LAUREN CREW/PHOTO Peter Rubin, a senior editor at Wired, has been following the field of virtual reality for years, and he promises that with its advances, “things are gonna get weird.”
Virtual reality, commonly referred to as VR, in the future might provide a memorable experience a lot like a recent visit to the Oakland home of writer Peter Rubin.
Crosby, batlike in appearance but a canine, barks sharply, then irresistibly presents his back for a pat. “Fierce” Joseph approaches, not purring, but considering it. Fellow feline Lucy elegantly reclines on a nearby sofa, lifts her head, invites stroking. A coffee aroma perfumes the air.
As one crosses the threshold, books, art, knick-knacks, high ceilings and hushed surroundings instantly transmit peace and personality, one step from the hubbub of urban streets. Rubin, 43, a Wired senior editor whose work, biking and hiking habits leave him slender and pumped with energy, looks directly into a visitor’s eyes and says, “Hi, I’m Peter.” The warm greeting – from animals and host – is unforgettable.
It’s a moment like many described in “Future Presence, How Virtual Reality Is Changing Human Connection, Intimacy, and the Limits of Ordinary Life” (HarperOne, $27.99, 288 pages). Rubin posits in his debut book, a virtual reality tour chronicling his experience becoming an aficionado, that VR is perfectly poised to transform social relationships.
“Telepresence,” shortened by VR experts to “presence,” is the world created when the mind succumbs to virtual or artificial phenomena and the body responds as if it were a real life experience. Long the purview of video games and applied in medicine, science, entertainment, education, real estate and other enterprises, VR in practitioners’ and innovators’ futuristic vision arcs into social interactions having to do with intimacy, empathy, sex, memory and human emotion. Extended to the far-fantastic beyond, VR clothing, including gloves and jackets, will aim for sensory, 4D “add ons” of touch and scent.
Writing a book about technology that undergoes massive change on a near-daily basis, was tough. VR companies appear and disappear; a breakthrough could mean information in “Future Presence” is dated. “We went in with eyes open,” says Rubin. “After a book is done but before it comes out, there’s a long intermission, a windmill period where you’re stuck with a frozen artifact.”
Beginning in March 2016, Rubin structured the book like a series of long-form magazine articles. Ten topics form a road map that steps from basics like how a headset functions to explorations of current platforms and technology to advanced social applications like friendships, dating, seduction, sex and porn. A final chapter wraps in augmented reality—think of the Nintendo/Google partnership that put Pokémon Go onto real-life streets—and Rubin writes, “Things are gonna get weird.”
VR’s fluctuating circumstances meant ideas were tossed out, merged, pivoted and never hermetically sealed during the 18 months it took to complete the book. “If there’s a paperback, I can add a new forward,” Rubin says..
His early approach—writing during nights and weekends while his day job continued—eventually proved unrealistic. Instead, Rubin banked vacation time into three-week intensives to achieve sustained attention. Writing in coffee shops or at home with white noise or instrumental music as a backdrop, he says placing research references in the book’s endnotes instead of in embedded footnotes provides readers with a similarly “smooth, unfettered experience.” First person parenthetical comments throughout the text elucidate VR for newcomers while allowing him to act as a spirited navigator for readers with more knowledge. “It’s difficult to describe VR, what’s happening inside a headset; I’m offering myself up as an example of how another person might experience the process. I want people to come with me on this journey.”
Emphasized in the trip is the elasticity of VR: Users design custom avatars, place constraints on access, create unique worlds and more. Personal choices reveal “what makes you tick,” Rubin says. The “instructured-ness” is especially critical to VR as it moves from a solo experience to interactive, shared adventures. These less-explored, non-game-centric social applications fascinate Rubin. “It goes far beyond porn: VR suffuses everything. There’s intimacy in scripted experiences, in our relationship with ourselves, in the way we form friendships in virtual reality. There’s also something incredibly resonant when we bemoan the fact that the internet has brought us all together and toxified those bonds.”
The internet’s social media platforms, Rubin suggests, are “a whole lotta genius and not a lot of wisdom.” Learning from that, the VR community is aware that to keep users coming back for shared interactions, safety must be addressed. “You see in the smallest to biggest companies that they know VR is a communication tool, not an escapist tool. Bad stuff can and has happened.”
Many women tell Rubin they stay on the periphery. “Why? On social media, a man could say hateful things, but there’s no physical, embodied being that’s invaded or assaulted. VR makes technology feel more like a neighborhood in which something bad could happen. If women feel unsafe in VR, we’re creating a huge problem. VR has to be for everyone.”
Rubin predicts there will always be solo users, but the emotional reward and richness of social VR will dominate. Headsets will be lighter, eventually resembling oversized glasses. Ultimately, VR will turn cell phones into satellite-controlled processing units before “we don’t need phones at all.” Clothing already being developed will expand “haptic,” or touch elements. “Smell and air on skin are out there still,” he says. Tunneling between virtual and real worlds will one day no longer be a foreign concept. Asked about his next book, Rubin teases, “Let’s see how this one goes. I certainly have ideas festering around.”