"Jaron" by Burr Snider
Sitting in his little backyard cottage high on a Sausalito, California hillside with its great, unfettered view of San Francisco Bay and its gorgeous clutter of expensive and arcane musical instruments, Jaron Lanier is explaining the universe, or at least how it interfaces with him. If this seems an unequal match it's only because the universe has declined to send an advocate to present its case, probably a judicious decision.
Jaron-watchers, of which there are a multitude since Lanier became the first technology figure to cross over to pop-culture stardom, will be pleased to note that the controversial and charismatic virtual-reality pioneer is alive and swell these days in spite of persistent reports to the contrary. Ever since Silicon Valley was seismically rocked this past December by the news that Lanier had been unceremoniously bounced from his own company and stripped of his basic VR patents in a rather hostile takeover by Thomson-CSF, the French electronics conglomerate that called in its overdue loans, speculation to the effect of Whither Jaron has run rife in the incestuous wire-head community.
Well, Jaron says he's just fine, thanks, all things considered, so everybody can relax. Sure, he concedes, he went through something of a depression for a while there, what you might call a period of agonizing self-appraisal after his brainchild, the ground-breaking VPL Research, was wrested from his grasp. But now that he's had time to get a broad perspective on the whole fiasco, hey, no big deal, time to move on.
"I mean what a tiny, tiny event, for God's sake," Jaron says with a shrug, brushing a vagrant coil of his unruly dreadlocks from his eyes. "In the Silicon Valley world view, an event like that is supposed to be the main course of the opera for that month or something. From my point of view, I mean I'm only 32, I'm not too worried about it. I didn't understand some basic things about business and now I understand a lot more. I will probably end up getting wealthy from virtual reality in one way or another, but if I don't I'm prepared for that too. I basically think of myself as a musician, and I'll always have my music."
The key point, Jaron insists, the ground-zero consideration that nobody quite gets, is that money is not his motivation. This is what has always made him such an odd duck in the Silicon Valley milieu, an environment driven by the get-rich-quick ethos of the big gamble. And it's why the whole Thomson thing is no big deal. Jaron still basically sees himself as a boho artist, so easy come, easy go.
"There's a tradition in the United States of artists who are also business people; artists who are also scientists. it's not unusual. The composer Charles Ives was one of the founders of the American insurance industry -- probably one of the industries I have the least admiration for. Right now, though, in the current atmosphere, it's more unusual than it used to be. I think I am quite a rarity." ...
What you have to keep in mind is that Jaron's involvement in the whole VR thing was nothing more than a happy accident, the result of some bizarre turns on life's twisted little path. He came to California, after all, to play music; and VR -- well, VR just happened to him.
Of course, Jaron has always been a strange one; that he happily admits. Growing up in a small, rural New Mexico town, raised by his father after his mother died when he was quite young, Jaron was pretty much a one-of-a-kind kid -- an eccentric loner and social misfit who wrapped himself in his fantasies, his music, and an endless series of ambitious science projects.
"It was not an easy role to play in that part of the country, I can tell you that," Jaron says. "It was a very interesting place for social dynamics, but it wasn't easy for a kid like me. We were really quite isolated, just me and my dad."
As a precocious high school dropout he muscled his way into New Mexico State's math department at age fifteen and got a grant from the National Science Foundation to do a study on the question of whether or not mathematical notation is really necessary. He had long wondered, he says, if on some deep level, notation really is the math or whether it's just a bunch of handy, if clunky, symbols used to portray it.
"I decided that the way we present mathematics to each other is so obscure and bizarre that it makes something that's intrinsically beautiful and simple and appealing into something that's accessible only to people who have distorted personalities -- like myself," Jaron says. "I was interested in using interactive animated computer graphics to represent mathematics in notation -- partially to teach it better, but also to see if you could represent math without all these symbols and instead use these sort of graphical models as the fundamental representation."
To do the study he had to learn computer programming, and although he says programming per se bores him stiff, he quickly recognized its similarity to mathematical notation in that both depend upon a language of symbols that may not be necessary.
"The truth is," he says, "programming language sucks. In mathematics, even on the deepest levels, it's not clear that you can get rid of notation, whereas with programming it's really clear that the language is junk and all you're doing is telling the computer to do something and there might be a hundred other ways to tell it."
So he set out to design a post-symbolic "visual" programming language, and was lucky enough to be taken under the wing of some of the seminal masters of computer science -- men like Marvin Minsky, Jay Chesler, and Cordell Green. But he began to feel the pull of music once again, so he moved to Santa Cruz, California with the idea of making a career of performing computerized music.
