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Ownership in VR

This article makes the assertion that in a few years high-resolution, lightweight and affordable VR/AR headsets will be commonplace. It then asks the question of who will own what in that environment and why it matters.
First, a note on what mature (pleasant to wear and richly interactive) VR presents: Quite simply: freedom. Freedom to move your head not just your eyes, to use your hands and not just a finger tap. This freedom translates into freedom of movement, freedom to change your perspective and freedom to change–and grow–your mind. Soon after such VR is available we will think of tractional ‘monitors’ as simply flattened and shallow portals to much richer worlds, though these portals will have their uses when we don’t need the rich experience.
Picture this scenario: You sit down at your desk, open your laptop and work as normal. However, this is in the near future where high-resolution, lightweight VR headsets are commonplace, so when time comes for a meeting you don your headset and are instantly in the right meeting room, synced from your calendar, with your laptop visible and useable (this is possible even today).
­ ­  In the room are colleagues from all over the world. A few say ‘hi’. A few are clearly in passive mode with avatars visible but the actual people likely making coffee or doing something other than sitting at their desk being traditionally present. This is something you are used to– people working in their own styles– and you know these people. They are all present in their individual ways.
It is your turn to speak and you gesture an ‘up’ motion in front of your laptop with both hands and what was on the screen is now floating in 3D space above your laptop, so you close the laptop lid. This happens to be a graph showing the state of everyone’s projects, displayed in a way that would both look right at home in a high budget science fiction movie from only a few years ago and also interactive in ways we could not have imagined before we started really experimenting in this immersive space.
The biggest surprise to many entering this space for the first time is that it is not the graph’s three-dimensionality which is the real benefit (this is something we already have on traditional flat displays). The advantage is that you can move your point of view, just like you can in ‘real life’ to effortlessly see the shape of things. You can also perform what must look like magic to the uninitiated who don’t yet know the interactions. Fully tracked hands gives you an unparalleled opportunity to ’naturally’ interact with your information and the addition of the odd voice command, such as simply saying the name of a a node when you make a graph, somehow seems more useful and appropriate than using voice when working in a flat environment.
Let’s give this object, this graph you are working on a new name and call it a ‘sculpture’ for simplicity.
The interactions are like an elegant dance. You pinch a node and gesture downwards with your palm up which makes everything which is not of that type of node flatten onto the desk. It’s still visually visible and available but not in the way. You hold and pinch on another node to see it’s attributes which you can then choose to highlight or hide. You further twist your hand, move your self to a different part of the sculpture and continue with what must look like dancing and sculpting all at once from someone watching you from outside VR.
Someone makes a point and you modify the sculpture to reflect what they say and someone else gives you an addition to the sculpture which you slot right in. When you are done you gently ’slam’ it against the wall for your colleagues to see the overview and discuss the overview.
You do this with no conscious thought because you have become literate in this environment. It is much like riding a motorbike or, you might imagine, flying a high performance aircraft. You started with a few basic hand commands and are now a proficient worker in this new frontier of the virtual worlds.
After a brief discussion around the general state of the work you break off into groups and go into what I will call a ‘lab’, a space dedicated to a specific work situation. This can be anything: a pleasant coffee shop environment, flying around the universe, touching atoms or manipulating connects presented as richly interactive sculptures with further, more ambient information accessible all around, as you see fit.
This goes far beyond what is currently possible. Today we can bring screens into VR but we can’t bring what’s on the screen into VR, and then back out again. This will become important. We will not work exclusively in VR any more than we will work exclusively on a laptop, in front of a projector, on our tablets, phones or watches. Each of these will continue to be access points to the same media with different benefits and limitations to each as we will be working in increasingly hybrid environments. As such, data portability will become a crucial part of the evolution and the infrastructures will have to be built to enable this mode. We cannot afford compatibility issues and data lock-in.
Picture again the scenario above and freeze-frame it as you are building the sculpture in the room and ask the following questions: When it comes to the data format of that sculpture, who owns it? Will you be able to hand it over to someone using a different brand’s headset? Will you be able to weave a web of different manufacturer’s data sculptures made by different tools? In other words, will it be like a physical world sculpture made out of wood using chisels or will it be like a document formatted in Microsoft Word which may or may not render correctly in someone else’s virtual hands?
What about the room; who will own the furniture and how it can be integrated with?
Who will own the communication channels between the participants? Will it be locked-in like Meta Chat or Apple iMessage, or open like a phone line or email?
Furthermore, who will own the labs? In some circumstances it would be advantageous for a company to own the whole lab in order for them to invest fully and provide you with the most powerful tools and environment. You should still be able to leave the lab with the data you generated however, in order to take it into any other lab or to share it outside of VR.
The notion and practicality of ‘ownership’ is important. Ownership is not only about property and monetary value but about identity and agency, what actions we can own and where we fit in society. Our future in cyberspace must be owned by the participants otherwise we will suffer further erosions in social cohesion and worse.
The terms ‘VR’ and ‘AR’ will fade as much as ‘laptop’ computer and ‘smartphone’ and the notions of ‘hardcopy’ and ‘softcopy’ have. A new name will appear and be taken into widespread use. We can’t guess what it will be (it certainly won’t be anything geeky like ‘cyberspace’) but it will be mundane. The term will simply become part of the fabric we weave ourselves and our knowledge into and out of. I suggest our perceptions of our digital world will change. We won’t think of 3D anymore but will think of traditional displays as not being flat, instead what we see on there as being flattened, that the native digital shape is multidimensional.
We, everybody, need to be able to own our own ‘work product’. It cannot be rented like a movie or digital book is today. It must not be stored in information silos.
VR has the potential to unleash an augmentation of the core of what it means to have a human brain and this cannot happen if all we have to work in is corporate information ghettos.
There are many ways to approach this; through industry collaboration, perhaps even legislation, but at the most fundamental level this needs to be supported by infrastructures. We are working on one such open and robust infrastructure. Visual-Meta has been created to tie together knowledge work in media in transparent ways.
We are part of the discourse on how this should evolve. We are not saying we are the one and only way to go about this but at least we are doing something concrete and we feel this deserves receive wider attention and dialogue.
Our website is at https://visual-meta.info and we meet every Monday and Friday 4-6 UK time on Zoom to work on this and related issues. We are the Future Text Lab.
Published inThoughts

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