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Can VR Solve The Smartphone's Fatal Flaw?

While enabling so much communication, smartphones can make us feel disconnected. Here’s how VR might change that.

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It’s easy to forget that talking to someone on a good old landline was once a remarkably powerful experience. Remember the old AT&T slogan? "Reach out and touch someone." Unlike text messages filled with emoji-driven urges to "Netflix and chill," or FaceTime’s strange disconnected conversations where your eyes can never meet, the crystal-clear presence of someone’s voice made landline phones feel intimate, as if someone were right beside you, talking into your ear.

It’s a feeling that Ken Perlin—the NYU researcher originally made famous in the 1980s for developing Perlin noise, the key technique to give 3-D models texture—would like to bring back. In his lab, Perlin and his students run experiments to explore the future of communication. Combining Samsung Gear VR headsets with a room-sized motion-tracking array, people can walk around real space while perceiving one another as Dia de los Muertos skeletons, and are able to do impossible stunts, such as draw together with virtual crayons in midair, as Motherboard reported earlier this month.

"The most satisfying thing was finding that when people see and hear each other in the same physical space, as, say, cartoon figures, it [still] felt like it was that person. It felt like they were just wearing a costume," Perlin says as we talk over the phone.

"It shouldn’t be surprising," he continues. "We’re having this conversation, and I’m actually talking to a digital recreation of an aspect of Mark. Your voice is being sent over a network, packet switches, and I’m hearing audio waves. But I don’t think of it as if I’m talking to a representation of you. I know I’m talking to you because my mind and your mind aren’t being interfered with."

As Perlin uses the term, "interference" is like static on the line—and it's created by user interfaces. He argues that, throughout history, our best tools work because they are natural user interfaces; they feel like literal extensions of our bodies. It’s why cars started out as confounding metal boxes but morphed into undulating, ergonomic environments filled with controls that can take you from 0 to 60 without a second thought.

"We don't think when we drive; that’s why it works," he says. "[Yet] you have to pay attention to your smartphone in traffic . . . which is why they’re dangerous."

Now that Apple has established the smartphone's industry-wide design practices, it’s almost heretical to imply that smartphone standards could be breaking down our ability to communicate—and yet, Perlin’s logic makes a lot of sense. When you press your foot on an accelerator to move a car, there’s minimal interference within that interaction. It’s an action/reaction reflex, akin to slicing bread with a knife or plucking a guitar string with your finger. The "reach out and touch someone" era of telephony had that same connection—your ear was connected directly to someone’s lips.

With smartphones, the very fact that you have to navigate the layers of interface, animation, and abstracted gestures—while remarkably intuitive—removes intimacy from the communication experience. The phone part of the smartphone is still mostly unaffected; it's the smart features that create distractions, forcing you to think about the device as much as the conversation. Using apps such as Facebook Messenger and Snapchat, we’ve compressed actual communication in the interest of graphical user interface, as digitized affectations of one’s voice, gestures, or expressions.

"Any communication medium that doesn’t interfere with but rather supports who are you, who am I, what are we trying to say to each other, is good," Perlin says. "Ultimately, we’re trying to figure out which communication technologies will be successful because they’re just the person."

Ultimately, that's why Perlin is focusing his research within VR, as a means to explore what a world where we can connect with none of that interference might look like. Perlin is experimenting with imbuing physical objects with data—so handing someone an object in the virtual world would be a means to give them information—and studied how something as mundane as a lecture or a meeting might work in VR if the experience made dozens of remote participants feel like they were sitting in the same room (but were still able to pull off fantastic stunts such as taking notes on the ceiling).

In such VR scenarios, interference disappears, because everything innately feels physical. We're no longer flies smashing against the glass of an iPhone screen, fervently tapping for the right emoji whenever we want to share an emotion with someone else. We can just hug each other! And yet, we can still leverage the technological side of VR to solve functions that are only possible inside a computer—such as morphing into a giant skeleton to literally reach out and touch someone, in the creepiest way possible.

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