But things didn't quite work out -- for one thing it was hard to find a place to live -- so he moved across the mountains to Palo Alto and got work with Atari, creating sound and music for video games. It was a fun time, he remembers. He wasn't all that crazy about video games, calling them "unthought-out junk for the most part," but he was making good money and rubbing shoulders with a wonderfully motley collection of other young geniuses at a time when the Silicon Valley pot was coming to a rolling boil.
He free-lanced a high-quality game called Moondust for Atari and used the money to set up a garage workshop, where he plugged away at his radical, new "post-symbolic" programming language. Word began to spread that he was onto something big, and at age 24, he found himself the subject of a Scientific American cover story on software. Another Silicon Valley legend was in the making.
"As the Scientific American story was going to print, the editor called me up and said, 'Um, There's a problem here. We don't have your affiliation,'" Jaron recalls. "And I said, 'Well, I'm proud not to have one at the present time -- I funded this study through a video game.' And he said, 'I'm sorry, but our editorial policy clearly states that we must have an affiliation following your name.' Then it was sort of slyly suggested that I make one up, so I said, 'Oh, VPL, standing for Visual Programming Languages, or maybe Virtual Programming Languages,' but mainly it was just this spontaneous thing to get this guy off the phone. And then I told him to put a comma and 'Inc.' after it and never gave it a second thought. And then when the issue came out months later, all these people called up wanting to invest!"
It all gave Jaron a laugh.
The basic problem that he kept running into while developing his new programming language was that a computer screen simply wasn't big enough to encompass the visualizations he wanted to employ. So, together with some friends like Tom Zimmerman, Chuck Blanchard, Young Harvill, and Steve Bryson -- the initial research cadre of VPL -- Jaron built a primitive little virtual reality system with a head-mount display containing the TV screen eyepieces and a wired glove for manipulating the "virtual objects" in electronic cyberspace.
"So all of a sudden we had a company," Jaron laughs. "It was just something I fell into, it was crazy. And potential investors would come around and I would show them this thing, and I'd say 'Now look at this neat language,' and they'd say: 'Language! You're using a glove! My God!' So suddenly the whole focus shifted."
At first, Jaron says, he was reluctant to assign much importance to his new gimmick. "I remember thinking that, well, I guess we should start selling these -- the world needs some kind of general-purpose simulator thing -- so we'll just do this business and then I'll get back to the programming someday!"
But after Jaron came up with the term "virtual reality" (initially as a marketing device), "we did the whole thing." The DataGlove and the EyePhone became the linchpins of the foundling industry; VPL landed a lucrative contract with NASA, and VR became the hot new media darling, with Jaron as its messianistic drumbeater.
"Inside Jaron Lanier is a precocious eight-year-old who got together with some friends and built a spaceship," wrote Howard Rheingold in his 1991 book, Virtual Reality, the definitive history of VR to date. "Now he wants us all to take a ride in it."
It was some ride while it lasted. VPL became the first vendor of complete VR systems and dominated what was called the "gloves and goggles" business, catering to well-endowed research organizations. Mattel knocked off a cheap version of the DataGlove, called the Power Glove, for use in Nintendo video games [project managed by Rich Gold jh], and Lanier moved VR toward the entertainment mediums. (His friend, John Perry Barlow, a Grateful Dead songwriter, introduced him to the band, and a DataGlove was used to drive the animation in one of the Dead's videos.)
Pushed by Jaron's zeal and energy, VPL generated not only huge revenues but saturation press coverage. And along with it all came the concomitant result: mountains of unrealistic expectations. When the business climate cooled, so did the fire around VPL. The company became drastically overextended and Lanier had to borrow millions from Thomson, using the only negotiable assets he had -- his patents -- as collateral. It was a typically reckless Jaron-like gamble, but this time he lost.
"Was it a big psychic blow? Well, yeah, it was a pretty big deal, but it's not as bad as it could have been because I'm just centering my life a little more around my music right now. You know, you experience life transitions on many levels. There are, say, entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley who have a fairly simple set of motivations in the sense that they want to be successful, and of course the simpler your motivations are the easier it is to achieve them. But my motivations are much more difficult for even me to understand. I feel like I'm seeking a better future; I'm trying to find a sense of a culturally and spiritually valuable mode of living and creating things for other people. Obviously I'm not allergic to success or unhappy with it, and I do expect to make some money at some point, but at this point it's kind of hard to decide what was a success and what was failure. I think what we've done has permanently changed the dialog and the rhetoric around the future of media technology, and that's not bad.
