TED Talk Video: Imagine if you could plug your brain into a machine that would bring you ultimate pleasure for the rest of your life ...
LES SILLARS, HOST: This TED Talk educational video is talking about a kind of virtual reality. No sadness, hardship, or pain. It would seem completely real. You’d never know it was only an illusion. The catch? You had to stay there until you died. No going back and forth.
If you were given the choice to sign up for that kind of existence, would you? That’s the question philosopher Robert Nozick posed through a thought experiment he called “The Experience Machine.”
Megan Fritts often discusses Nozick’s Experience Machine in class.
MEGAN: I'm a professor of philosophy at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
Megan told me Nozick published the thought experiment in 1974. By then scientists had been experimenting with virtual reality headsets for a few years, but they were very clunky.
MEGAN: He expects the kind of reaction to this offer to be an immediate, oh, yeah, no, I'm not going to take that offer. What he wants to use this intuition to argue is that humans actually care about more than pure experience, pure happiness. We care about other things, like whether that happiness is connected to something real, something that we actually ought to be happy about, rather than just a fiction. …
If your friend has betrayed you, wouldn’t you want to know? Wouldn’t you prefer to be a basketball star in real life instead of just in virtual reality? Even if you couldn’t tell the difference?
MEGAN: We care about not being deceived about the reality of the world.
Fifty years later, the intuition that reality matters isn’t so intuitive for everybody. Megan says that usually more than half the class will say, yeah, I’ll take that deal. A few years ago, in a class of about 15…
MEGAN: … every student in class said that they would, kind of, without hesitation decide to enter the Experience Machine.
The idea of living online seems less alien to a generation raised on social media. Still …
MEGAN: What they're also saying is that … the reality of their relationships with people doesn't really matter to them as much as their experience of those relationships.
MUSIC: Tidal Zone
From WORLD Radio, this is Doubleake. I’m Les Sillars. This is the second of our two-part series on virtual reality, or VR. We're telling the story of Stewart Freeman. A few years ago he was the kind of guy who would have loved to enter the Experience Machine. He more or less lived for virtual reality.
STWART: It's where I spent all my time. That's where I grew relationships. It’s where I've laughed with people, cried with people. It, it's where I could be my real self.
But Stewart became a Christian and now ministers in VR with Cornerstone Church of Yuba City, California. His avatar is a beagle, and he shepherds those who gather to sing and pray in an app called VRChat.
On this episode we’ll tag along with Stewart and the VR ministry at Cornerstone as they try to bring the Gospel into virtual reality. Instead of allowing virtual reality to distort the Gospel that they preach. Stewart, as we mentioned, got into an app called VRChat following a bad breakup.
STEWART: To be honest with you, Les, I wasn't a Christian at the time. I went in to try and pick up chicks.
He discovered VR karaoke bars ... where most nights he was drinking IRL. IRL is “in real life.” He kept going back because those were his friends. In VR the sense of “social presence” can be powerful.
But about three years ago he stumbled into one of Cornerstone’s church services on AltSpaceVR. That’s a world-building app like VRChat. Only Microsoft owns it, so the avatars were quite restrained. Human torsos dressed in business casual. Cornerstone had set it up a few months earlier.
There Stewart met Pastor Jason Poling. He became a Christian and was baptized.
JASON: I baptize you in the name of the Father ...
In virtual reality.
Stewart immediately got involved in Cornerstone. He would go to their ministry team meetings on Altspace.
STEWART: And we stand around and talk about the previous week, about upcoming stuff, praises and prayers.
He went for a couple of months. Mostly just listened. He was looking for a place to serve.
He thought back to all those relationships he’d had in VRChat. Some were very intense. And VRChat was very different from the slightly corporate atmosphere of AltspaceVR. Or the commercial worlds trying to lure a mainstream audience.
STEWART: And then one week, God made it very clear that he wanted me to take what they were doing in AltspaceVR and bring it over to VRChat. Just as clear as day.
VRChat was a pretty dark place. He’d experienced the darkness himself. But that was the point.
STEWART: I really wanted to lead others to Christ.
He decided to build a world in VRChat. A place where Christians could meet.
STEWART: But that night, when God made that clear to me, I downloaded what I needed to and and I began building a world. And you know, I had zero experience with that. ... And God kept putting pictures in my mind of how I wanted it to look. And then I took a week off of work, and spent 120 hours on it and finished in that week.
Earlier this year I put on my headset and signed into VRChat. The fox avatar I’d been using was missing, somehow. Instead I was staring back at a robot avatar that looked like a crash test dummy. I felt a certain kinship.
But that robot is like the avatar for people with no avatar. And I was going to Cornerstone’s Thursday night Bible study in VRChat. I had to look good.
