10 April 2011 3 Comments

Getting inside your head: Virtual Reality guru Jeremy Bailenson’s Writing Life

Move over cards, cocaine, and nicotine, Virtual Reality is the new addiction. It isn’t restricted to the realms of academe or science fiction. Whether you know it or not, it’s going to change your life. It already may have done so. Stanford University Professor Jeremy Bailenson is co-author of a new book, Infinite Reality, which explains how our world is being altered by…a world that isn’t really there. A compelling thinker and one of the foremost young experts on VR, Bailenson’s book (on the shelves April 11) is sure to change the way you look at all aspects of the future and its intersection with rapidly developing technologies. With the arrival of “avatars” of ourselves, it might even change how you look at yourself. Here’s what he told me about his work and the new book:

Before we get to writing, here’s a virtual reality question. How soon will governments and corporations be able to control our behavior with virtual reality? And how?

Children play video games for more time per day than they watch movies and read books combined. Video games are becoming more “immersive,” that is, closer and closer to virtual reality, each year. Whether or not governments will use the medium to “control” us is up for debate, but there is little doubt that the next generation of lawmakers will look to virtual reality first and other media second when shaping laws, creating entertainment, and conducting commerce.

How long did it take you to get this book published?

From start—phone call from an agent suggesting I write a book—to finish—book available in stores–the process was about three years.

What’s a typical writing day?

I wake up early, drink coffee, and get my best writing done between 7am and 10am, and typically put in another few hours in the afternoon. Some days are longer days on which I pound the prose for double digit hours but those are the exception, not the rule. It’s a marathon, not a sprint…

Plug “Infinite Reality.” How would you describe what it’s about? And of course why’s it so great?

Infinite Reality is a survival guide for anyone seeking to understand how the virtual revolution is changing life as we know it—for example psychology, religion, education, entertainment, relationships, and business. For the past fifteen years, Blascovich and I have been running experiments to understand what happens to the mind inside virtual reality, with the idea that “someday” the technology would be a part of the average person’s daily life. It turns out “someday” has arrived. Children between the ages of 6 and 16 spend over 8 hours per day using digital media, and Internet addiction is quickly becoming a rival to substance abuse and gambling. Infinite Reality gives readers the tools to understand what Virtual Reality is and how it will affect their lives.

What’s it like to co-write a book?

The great part is being able to bounce ideas off one another and to have another person who is a highly invested editor. In our penultimate edit, Jim and I sat side by side and read OUT LOUD every single word of the book, and then argued over prose, grammar, and content. We averaged about thirty minutes per page. Needless to say it was a grueling month.

What’s your favorite sentence in all literature, and why?

“Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions”. In the late seventies when William Gibson is setting the stage for the virtual revolution we are experiencing today, he really captured the essence of virtual reality. Today there are many people who prefer their “hallucinations” to the physical world.

You’re a fan of Gibson’s “Neuromancer.” Some people say his sci-fi fiction “invented” the internet and cyberspace. Is that true? Did fiction-writing actually lead to all these subsequent scientific developments?

Neuromancer was without a doubt what inspired me to become a scholar of avatars. Gibson’s unprecedented vision of cyberspace redefines what it means to be human—mortality is optional, people can transform their gender, age, and identity at the drop of a hat, and the notions of pleasure and pain move beyond the flesh. Indeed these themes are pervasive throughout my research and throughout our book Infinite Reality. I first read it in high school, and like many Stanford students I force to read it in my courses, I didn’t really “get it”. It’s a challenging read on the first try, and some of the big ideas take a few reads before they grab hold. I didn’t pick the book up again for about a decade, in my fifth year of graduate school, where I was floundering without direction in my research, running cognitive psychology experiments and then designing computer programs that mimicked thought. But before dropping out of academia altogether, one job advertisement in particular resonated with what I had read in Neuromancer, and I decided to give university life one more try. I took a research position at UCSB studying avatars. Since then, Neuromancer has been my crutch. Large government grants have been awarded to me for building and testing Gibson’s ideas. Academic papers are improved by Gibson quotes that sum up the big ideas of the research. PhD students walk out of my office with a copy when searching for dissertation topics. Undergraduates who can’t imagine the world without the “cyberspace” Gibson predicted (or perhaps facilitated) grumble about using it as a textbook in my lecture classes.