"In an earlier life, sort of my Emma Goldman period, I was pretty active politically in New Mexico, working with some other idealistic Americans to protest an unfair tax hike levied to build a nuclear power plant. I found that in the current environment, that kind of activity didn't really communicate to people -- it wasn't real anymore. So I got involved with television, forcing stations to provide time and production assistance to alternative points of view, and we produced a series of ads in favor of recycling and co-generation of power as an investment policy. But instead of doing it in the usual way, we did it through community consensus, which was one of the most wonderful events of my life. We made these spontaneous TV commercials involving a lot of people -- made them a part of peoples' lives -- and they made a big impact, really changed things.
"So I realized that it's not merely about making media, you have to change the structure of media as it exists today to communicate with people. I studied McLuhan and the other critics of the media and came to the idea that to have a better world in the future you would have to invent a new media with an eye toward aesthetics and beauty and community. . . And so when the VR thing started to happen, I realized: This is it! This thing can do it! it's more wonderful than TV. it's more striking, and the whole magic is the aliveness of it. It structurally discourages produced material and encourages live interaction with others. It creates a sort of commons where we all can meet."
You can smell the smoke coming off Jaron's brain now, his oil is hot and he's rolling. But whoa, There's a fundamental question here: Why does all this have to take place in an artificial space? What's special about an electronic commons? And more specifically, what's the matter with real reality?
"Well," Jaron says, "There's only one answer to that: We as a culture are deeply, hopelessly, insanely in love with gadgetry. And you can't fight love and win. I think of it in this way: The 20th century has been a unique time, a critical, transitional century and also a weird one in that for the first time, most interaction between people has ceased to take place in one-on-one conversations and has started to take place through media technology. However, very early, premature forms of media technology, such as TV, didn't allow for two-way communication and encouraged central bottlenecks of information flow. I'm hoping that in our work, not just at VPL, but in the Silicon Valley world of media technology, we'll build a stage in the next century that has the same niche between people that the physical world does, but that also has an enormously quick flexibility.
"For instance, sitting here I can create a sentence and say that both of us have just turned into wild dragons and we're dancing on top of a huge pearl sliding down a giant fern bush. Well, it's conceivable that could be realized in the physical world -- maybe in 500 years or so, using exotic nanotechnology or plastic surgery or something, we could turn ourselves into dragons, and then maybe we could breed giant clams to make the pearls, and so on, but it's a big expenditure -- thousands of scientists working for centuries to realize this simple thing I can express in a sentence. But with VR, when the tools for creating the content of the virtual world become good enough, all of a sudden you have a new, shared objective world where people can co-create the interior with a facility similar to language. And this is what I call post-symbolic communication, because it means that instead of using symbols to refer to things, you are simply creating reality in a collaborative conversation, a waking-state, intentionally shared dream. You're going directly to the source, avoiding the middleman of the symbol and directly apprehending the craftsmanship of that other person combined with your own, without the need for labels."
These are certainly not the ruminations of someone who is planning to call it quits. In fact, after his enforced sabbatical, Jaron seems fired-up and ready to blaze some new trails. He is currently working on some free-lance projects in the field of medical modeling (where he feels some of the more promising potential applications for VR reside), and of course there is always the possibility that he will come up with something absolutely new and startling. Along with some other ex-VPL employees, Jaron is starting Domain Simulations, a new company that will focus on entertainment and medicine applications. It will probably be based in San Francisco, so Jaron can take the ferry across the Bay to work each day.
"I really do feel good about the agenda of trying to encourage a better future for media technology," he says. "I think that is a good place to focus because it is fun and it's beautiful and I'm completely committed to it. And then of course there is my music. These are two things I know for certain will be in my life. I recently did a performance in front of an audience of 5,000 at the SIGGRAPH convention in Chicago, playing spontaneous music on cyber-instruments in virtual reality, and I think it was pretty well received, so that was encouraging.
"And since I left VPL I have gotten a lot of offers, a lot of proposals.
"I am just sorting through the stock right now and talking to a lot of people. Who knows? I might try something ambitious on the business side again. I'm just not committed either way."
Jaron pauses for breath, emitting a profound sigh. Yea, though he has walked through the valley of silicon, he fears no evil. His music and his software comfort him, and having survived reasonably intact, he can only revel in the exquisite wonder of it all. he's back to zero -- that eight-year-old boy again -- living in the virtual reality of his limitless fantasies. Truly, what's a little blip on your screen like the VPL debacle when you have all these vast possibilities to contemplate? "Virtual reality is going to be such a wonderful dance, a wonderful new kind of communication," he says fervently. "See, when I talk about these possibilities, I'm just trying to create new adventures that will last a long time."
Burr Snider is a cyber-illiterate, unplugged, and offline free-lance writer who frequently contributes to the San Francisco Examiner.
Copyright _ 1995 Wired Ventures Ltd. Compilation copyright _ 1995 HotWired Ventures LLC