A Q&A with Virtual Reality Pioneer Jacki Morie
The founder of All These Worlds talks to us about teledildonics, hype, Mark Zuckerberg, and VR's killer app.
Morie circa. 1990 at the IST Visual Systems Lab. Image: All These Worlds
Jacquelyn Ford Morie has been creating virtual reality experiences since before Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey was born. Her company, All These Worlds, is currently working on virtual reality experiences for NASA that aim to ease the social and psychological difficulties of long term space travel.
At the moment, NASA's installing an early version of All These Worlds' simulation at the Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA), located at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Two astronauts cut off from the rest of the world as if they were actually on Mars will log into these virtual worlds during a two-week experiment. Then, at the end of the summer, "a group of scientists and engineers" will participate in a year-long Mars simulation at the HI-SEAS Habitat in Hawaii.
The test subjects in that experiment will use Oculus Rift Development Kit 2 to visit virtual worlds where they can visit art galleries, swim in coral reefs, and ski on a mountaintops. Since there's a 40-minute delay in communication between Mars and Earth, subjects won't be able to interact with people outside the experiment in real time, but the simulation will sync up with Earth once a day. This will allow family members to leave recordings of their avatars which the astronauts can then interact with, and leave their own recordings in response.
Motherboard caught up with Morie for our Perfect Worlds week to find out more about All These Worlds' current collaboration with NASA, and what Morie's vast experience in virtual reality can teach us about its current resurgence.
Motherboard: I heard you say there used to be more women creating VR experiences in the early days.
Morie: The majority of people building VR in the early days were men but I did an in-depth survey where I tried to find artistic, meaningful, very creative virtual reality experiences. This didn't include a virtual kitchen you could walk around to design your kitchen, military training scenarios we designed for wayfinding, and more functional VR experiences. It was the very creative, multisensory things, with full immersion and interesting interfaces. The 100 creations I found between 1985 and 2006-2007, 70 percent of those creators were women.
"Show me someone who made a good pornographic VR. I've never seen such a thing."
Does that ratio hold up today?
I think not right now. You still have some of these women artists that never stopped working in virtual reality, like Margaret Dolinsky and Brenda Laurel. Others didn't create anything because it cost so much to make these things, but I did a little informal survey. Oculus is running this Mobile VR Jam, and 1,700 people signed up for it. I went through all of them and found every name that was remotely female and my best guess estimate is that 6 percent were women.
Was pornography always a part of virtual reality like it is today?
You'd have to show me someone who made a good pornographic VR. I've never seen such a thing. There was a lot of talk about it in the early days, especially when VPL had a full body suit. They ended up calling it teledildonics back then. I don't know anyone that ever experienced that! I certainly didn't, but every TV show I was ever on, especially the French people, they always asked me about my work in teledildonics, and I was like "I'm not doing teledildonics! I don't know anyone who is!" I think it captured the imagination more than it was a functional experience. The technology really wasn't that tactile at the time.
Everyone want to know what the killer app will be. You've worked on military, art, entertainment, and medical applications of VR. What's the application that's going to break through and make it as popular as television or video games?
I really can't say, and I don't think anyone can put their finger on one thing. It was a gradual accumulation of content that made TV compelling, and it was a wide variety of content. I think that's got to be the way VR goes. If I make an app where you're doing mindfulness meditation in a virtual world, that's not going to be a killer app for everybody, but it's going to help create that critical mass that changes our perception of what VR can be. When we get that critical mass of content it will take off.
People ask "what's the killer app?" But that's the bottom line mindset of "how much money can we make out of this?" rather than looking at virtual reality as a media infrastructure that's going to be as rich as television and movies. It's like saying you can only make documentary movies because they're the killer app. No. We have to look at it as this thing where all different content applications and different kinds of interactions contribute and all of a sudden we can't ignore virtual reality because it's around us and there's something for everyone.
Are we sure there are no negative effects on vision? Are they safe?
We don't know that for sure. Some of us who have had our heads in it for years have vision issues because we're getting older, but there's just no evidence because until now there weren't enough people using this stuff. There's some thinking that the fact that you are focused on these two little screens inches from your eyes, if you're watching it in a head-mounted display for the length of a movie, and you do a lot of that, maybe your eyes are going to lose some of the muscle that move the lenses in and out to focus on near and far, and we may end up having to do exercises. But there just haven't been enough people using it for extended periods of time to really say that we know definitively there are issues. That's not to say we won't find issues, but right now nobody can say that for sure.
You were talking about the Oculus VR Jam. I was just talking to the people behind Project Elysium, which wants to reunite people with their deceased friends and family in VR. Have you seen this?
What scares me about Project Elysium getting so much hype is that people are going to expect more than can possibly be delivered by those headlines, and when it doesn't pan out, we're going to hit that disillusionment that the Gartner cycle talks about. I'm worried that we're going to get the same thing, that people will go, "that's not what they said it was going to be."
Do you think there's a little over-promising going on right now with VR in general?
I think the press is grabbing this stuff and sensationalizing it so they get great headlines like "can Oculus bring the dead back to life?" What kind of headline is that?! That's the press's thing. I'm worried it's going to set up unrealistic expectations and we're all going to fall down again.
"I think the press is grabbing this stuff and sensationalizing it so they get great headlines like 'can Oculus bring the dead back to life?'"
The other side of the coin is that there are a few companies that are hyping themselves like Magic Leap. Magic Leap has nothing there yet but some vague patent applications. And then there's that HoloLens [demo] we saw yesterday. I have another company that does augmented reality, and you can't do what they're doing yet in that demo. We're waiting to hear from someone who actually got their head in the thing and see something that wasn't just this demo that was meant to look wonderful. I'd say that demo is about half true, what they're saying up there.
With Magic Leap, I have to see it. Nobody's seen it. The fact that you can make a canned demo doesn't do this technology a lot of favors, and I'm hoping it also doesn't do a lot of harm.
The companies that are spearheading the current resurgence of VR are saying that it's different from past efforts. How is it different?
Everybody had the same epiphany back in 1980s that Mark Zuckerberg had when he put on an Oculus Rift. It's a phenomenologically powerful thing where you feel like you're in a real space that is not physically there. The difference between today and 1985 is that Zuckerberg had his epiphany and he had a backpack full of money to spend.
The other thing was that Palmer Luckey came up with a design for a head mounted display that cost $300, he put it out on Kickstarter, and he sold 15,000 of them. [The initial Kickstarter campaign sold around 7,000 units, but Oculus has sold an undisclosed amount of development kits since, reportedly more than 100,000 units as of last year.]
"Zuckerberg had his epiphany and he had a backpack full of money to spend."
For the first 25 years of VR, if you had taken every head-mount ever made, it wouldn't even be in the high thousands. All of a sudden there were orders of magnitude more head-mounts available in the world and they were affordable. This meant that I didn't have to be a DARPA researcher or army researcher to get my hands on a $50,000 head-mount. The fact that so many people are working on it, hopefully we'll have a few wonderful things rise to the top.