Marcus: Thank you so much for joining us. Could you give us a bit of a brief introduction to your research on VR? What have you been interested in in the past and what are you working on now?
Leighton: My interest in VR goes back. Personally, a hell of a long way. I remember reading first about VR in about 91, maybe something like that, as a 12-year-old kid playing Sega games and buying console magazines and being promised – in this kind of really short timeline, by ‘94 – that we’d all be owning headsets and playing games in an immersive 3D Environment. I was like, yeah, this is gonna be it! To hell with school! This is going to be what I’m going to be doing, right?
And it never happened, and you know, there were furtive attempts. I remember in the 90s. I went up to London, about ‘96, went to the Trocadero Centre in Piccadilly Circus and had a go on their VR machine there and … it took about half an hour before my stomach settled again!
But that interest really stayed with me forever. I remember reading an article in a magazine I’ve never been able to track article down, end of ‘93, they had a big spread with Jaron Lanier in it. I remember reading that article with the interview and thinking, this is gonna be huge, and that impression that it was gonna be the next big thing never actually left me.
When it came around to sort of 2015, I had completed my PhD, I was working as a postdoc out in Ireland on a smart city project, and then I started seeing bubbling up from nowhere of chat about, you know, Oculus Rift and things like that. My current interest in VR was kind of like a holdover really, from interest that I had in the 90s, and interest that I had during my PhD as well because my doctoral studies were on the phenomenological appreciation of the difference between space and place. I read a lot of the scholarship from the 90s and 2000s about VR during that time to sort of conceptualise presence in in that thesis. So, it’s always bubbled under there. But when it started to – as I say in the book – reemerge in 2015, I thought I was at a nice little juncture. I wanted to do something different. I’d said everything I wanted to say on location-based applications, and that’s where it headed from.
“My research on VR has been looking to understand how immersion, embodiment and presence fit together in our experiential understanding of computer simulated worlds..”
Really my research on VR has been looking to understand how immersion, embodiment and presence fit together in our experiential understanding of computer simulated worlds. That’s the core of everything that I look at. How our relationship with technology and technology influenced or created environments affects our understanding of the world itself. So VR fits perfectly with the stuff that I’ve been talking about for the last 15 years!
Marcus: In in your first book, the Re-Emergence of Virtual Reality, one of the things that I really like is that attention to the politics of who’s creating and imagining VR. How do you see this having changed since the book was completed, particularly with this resurgent interest in the ‘Metaverse’ and how that maybe changes things?
Leighton: The book was written at a sort of interesting time, right? I conceived of it not long after Facebook had bought Oculus out. The road map – and I’m not Nostradamus, right? – the road map was pretty obvious from that point onwards what was going to happen and there’s a whole chapter of that book dedicated to why I thought that was an extremely bad idea. We know, and we knew at the time, and we’ve known for many, many years what the implications are of Facebook getting involved with any organisation which is, you know, planetary scale data harvesting and processing.
So, when I was looking at that in 2017 I was asking a fundamental question: Why would Facebook want this? What does this do for Facebook? If you look at the history of Facebook, they buy up organisations in order to improve the efficiency of their business model. So, you look and think, OK, so what the hell does Oculus actually add to that business model? And then you say, OK, so what does VR do? Well, it allows you to create enclosed environments where you have ultimate control over what is displayed and how you stimulate users within that environment, visually, auditory, etc. At the same time, you are doing that via a peripheral wearable which can be equipped with all kinds of sensors and trackers.
So that sounds obvious to me: You’re this vast data harvesting company. What data can’t you get at? Well, you haven’t really gone into the wearable market, so you haven’t really tapped into bio data in a way that would be efficient. Yeah, you’ve got ways of tracking attention on apps and so on, but that’s flawed in many ways; this is a way of doing it differently. So you look at those things at that time and you think, right, I can see the business model case. In terms of what that means for those people who are going to be using virtual reality, this is a really, really bad idea.
