic devices not only empower us, like cinematic superheroes, to walk on Mars but also to experience what it feels like to be a cow or a tree.
In “Experience on Demand,” Stanford professor Jeremy Bailenson tries to explain what VR is, how this revolutionary technology works and what it can do to change the world.
Wired magazine has described VR as “the dawn of an entirely new era of communication.” But this revolution, which by 2016 had attracted some $6 billion worth of investment in consumer VR companies, is actually much more disruptive than that. This new technology is an attempt to turn the universe inside out.
By reinventing the world so that it revolves around us, VR represents a kind of inversion of Galileo’s telescope. Now, for about the $500 price of an Oculus Rift headset, the virtual world is ours. No wonder VR has seized the imaginations of Silicon Valley futurists, with their libertarian fetishization of individual rights and their obsession with personalizing products and experiences.
Stanford University, with its abundance of scientific, financial and human capital, is at the forefront of the VR revolution. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg got his first taste of Oculus Rift’s technology in March 2014 at Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, donning one of the headsets to experience what it’s like to be a virtual senior citizen or to walk a narrow plank over a deep pit.
“Trippy,” an impressed Zuckerberg said about the experience. In fact, he was so impressed with Oculus Rift’s technology that a few weeks later, Facebook acquired the little California start-up for $2 billion.
Bailenson is not only the founding director of the university’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab and one of the world’s leading academic authorities on the psychological effects of VR, he was also the guy behind Zuckerberg’s fateful 2014 demo of Oculus Rift technology.
While VR technology might allow us to fly through the universe, “Experience on Demand” is, in its simple narrative, quite a down-to-earth read. In some ways, it’s an accessible introduction, a cogent primer, to the potential and pitfalls of VR.
“Consumer VR is coming like a freight train,” Bailenson tells us. His book is a well-intentioned and partially successful attempt to provide a general audience with a front-row seat on what he calls “a wild ride” of the VR revolution.
But the problem with “Experience on Demand” is that it is rather too well-intentioned. Bailenson has clearly drunk the Silicon Valley Kool-Aid, which I suspect flows freely on the Stanford campus. And while the consumption of this Kool-Aid hasn’t necessarily uplifted his writing style (which, I’m afraid, is disappointingly pedestrian), it has corrupted his view of the world. Like Zuckerberg and so many other naive Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Bailenson believes that technology can make the world an infinitely better place.
It’s as if Bailenson has donned the most rose-tinted of VR headsets to observe mankind. VR, he seems to think, can make us better, thereby magically also making the world a better place. “There are many ways,” he tells us, that “the unique power of VR can be applied to make us better people, more empathetic, more aware of the fragility of the environment, and more productive at work.”
Much of “Experience on Demand” is the wishful thinking of a privileged Northern California academic separated from reality - virtual or otherwise. We are told, for example, that “walking in the shoes of others” by putting on a VR headset will make us more empathetic and will reform racists, misogynists, ageists and maybe even mass murders.
“I felt like a colorblind person” is how, he reports, users reacted to a VR test that simulated colorblindness. Experiencing a simulation titled “Becoming Homeless,” he writes, could make us more likely to sign a petition in favor of affordable housing. VR is the “ultimate empathy machine,” Bailenson promises, even suggesting that experiencing what it’s like to be a cow will turn us into vegetarians and that becoming a virtual tree will make us more concerned about global warning.
What’s missing from “Experience on Demand” is much awareness of real human experience. Bailenson promises that VR will enable us to meet our great-great-great-grandfathers. But while offering such ridiculous fantasies, he gives us little serious history. “Experience on Demand” suffers from that most egregious of Silicon Valley sins: a willful amnesia, a separation from the past, an unwillingness to learn from the problems of previous technological disruptions, particularly the internet revolution of the past quarter-century.
“If the Internet is any guide to how VR will evolve,” he writes, “most people will not just become VR consumers but VR producers as well, the same way people blog, upload YouTube videos, and tweet.”
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But the problem is that Bailenson doesn’t use the history of the Internet as a guide to the future of VR. Indeed, in his blind faith that technology will somehow automatically make us better people, he is repeating the same childish optimism that intoxicated the pioneers of the Internet revolution.
Once upon a time, Silicon Valley futurists promised that the internet would democratize the world and make us better people. But all it seems to have delivered is an infestation of fake news; a digital descent into mass xenophobia, narcissism and technological addiction; and the creepy dominance of winner-take-all goliaths like Zuckerberg’s Facebook. But there’s little about this in “Experience on Demand.” Little about what has actually taken place in the world. No wisdom on demand.
“VR engulfs us,” Bailenson declares. But I’m afraid that there isn’t much engulfing about his new book. Like the simulations delivered by a VR headset, the book is mostly fantasy. It’s a retreat from the world, an example of the very escapism and distraction that Bailenson warns are inherent in VR.
Keen is author of “How to Fix the Future.”