Is there any other sci-fi fiction author whose work seems scientifically well-informed to an actual scientist like you? Can you recommend a book?

Yes—the book “Altered Carbon” by Richard Morgan is a must-read for anyone who wants a vision of the next avatar revolution. Gibson describes a world in which digital technology transforms humanity. Morgan has a different take and focuses on a world in which humans have conquered biology and can “occupy”—that is transport their personality into—“off the shelf” bodies.

Do you use other media, like music or art, to get yourself into the mood to write? Or to open up your creative faculties?

All Black Sabbath, all the time.

What’s the strangest thing that happened to you while researching the book?

I was at a meeting at a Fortune 500 corporation, discussing virtual reality with the head of their research division. Without warning at our 8am meeting she showed me two devices which were designed for “teledildonics”—virtual sex between two people who are not in the same physical place. We examined and discussed two “his and her” devices in which people can intimately touch one another over the Internet.

You’re about to become a father. When your daughter is in college, how will virtual reality have changed the way she lives and studies?

Imagine the best teacher who ever lived—for example Einstein for physics or Vonnegut for writing. Now imagine a digital avatar that looked like him, had his personality, had all of his knowledge, and was verbally and nonverbally responsive to questions and confused looks. Now, think about a digital MP3 song. It lasts forever and can by copied infinitely for free. So my daughter, like every other student, will be tutored one-on-one, by the best teacher who ever lived.

Will she still be reading books?

She still will be reading words, but a “book” will likely be a distant relative of its paper ancestors. Reading will be interactive, with words and images changing based on your reactions, and there will be a lot more “showing” and a lot less “telling”.

3 Responses to “Getting inside your head: Virtual Reality guru Jeremy Bailenson’s Writing Life”

  1. Marjorie Kaye 9 May 2011 at 8:02 pm #

    I read The Neuromancer several years ago and like most readers, I was impressed by how accurately Gibson nailed the near future in terms of artificial intelligence and virtual reality. Though Gibson’s prose was often brilliant the plot and characters left me indifferent and uninterested in reading any other novels by him (I did try Mona Lisa Overdrive and it might as well have been written in Sanskrit). In terms of Neuromancer, other than a mild curiosity I simply didn’t care about what happened to any of his characters. The overall feeling is cold and hollow. Is this what the future of AI and virtual reality offers?–a disconnect from the physical,leading to an absence of real emotion which is replaced by a drug-induced remoteness– bloodless and hopeless. I hope not.

  2. Matt Beynon Rees 9 May 2011 at 10:38 pm #

    It’s true, Marjorie, that fiction set in the future often sees our interactions in that way. I wonder if it’s simply that authors become focused on material changes in society and think of it as compelling enough to make a good novel. Of course, whether a novel is set in the Middle East in the future or in Vienna in 1791, it’s the interior life of the characters that readers need to respond to.


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  1. What Virtual Reality Is About To Mean For Technology and Advertising - 08. Jan, 2013

    [...] The similarities between science fiction and Bailenson’s research are not accidental. Before he began studying avatars and virtual reality in the lab 12 years ago, Bailenson dabbled in writing science fiction himself, and he is still an avid reader of the genre. (Cobb Anderson’s recruiting trick from Software, for instance, has shown up in Bailenson’s academic writing.) Above all, he credits Neuromancer—the seminal 1984 novel by William Gibson, which takes place largely in a virtual-reality landscape populated by avatars—as his inspiration. He reports that he has designed major laboratory experiments to test Gibson’s fictional ideas, and that he frequently relies on Gibson’s language to crystallize the central themes of his research. “Neuromancer has been my crutch,” he said in a 2011 interview with the British novelist Matt Rees. [...]

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