the Total Perspective Vortex in VR

Can’t sleep. So, toast and cheese, and typing. Useless for physics right now, so hope my insomnia produces something else of value.

I’ve been giving some long hard looks into the void lately, particularly what I call the “postmodern job market” but which isn’t a new idea and which venture capitalists have been thinking about too. The executive summary seems to look something like this:

  1. Use accelerating technology to displace ever larger fractions of the labor market.
  2. Profit!

But that really is a discussion for some other time. Let’s just say that it has focused my attention on what unique insights and dreams I have to offer the world that nobody else can.

In what sense is tech making the world “better”?

Reading the tech blogs, TechCrunch in particular, has filled me with apprehension. I see a lot of churn, a lot of motion in technology, but not all of it in an obviously useful direction. So many of the entries seem to be discussions of who’s bought out whom; tech personalities getting their 140 characters of fame; or ongoing chatter about the latest messaging or social networking app which does little more than encourage us to be on the Internet all the time, without regard for whether this is the way we want to, or ought to be, living our lives. It’s unsatisfying.

I wonder if this is a sign that I’m not particularly passionate about technology1, even apart from not being an early adopter, and despite being fervently passionate about science. It’s not that I don’t sincerely appreciate technology — improvements in computer and Internet technologies that enable individuals to create more and better art than ever before, improvements in medical technologies that improve our health and lifespans, and so forth. But I want to understand how an innovation is going to make our lives better before I adopt or support it. And my impression is that I have a more conservative personal view of “better” than many tech enthusiasts: my ideal world is one in which we’re freer than ever to discover and express important truths, to explore landscapes of new experience and self-actualization, to create deeper and more meaningful relationships with each other — to understand our universe and ourselves before our atoms return to the greater substance.

On the face of it this seems like a progressive dream which would be served well by technology. But much of this spiritual progress requires an enormous amount of time spent in pursuit of self-awareness, or wrestling with incredibly hard problems with vision and effort expended over long timescales. Such activity is not fundamentally profit-driven, at least not in the quarterly business cycle, and is valuable only for somewhat quaint notions of “value” that aren’t easily convertible to dollars. Many of the current activities of the tech sector seem to me to encourage us all to speed up, jack in, share and interact and consume more and more — targeting a small, self-absorbed rich elite as their chosen market, people who are materially well off but increasingly entangled in the cycle of grasping and becoming, and doing little to help most of the rest of the world. Some surreal crowdfunding campaigns aren’t even obviously for products. I’ve got nothing against making money, but it distresses me to see so much cash being thrown at such seemingly pointless things. It’s taking the world in a direction I really don’t want to see it go.

There are occasional stories about things that really do seem to be transforming people’s lives for the better — low-cost hearing aids for the developing world, iPhone apps to facilitate outpatient medical care, new charity and microfinance initiatives, art support networks like Patreon where some of my favorite webcomic artists can earn a better living than ever doing awesome things. They’re all worthy goals and if I were to work for such a company, I’d consider myself fortunate to be adding value to the world.

Interactive cosmic bitscapes: building a Vortex

And then there are companies like Oculus VR. TechCrunch made a big deal about how Facebook bought it, presumably to own the platform for next-generation social networking. The idea of jacking into the Matrix, only to be attacked by the birdlike avatars of ten thousand targeted surveillance ads, chills me as only a latter-day Hitchcock could. At best I thought of virtual reality as a platform for increasingly elaborate first-person shooter games.

It wasn’t until I saw the ControlVR Kickstarter that I considered the possibilities I’d been overlooking: If we’re building real virtual reality now, who said it had to be used only for (mere) entertainment? Why not education, science visualization for research, improved communication? Why not all of the above?

I was sure someone must already have made an immersive virtual reality planetarium. A quick Google search revealed that astronomy educators apparently think of planetarium environments as a sort of virtual reality. This tallies with my own experience as a kid, where planetarium visits promised a breathtaking experience for my impressionable younger self. But with Oculus able to provide truly immersive video and audio experiences, and with ControlVR able now to let you touch things too — why stop there?