Now I think there are two ways we can look at something like the ‘Metaverse’, if you look at the ideas which have been put forward about the metaverse, going back to Stephenson, but even going back to before Neil Stephenson coined the phrase in ‘92. It is in popular fiction, a dystopian world controlled by an evil organisation. Always! And it’s like, you’ve read these things, right, Zuckerberg? I mean, you’re a geek! You have read these books! Why are you trying to do this?
The politics of VR has become really, really problematic for me because another consequence of Facebook getting involved was the lockout in terms of capital investiture needed to actually make stuff in VR. What Facebook have very cleverly done is corner the market. They have the capital to make and develop virtual reality technology. I’d argue there’s five or six companies in the world who can actually do this, in terms of invest the kind of money that’s needed to make this stuff work. By leveraging their huge profits across the rest of their businesses, they’ve been able to drive the price down (every headset is sold at a loss). Who can cover that? We know that’s frightening even for companies that can afford it.
Marcus: I just wanted to say – throwing back to your book – that when the rumors were coming out about the ‘Meta’ rebrand, I hadn’t ever read Snowcrash, but I had read your book which discussed the Metaverse, so thank you for including that!
Leighton: I mean, it’s an interesting thing, Marcus. I’ll be quick on this point, but for me, VR and the metaverse have always been intricately linked. I can only say this from my own perspective, but that really comes from reading stuff like Neil Stephenson’s book and terrible movies like Lawnmower Man The idea that VR operates at a scale which is much larger than an individual game … it opens up worlds. If you look at some of the stuff Jaron Lanier talked about in the 80s, there was a vision thereabout what VR was gonna be about: it was gonna be about the creation of this vast sort of space for human existence, which was independent of physical space. I guess that discourse got taken over by cyber space in the 90s, but for me, the Metaverse and VR have always been co-constituents.
“for me, VR and the metaverse have always been intricately linked … The idea that VR operates at a scale which is much larger than an individual game … it opens up worlds.”
Marcus: That brings us to your most recent book – From Microverse to Metaverse – with Jordan Frith and Michael Saker. If it is the case that you see VR and the metaverse always having been really re-interlinked, how do you see the field has having changed? Or maybe you don’t see the field has really changed?
It’s really interesting the way the field is developing at the moment.
I remember putting the first book together and looking at the state of literature at the time, in terms of cultural studies, and there just wasn’t anything out there. Nothing had been written for years on virtual reality. You had some more technically minded stuff, but in reality, there just wasn’t a hell of a lot out there. So it gave me a free slate to you know, basically talk about whatever the hell I wanted. I was quite happy with that!
Reviewing the fields as it stood for writing the metaverse book. Obviously, there’s a huge amount of development, and we are starting to see (although it’s not on the scale that I expected) there is more and more out there. There is more stuff and emerging all the time, which is fantastic, right? It’s really good and we’re starting to see an actual real conversation in academia between the pieces now as well and, you know, linking up all these pieces as well. And we’re starting to see that kind of almost like dialectical process emerging, where real progress is being made in terms of ideas, which is, which is absolutely brilliant.
“We have to look, or at least try to start looking at, what are the huge problems and issues at the moment in digital culture, and how are they going to be reified through the Metaverse? How is the metaverse gonna problematize these things which are already problems?”
What the purpose of that Metaverse book was to do was really to show that – at least in my mind – a lot of the stuff that we’re talking about in VR at the moment still conceptualises a lot of things about VR as being different. What the emergence of the Metaverse showed is that actually we need to bring on board all the other stuff as well. We have to look, or at least try to start looking at, what are the huge problems and issues at the moment in digital culture, and how are they going to be reified through the Metaverse? This matters because that’s what’s gonna be in the Metaverse. It’s not just gonna be people wandering around an empty town square with no legs, people are gonna be doing all these other things as well. How is the metaverse gonna problematize these things which are already problems? Because it’s not as if the problems of digital culture have been solved in any sort of way at the moment. Digital culture is a wonderful thing, but it’s got massive issues and really the attempt of that book was to say: OK, we all know about the Metaverse now, and we all know about VR, now let’s try and think of the scale of what’s trying to be achieved here, and what are the problem areas within this?