So I picked out a look that said, “Spiderman meets creepy cat.” A black humanoid figure in a tight suit with glowing white eyes, headphones, pointy ears, and a backpack. I never did find out what was in the backpack.
I found Cornerstone’s world on the VRChat directory. Above the “click to enter” button was a large stop sign with the words: “Turn on Max Safety Settings to Avoid Crashers.” I didn’t know what that meant. I clicked anyway.
LES: OK. Am I in? Ooo. There it is. I’m in.
The chapel is a brick building in evangelical suburban style. A sign out front reads, “Reach all worlds for Jesus.” Nearby was a pond on a green plain, surrounded by a stone wall. Stewart took me on a tour once.
STEWART: This is the church campus. Got stations of the cross over there. Got a mini little lake thing where we do baptisms and stuff.
We teleported over to the lake.
LES: If I go into the water, what happens to me? Oh, there’s a barrier? Or do I go in? Oh.
I walked into the lake until my head went under the surface. From “underwater” the outside air seemed tinged with blue.
I could still breathe.
LES: Oh, that’s interesting.
I walked back up. We headed over to the building. A large, bare lobby. Double doors lead into the chapel itself, which has a vaulted roof and hanging “lights.” The floor has a pattern to appear carpeted. There’s an aisle down the middle. No stage or podium.
The seating area has six rows of platforms, about 18 inches high, with chairs on top for the avatars. That's because of trolls, Stewart told me. They show up all the time. Just to run around. Yell obscenities. But with raised seats you can see the speaker over the trolls’ heads.
I got the sense the trolls don’t bother Stewart much. In fact, those are exactly the people he wants to talk to. The day before, he told me, a bunch of crashers came to a Thanksgiving service. After some warnings, he finally had to boot them out. Hosts can do that.
STEWART: But there was one person in the group who walked back to the door, at the front, and stood there …
She called Stewart over. Apologized for her friends.
STEWART: They came in not really realizing this was a real thing. They came in thinking this whole thing was a joke, which is a majority of what happens in this space.
They talked for a bit. After the service she joined the Thanksgiving circle.
STEWART: And it was her turn, … and she just said, ‘I’m thankful for you guys. I’ve really been struggling with depression lately, and to know there is a place that I can come to, that is pointing me towards God, is an awesome thing.’
Stewart said this happens all the time.
Cornerstone’s lead pastor Jason Poling took me on a tour of its AltspaceVR campus last fall.
LES: Hey! How you doin’?
JASON: Nice to meet you in person—or whatever.
Jason’s avatar looks like Jason IRL. A hip, forty-ish guy with cool glasses and a two-day beard. He graduated from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2005. Cornerstone is with the Evangelical Free Church of America.
In 2019 Jason realized that he and his church were in “maintenance mode.” He saw a lot more church-hopping than evangelism. He was also a video gamer and loved VR technology. VR struck him as a ripe mission field. So in 2020 Cornerstone established a couple of outposts. One in AltspaceVR and one in VRChat.
JASON: So our metaverse pastor, he’s a game designer …
Cornerstone’s AltspaceVR campus is a village with colonial brick buildings and paving stones. It reminded me of an upscale seaside resort. Except for the enormous moon in a deep blue sky. There are different meeting spaces in park areas a short way from the village. It’s cartoony yet peaceful.
Jason took me to where they hold services. We went down through a short tunnel under a rocky hill. It symbolizes being buried with Christ.
JASON: … your identity is in Christ and so when you come up here …
On the other side was an outdoor amphitheater facing a river. Big screens on either side of the platform. Jason preaches every Sunday morning IRL in Yuba City, then delivers the same sermon two more times from his desk. Once in AltspaceVR and again in VRChat.
JASON: If I'm a little tired, might sit down like I am now and preach from sitting down stand, but … it looks like I'm standing. ... Everything else, same sermon.
I went to some VR services. Here he is preaching on Revelation in January.
JASON: We believe that God will raise the dead, all the dead …
The audio is a little rough, so I’ll just summarize: Heaven and Hell are real. Judgment is coming. Repent and come to Christ today for the forgiveness of sins.
JASON: … And the believer to eternal blessedness and joy with the Lord.
Jason said that in VR people will come to services that last over an hour, and then hang around for another hour of Q&A.
JASON: The hunger and the depth of desire to go deep. amongst the people that I've seen in the VR space. That's, that's fascinating. I didn't see that as prevalent in the physical space.
Stewart made the same point to me several times. Many of those who spend a lot of time in VR are broken, hurting people. Especially in an app like VRChat. Here’s Stewart again.
STEWART: And, and sometimes every once in a while, even during Q&A, people start, I can overhear people starting to cry. And so I take them back into the back, and we talk and discuss things. And sometimes people come to Christ through that ...
