Peter Rubin’s “Future Presence: How VR Is Changing Human Connection, Intimacy, and the Limits of Ordinary Life”

[Peter Rubin’s new book covers a wide range of interesting presence topics; this interview with the author is from The Verge (where it includes a different image). –Matthew]

Why the real promise of virtual reality is to change human connection

It’s not all about gaming

By Angela Chen
Apr 17, 2018

All the talk about virtual reality revolutionizing the gaming industry is “just first-day stuff,” says VR expert Peter Rubin. Forget 360-degree video and video games, he says. That’s just the beginning, and focusing too much on these uses takes away from the true potential of VR: a social technology to bring us together.

Rubin is a journalist at Wired and the author of Future Presence: How Virtual Reality Is Changing Human Connection, Intimacy, and the Limits of Ordinary Life, out today from HarperCollins. The Verge spoke to Rubin about VR intimacy, its social powers and downsides, and why VR porn is surprisingly quaint.

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Virtual reality is advancing quickly, but I wouldn’t say it’s mainstream yet. What are the biggest obstacles to mass adoption?

A huge part of it is technological, but I don’t think it’s technological in the sense of issues like simulator sickness. When you get above the level of mobile headsets, those things tend to fall away because you have better tracking. The technological hurdle to me is that we lack the ability to flip it off and go or take it out somewhere. The technological hurdle is the pain point of starting things up easily, the way people are comfortable with booting up a PC and with updating Windows and all these other things that have become part of the experience. We need devices that are lighter and cheaper, but ease of use is the biggest production problem.

One other problem is that stigma still exists. It’s kind of the glasshole thing revisited, which is the fear of looking crazy with a headset on and not knowing what’s happening outside the headset. Using this in public is a no-go. You do see it on planes, you don’t see it on subways, you don’t see it in coffee shops, despite what commercials will have you believe.

And the third thing is, what can I do to keep me coming back? That’s related to a network effect. Everyone who has gotten a mobile headset knows the experience of downloading all the free stuff they can and going into a virtual museum saying, sure, this is cool. Well, what those things are missing is having someone else in there. When you add this kind of network multiuser experience, it becomes something different. That’s what people are going back in for: social experiences, including ones that aren’t necessarily online games.

I think one of the biggest problems the industry has right now is that VR is thought of purely as a gaming technology, or people see Ready Player One and write it off. For VR to be adopted, it needs to be easy to use and easy to share, it needs to be something you don’t feel weird about using, and it needs to give you something that you really want to do and that thing is almost necessarily going to have other people involved.

In your book, you use terms like “presence,” “empathy,” and “intimacy” to build your argument that VR is going to bring us closer to each other. How are you defining these words?

“Presence” has been around for a long time. It’s short for “telepresence” and it’s meant different things, but it’s basically this phenomenon that happens when VR is good enough that your brain relaxes into it, and the illusion becomes the prevailing reality.

Jaron Lanier, who famously popularized the term “virtual reality” and was one of the early pioneers of VR as a consumer idea, called it “the conversion moment,” or when people start believing in the virtual reality world they’re in. Your rational brain always knows that stuff is outside the headset, but the reptilian brain doesn’t. That unlocks everything we talk about in the book.

There’s another level called “hand presence.” It’s the way we move our hands and head in conversations with other people, which has a host of other subtextual meanings. And then there’s social presence, which is when other people are around, and you see them and feel seen by them. The nature of being in a space with someone and sharing an experience with them unlocks different emotional transactions.

Empathy is about understanding and comprehending another person’s experience, but intimacy is about emotion and that is the thing that just started getting unlocked in the past year or two. The first thing people think of for VR is video games, but that’s not the thing that gives VR its transformative potential. Games are a diversion, but emotional moments become memories, which is a fascinating thing.

You write in the book about how the brain treats VR memories like real memories.

There was a study where German researchers found that people perform better on memory tests on things they saw on VR versus a 2D screen. Not only that, but it takes them a tiny bit longer to answer, and it takes them a tiny bit longer to answer because that is consistent with where those memories are stored and how they’re accessing them. They’re accessing them as things they participated in, not as things they saw.

I have memories of shared experiences in VR. I could tell you where in real life I was when I put on the headset, but my true memory when I think back to it is of where I was in VR, who I was with as they were in VR. It’s just entirely different experientially.

What about the argument that VR is going to make us all losers stuck in our own heads? A lot of your book is working to debunk that belief, but what’s your brief response? If someone said that to you at a cocktail party, what would be your response?

I would ask them if they’d ever been with someone else in VR! I could guarantee that the answer would be no. It’s like describing a dream to someone else. Unless they were there, they can’t get the first sensory or emotional blunt of the experience.

I can almost guarantee you that a cocktail party in VR is invariably more fun and more rewarding than a cocktail party in real life, and maybe that would be my answer: let’s go do this in VR.

There’s been a lot of talk about the possibilities of storytelling for VR. What do you see in that space?

Any form of storytelling that relegates you to being a passive observer has its limitations, but I think storytelling encompasses worlds of art that we may not even be able to predict yet. To bring up Jaron Lanier again, I once asked him the very best thing he could imagine in VR, and what he said was, “Performance artists who, rather than creating art, they create reality and they do it in real time.”

I bring that up as an example of a thing that doesn’t have a precedent. There’s a role for AI in this, too. As AI starts to filter in, as characters get smarter, both in scripted experiences and non-scripted experiences, and you start to see the potential get unlocked for storytelling in immersively theatrical ways. Think Sleep No More or Westworld, in which storytelling has an emotional impact and a lasting one of the kind that bounded, voyeuristic art doesn’t.

I think you’re going to have immersive theatre troupes in VR, and then AI starts to take on those roles and you start to have these incredibly ornate, boundless immersive experiences in any sort of setting that you want with a cast of characters that is there with you, responding. You have a chance to direct the story. It’s having an adventure, which is a kind of storytelling that we don’t really have.

You write about how there’s that friction in taking an online friendship — say, a chatroom friendship — into real life, but VR provides a “third track” without that awkwardness. How does it do that?

It’s very difficult to mask who you are in virtual reality. It’s your mannerisms. It’s the way your body moves. In VR, you can be “anonymous,” you can have a username that is different, yet you can still be yourself, with your voice, the way you talk, the way you move, someone is really spending time with you. So you couple that kind of casual intimacy just with the sort of confidence that that lightweight degree of anonymity affords you.

The stakes are low. In VR, it doesn’t feel as fraught as walking up to someone at a party and making small talk, but you bring with you the true personality from your real life into here. With anything that’s text-based, it’s easy to make yourself be something that you’re not — that was the great dream of the internet.

But when it’s just you, this unmediated experience with someone else, there’s this incredible middle ground between the comfort of knowing it’s low stakes and the fact that you are giving someone a window into who you really are, without it being artificially accelerated in things like chat rooms and IM and Tinder.

It’s not like having this great text chain and meeting up and all of sudden you have to be just as witty as you were. You already know what they sound like, how they react to things, you already know they stand, how big their space bubble is, so all these things accumulate into a real and holistic understanding of another person.

There seems to be a paradox here. On the one hand, you say VR is good for social anxiety, but on the other, you say that it’s hard to mask who you are — which, I think, can create anxiety.

Well, it’s unlikely that the first time I put on a headset I no longer have social anxiety. But it’s the same thing as immersion therapy: you realize that nothing happens, and maybe there was something that you were like, that was cool, I want to see what that’s like.

This goes back to what some of VR’s therapeutic applications are, and that is stuff like immersion therapy for PTSD and phobias. It’s a way to amass real-world trial and error in a fraction of the time. I heard again and again, “It can be difficult in real life, but I feel like I found a community here.”

Is it possible to catfish in VR? What about that, and the other downsides?

Catfishing is certainly possible, but it’s more difficult than it is in the kind of standard Facebook way where you are instant messaging or emailing or texting and always pretending to be someone you’re not. It’s a lot more difficult to keep up that facade when you’re embodied.

That’s not saying it won’t happen. It is going to happen. It’s almost guaranteed that it’s going to happen, and like so many other misuses, it’s possible to anticipate this but not necessarily know how to preempt it.

The nightmare scenario that everyone likes to bring up is The Matrix. But you that point in technology is way, way, way off because you really have to recruit all your senses because there’s a degree of what real life gives you — skin contact, texture, and so on — that’s impossible to replicate in the foreseeable future. “Out there” is always going to give you things that aren’t available in VR. But there are also certainly communities for which this will be an intrinsically more rewarding experience, like for seniors, people who are homebound for various reasons, people who have crippling social anxieties.

I think the more worrying nightmare scenario is the one about it being misused for data purposes and defrauding people. The dark side of these things is defrauding people. The dark side is catfishing, it’s a platform or a software company or hardware company that has no regulation on how they use your emotional response. Advertisers would kill for this information — eye-tracking, facial expression — because it’s like having an infinite focus group at all times, so we need these safeguards in place. There are a lot of ways this could go wrong. And, like it or not, we’re going to get to a point where a regulatory approach is going to have to come into play.

One chapter of your book is about sex in VR, and you mention that VR porn makes sex not “action but reaction.” What do you mean?

Like so many other things, this is something that we are seeing now, so this is no guarantee that it’s going to last. But one of the most interesting things about the early days of VR is you could put the viewer in a body, but you’re not able to participate for comfort reasons and to avoid simulator sickness.

What ends up happening is that the only action that’s in the scene is happening with your partner or your partners, and what that sets up is something really interesting. People would start releasing these scenes that had penetration cropped out of the frame. If you were in the body of a male, and you were having sex in missionary with a woman, you would see her from like the hips up, and it was more about what she was saying to you, the eye contact that you were having, the way her body moved, and it became this incredibly fascinating emergency adaptation. By putting you in the scene and not having you move and having it be intimate because you’re with another person, then your pleasure is derived from their pleasure.

People who are watching VR porn, it stands to reason, are doing whatever they would be normally while watching porn, but because you are there in the headset, because you’re there in the virtual scene, the other person’s reactions are closer to you and are because of you and are because of what your body is doing.

There’s so much scholarship in feminist theory about how pornography dehumanizes people by making it about penetration and body parts. VR porn makes it about two people, (or more, depending on the experience that you’re watching), and it makes sex a holistic thing again.

It makes it more consensual feeling, it’s more reciprocal, it’s more reactive. The porn industry has pushed the boundary year after year to this shift toward extremity, and this is a shift in the other direction, this weird Rockwellian version of porn, there’s something almost quaint about it.

What in VR seems hyped to you?

Anything that was there in its early days, about gaming and looking at 360 photos and videos. That doesn’t necessarily induce presence. VR can’t be window shopping, it has to be something that you go back to because it means something.

When is this going to happen? What’s the timeline?

Part of the mission of the book is to think about this on a few different timelines, one of which is, what do the next year or two look like? And more importantly, what are things going to look like in 10 years and even beyond?

A number of these iterative improvements that are happening we speak, like positional tracking and gaze-tracking. That stuff is happening now.

And, of course, some of the things take place in the “beyond” category: things like full-body haptic feedback that involves things beyond just pressure and gets into temperature and moisture stimulation. For that to become a culturally accessible mainstream consumer technology, you’re looking well past 10 years. People are working on taste and smell, though those are probably the last pieces of the puzzle that will click into place. People working on brain-computer interfaces. People that are working on anything you can imagine.

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