There Jaron Lanier and I were, side by side on my computer screen, in a virtual space that looked a little like a conference room and a little like a movie theater. We could've been jurors, maybe. I was able to approximate rubbing his head. "As you have discovered," Lanier said, noticing, "you can reach and interact with people a little bit. So there is this shared-space quality." He was in Berkeley, California, in the hills above the city, in a house that looks out over the bay. I was in Los Angeles. Five minutes ago we were in our own separate video-chat windows, the ones many of us now see as we're going to sleep, our dumb faces staring back at us. Then he had hit some buttons. Now we were together.
Lanier calls this technology Together mode; he helped design it this spring for Microsoft, where he has a post as an in-house seer of sorts. Initially he'd conceived of Together mode as a way to help Stephen Colbert—in whose house band Lanier sometimes performs when he's in New York—figure out how to host his show in front of a remote audience. (Lanier is sometimes credited as the father of virtual reality; he is also sometimes credited as the owner of the world's largest flute, in addition to the many other exotic instruments he collects and expertly plays.) But mostly he was trying to solve, as he's been doing since the early '80s, a problem relating to technology and how humans might use it. In this case: How could we better, more naturally communicate with one another in the middle of a pandemic?
He explained a bit more about how Together mode worked, how it soothed what the medium had previously tended to aggravate. Being side by side, instead of separated—and being able to make eye contact, as we now could—worked on the psychology; it made you a little more playful, a little more relaxed. It might even help build, in the words of the NBA—which swiftly adopted Together mode as a way to project remote fans onto courtside monitors in otherwise empty Florida arenas—"a sense of community."
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