How fusing arts and tech can prevent the rise of VR ‘digital zombies’

7 Jun 2019

Domhnaill Hernon of Nokia Bell Labs at Inspirefest 2019. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

Domhnaill Hernon of Nokia Bell Labs believes there’s a fundamental problem with how we design VR and AR, but there’s a way to fix it.

Can you think of a piece of technology that you would love to try out or use on a regular basis, but can’t bring yourself to do it? While we can look at our smartphone without even giving it much thought, the same could not be said for other technologies such as virtual reality (VR), for example.

While not offering the same service, VR has for years promised a revolution in how we interact with one another online, or at least the ability to explore worlds unlike anything we could ever see on Earth. Perhaps what has limited it going from a niche gaming device to mainstream adoption, though, is the fact it’s just not that enjoyable or comfortable to wear a clunky headset.

That’s the opinion of Domhnaill Hernon, head of Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT) at Nokia Bell Labs, who recently spoke at Inspirefest 2019 and described wearing such a device as “not particularly humanising”.

Pointing to an example of a person wearing a VR headset on stage with haptic gloves, he said: “This looks like a digital zombie to me. Do you really expect us as human beings to walk through our future having experiences like this?”

Hernon believes this is just one example of a fundamental problem in technology design today. Rather than solving important problems with the human experience at the heart, companies are solving problems that don’t really exist or are overcomplicating something to the point that it’s useless.

“The big problem that we really have in our fields [is] that we don’t think about the downstream consequences of the technology that we develop and that we push out into the world,” he said.

Preventing an AR dystopia

This issue isn’t just limited to VR, however, as Hernon expressed his worries over the other, less clunky technology known as augmented reality (AR), which he describes as the current “big hype”.

The biggest example on the market now by far is the mobile game Pokémon Go, where players interact with imaginary creatures located across real-world maps observed through their smartphone camera. While this may seem harmless, if left unabated, Hernon argued it could result in a dystopian future where it takes over our entire lives and leaves us miserable, as seen in the short film Hyper-Reality.

The ongoing dangerous trend of dehumanising technology does not need to continue, he said, pointing to a few examples from his own lab where arts and technology are combined to reconnect people physically in the real world.

One example was beatboxer Reeps One – a performer at Inspirefest 2018 – who trained an artificially intelligent (AI) digital twin of himself how to be a beatbox using machine-learning algorithms.

When the AI system became mature enough it beatboxed back to him, and when it did that it developed sounds and patterns that he never did. This, Hernon said, is an example of where AI – a technology often described in fearful tones in media and some circles – can actually inspire creativity.

Posing a question to the audience, he said: “[Reeps One] is one of the most creative people I know on the planet, so if AI can help him be more creative, what might it do for the rest of us?

“We don’t really ever think about what the human will do with this technology in the next 20 years and that causes all sorts of downstream effects. I believe a positive path forward is to fuse arts and technology in the right way.”

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event celebrating the point where science, technology and the arts collide. Ultra Early Bird tickets for Inspirefest 2020 are available now.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic