Invisible Technologies

In his most recent book, virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier ponders the question of whether VR headsets should become less awkward. He argues that their clunkiness is one of their best assets:

The worst thing about big, classic VR goggles is also the best thing. VR headsets are the least fashionable fashion accessory. But I like that.

The obvious awkwardness is precisely what counters the potential for creepiness. There’s no pretending you’re not in VR when you know that from the outside you look like a psychedelic hockey player from a 1950s pulp science fiction illustration of sports on Mars. That’s how VR should be.

Lanier’s point is that putting on a headset is an explicit act that signals to ourselves and to others that we’ve moved to a different context. Both the act of donning the device and the semiotics of wearing one serve to indicate a shift in our consciousness.

If you work in an open office, you know the importance of owning a good pair of headphones. In that environment, headphones serve a practical purpose: they allow you to create a personal sonic landscape so you can focus. But they also play an important symbolic purpose: they’re the equivalent of hanging a “do not disturb” sign on your head. Ponder for a moment a fantastic new “invisible” headset that sits inside your ear channel. Such a device could accomplish the first purpose, but would not be useful for the second; your co-workers would have no visible way of knowing you’re not available or otherwise engaged.

When we move to make our technologies more “invisible” — to integrate them into our bodies and physical environments to the point where they “disappear” into them — we should consider the impact this has on our relationships. Are the technologies augmenting the experience of interacting with others, or somehow subverting it? Are they enabling understanding between people, or separating them? Do participants in the interaction understand that the context is being augmented, or are they oblivious to the alteration? What degree of agency do they have over the modified context? Do they understand the incentives that drive the owners of the technologies?