Marcus: With a concept like the Metaverse, where every week now we see a headline of the ‘Metaverse is dead’ or ‘Meta is giving up on the Metaverse’. Where do you think we are right and how might the book have changed for you if you wrote it today?
Leighton: Yeah, everyday my Feedly is ‘the metaverse is dead!’ ‘the metaverse is dead!’ And then what do we have, a few days ago Meta do a huge thing about the business case for the Metaverse and how much it’s gonna add to GDP and by 2030. Well, they don’t think it’s dead, OK? This is interesting!
There’s something really, really strange going on at the moment, but it’s like Nietzsche says right; we’re doomed to repeat history, and I think we’re seeing a little bit of this. If you look back to the early 2000s and the emergence of social networking sites, you had like, Friendster and Bebo and MySpace and then the Goliaths appeared on the top of all those. Maybe what we’ve got here is: the Metaverse isn’t dead, Meta’s version of it might well be dead. That’s a distinct possibility. I think there’s far more interesting contortions gonna happen before we see what actually will emerge as the ‘Metaverse’.
Metas vision of this is really compromised by their marriage to virtual reality, I think, which means that they haven’t paid attention to augmented reality. Which you know is – on one end of the scale – much easier to do, given that virtually everyone has a smartphone, you can put augmented reality in people’s hands really, really quickly. You don’t need a headset and so on. But the technical limitations of actually putting some in a pair of glasses are still a long way off. Apple’s Vision Pro will be a really good stepping stone though. What Apple are intending to do with spatial anchors will be interesting in showing the form of an ‘AR metaverse’. A digital object that exists in a composite space of the digital and physical where two users interact with each other, the digital object and physical space is a vision Meta really don’t have yet in terms of spatial computing.
“the Metaverse isn’t dead, Meta’s version of it might well be dead. That’s a distinct possibility. I think there’s far more interesting contortions gonna happen before we see what actually will emerge as the ‘Metaverse’.”
There’s a role for augmented reality in this vision, I think, and I don’t think Meta have ever really looked at doing that. But more importantly, the problem with Meta’s vision of the metaverse is Meta itself, and how they operate as a company. Their vision for what this should be and how it should do. Because you look at anything that they produce and you think, ‘Well, I don’t wanna live in PlayStation 2 two world’, you know? It just doesn’t make any sense it! It’s almost like a classic example of the phenomena of groupthink, where you get a bunch of people in the room who just agree with one another and think, yeah. This is going to be ace! this is going to be money! And they put it out and it absolutely sucks.
Marcus: Yeah, amazing. Would there be anything else you’d like to add, that we haven’t talked about today?
Leighton: I think (despite my earlier comments!). VR is still a really exciting space and scholarship is growing in VR and that’s fantastic. Hopefully we can encourage more and more scholarship in VR because I think there’s untapped areas as well. For example, you know in sort of game studies as well, I think there really needs to be a view of what VR is bringing to games and how that’s evolving and changing as well, because the Meta Quest 2 is basically a games platform at this point, and we’re not really understanding what that means. I still think it’s a really exciting, technology and medium and it’s incredibly exciting time to be involved in it.
Marcus: Which ends us on a perfect note to plug your CFP for the edited collection you’re assembling, on Virtual Reality Gaming: embodiment, presence, immersion, with abstract submissions due August 1. Thank you so much for your time!
Evans, L. (2018) The Re-Emergence of Virtual Reality.Routledge.
Evans, L., Frith, J. & Saker, M. (2022) From Microverse to Metaverse: Modelling the Future through Today’s Virtual Worlds. Emerald Group Publishing.
Carter, Marcus. (July, 2022) The Re-Emergence of the Metaverse: An Interview with Leighton Evans. Critical Augmented and Virtual Reality Researchers Network (CAVRN). link
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