Imagine putting the goggles on and looking around in 3-D, and seeing nothing but stars. You can see them in all directions; you can learn the constellations in both hemispheres by just staring at the stars as clearly as you would parked out in the bush. You can float in near-Earth orbit, and while you’d still be in Earth’s gravity your eyes might fool you for a while. You can zoom in and out, changing the scale of your view interactively — like in the old “Powers of Ten” short film which captivated me at the National Air and Space Museum. You can rotate, or move forward or backward in time, much as Carl Sagan showed us the three-dimensional arrangement and proper motion of the stars of Ursa Major in the original Cosmos TV series.

Now suppose you can interact with the universe. Start it at the Big Bang, in which you find yourself inside, past the moment of last scattering, surrounded by swirling clouds of primordial hydrogen. At your touch, the clouds cool and collapse to form the first stars, then flicker with light as those first stars explode as supernovae, throwing “heavy metals” like carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and iron far out into the interstices, being absorbed in the next stars and eventually forming worlds not unlike our own. You can watch the stars fizzle out and die, become neutron stars, become black holes; you can watch the universe pass away through the prolonged senescence of heat death, collapse in on itself in a Big Crunch, or be shredded in a few billion years by exotic “phantom energy” at the Big Rip. You can watch this happen as lazily as you like, or as rapidly. You can change the physical constants and the simulation will adapt. It might be part of a world-building game — adjust the constants to show the variety of structures nature can produce, and try to reproduce conditions that enable life.

Obviously doing this with perfect physical fidelity is far beyond our current technology; the roughest of approximations are made even by working scientists in a research context. But I imagine that if we were clever, we could show enough detail to create very convincing impressions of manipulating the reality around us, and to illustrate how changes in initial conditions creates different patterns under known physical law. You could teach quite counterintuitive, sophisticated physics, such as the fact that gravitationally bound structures have negative heat capacity: for example, stars grow denser and hotter as they lose heat energy to the environment, and that’s an important part of how they must form!

Enabling people to engage the universe this way might do for the Internet/VR generation what Cosmos and “Powers of Ten” did for me. It might fulfill the role of a sort of Total Perspective Vortex, instilling in us a sense of humility and wonder nominally accessible from the night sky, but increasingly rare due in part to light pollution. It might also instil a sense of ownership — we were shaped by these physical laws, but we’ve also come to know and understand them, and ourselves through them.

These are things on which I find I don’t often reflect in the rush to get the next academic paper published or the next piece of code written. But they were crucial ingredients of my first interest in science, and periodically help to combat the worst of self-absorption along the way.

It looks like Oculus is hiring engineers now; unsurprisingly, they’re looking for years of detailed experience in programming virtual reality systems which I don’t yet have. My actual employment profile for industry seems to meet with a different set of skills. But in terms of areas in which I’d be excited about working, this is currently the front-runner. Perhaps as a longer-term vision it is worth keeping in mind — and of course there are other ways to contribute to such a project: by knowing people who know people, and for the more educational aspects, by helping to translate our best known astrophysics into easily computable, visualizable forms which could run on a home platform. Even if nobody will pay me to work on it, it’d be a tremendously exciting thing to help build.

1Of course it’s probably not fair to judge all technology by what Apple or Facebook is building these days. But Silicon Valley does seem to capture a lot of the media’s attention, and an outsized share of the highest-valued, fastest-growing tech companies seem to me to have to do with letting people shuffle bits around to chase idle pleasures, accelerating the already breakneck pace of consumption in our society, and accelerating the rate of job loss from the global economy. So if there’s useful, interesting, truly helpful technology out there I could be helping to build, it probably won’t be flashy or trendy and might not even be visible; I might have to dig around a bit to find those possibilities.

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About Richard

I'm an American scientist who is building a new life in Australia. This space will contain words about science and math, but also philosophy, policy, literature, my travels, occasional rants, all sorts of things I find strange and awesome. The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer at the time (currently University of Sydney), though personally, I think they should.
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