He prays with them. Gets their contact info. And then a few days later he reaches out. Most of his ministry happens on a social platform called Discord. It's popular with gamers. During the services he handles trolls while keeping an eye out for those who might want to talk.
STEWART: ... So I'm more on the back end, although I really am the sort of the main shepherd of the flock throughout the week. During church times, I'm juggling like anything.
Many who wander into Cornerstone’s VR campuses would never darken the door of a church IRL. In VR people open up really quickly. In the first five minutes of a conversation they’ll tell Stewart things they’ve never told anyone else. It’s that sense of social presence we talked about last episode, combined with anonymity.
Sometimes he might talk to someone on Discord for a year and still never find out his real name. In VR, no one knows who you are IRL. Stewart said that’s a certain kind of freedom.
STEWART: It's someone that that seems good on the outside. And then when you start talking to him, they break down and cry, and you really get down to the to the depths of it.
One time, Pastor Goose was preaching.
STEWART: And he said in it, “Jesus loves you,” at one point. And someone at the back said, “No one loves me. I've tried to take my life four times.” And I had an opportunity to go and speak to him and he ended up showing up to church that Sunday. Even that story is not really out of the ordinary.
Angel Van Ellison says those kinds of opportunities are why she ministers in VR.
ANGEL VAN ELLISON: I just think that we have something ...
She built Cornerstone’s VR campus in AltspaceVR, and leads the Thursday evening Bible study.
ANGEL: … And we don't want to be like the servants that bury it when the Master told us to go out and multiply. Just because we're uncomfortable.
She’s referring to the parable of the talents.
ANGEL: I feel as though that in 2022, your Christian community should be more than the people in your zip code.
Since the beginning of human history, from papyrus to Bible apps on your phone.
ANGEL: … technology has been used as a way to get the word out. Why would we stop now? As long as we remain biblical, I think we should have an energy towards it.
Angel is a software engineer from Savannah, Georgia. She designs “user experiences.” She had some bad experiences in church as a youth. While attending Georgia Southern University she joined some Bible studies. Got baptized. She says she was in love with Jesus. But church IRL? Not so much. She graduated in 2019.
ANGEL: And then I stumbled into a Cornerstone Church service and he was preaching out of the Bible.
At Cornerstone she found the kind of fellowship she’d always longed for—and never found—in an IRL church. Every Cornerstone person I spoke to said that every Christian needs a church family IRL. And Angel agrees that physical presence is important, like a hug at just the right time.
ANGEL: However, I can't tell you the amount of times I've been snot-nose crying, and people have consoled me and been there for me in VR, even though we couldn't be physically together ...
Other than physical touch ...
ANGEL: … I can't think of anything I was missing. And I wouldn't be where I am if I was missing some of those crucial things that the church is supposed to provide for one another.
JEFF REED: I was always a believer and still am that community follows technology. ...
Jeff Reed has been promoting the idea of church in the metaverse for years now. He runs a website called thechurch.digital.
JEFF: … And that if community develops within these spaces, it's not that much longer until the Church needs to follow suit.
He says many of the people who come to VR ministries are agnostics or atheists. Neo-pagans and even some Satanists. And some come to Christ.
JEFF: Now, is this a short-term thing? Like, should a person eventually get connected into a physical building? Or is the virtual church sufficient in itself to disciple and care for somebody over a long period of time? I have no clue.
LES: So can you think of any weaknesses of a church in virtual reality that's inherent to the form?
JEFF: Oh, 100 percent. Like, the mental health implications, and this stuff is ridiculous. ...
He knows of only one full-time VR pastor.
JEFF: We are literally asking volunteers … and bi-vocational people to do ministry in a space that by definition is addictive. Metaverse, virtual reality, is an addictive source. And we're asking you to do ministry in that space.
Christians in VR are still just sorting through all these kinds of questions.
JEFF: But when you actually put the little headset on, like, what is that actually doing to your brain? And how can we utilize that for the Kingdom? Or should we be really running away from this?
Jeff’s answer is that churches should embrace VR for the sake of the kingdom. Churches should embrace VR for the sake of the Kingdom.
JEFF: … for once we can actually be ahead of the curve. And rather than waiting for, you know, corporations to define what community looks like in virtual reality and augmented and with this new technology, why don't we the church get in there and actually start to define it now, instead of letting others tell us what we can and cannot do with it?
BILLY SUNDAY: America needs a tidal wave of the old-time religion! ...
Cornerstone and Jeff Reed are part of a long line of evangelicals who have embraced electronic communication technologies to spread the Gospel.
SUNDAY: … America needs to be taken down to God’s bathhouse and the hose turned on her!
From radio preacher Billy Sunday in the 1920s to Billy Graham on TV.
BILLY GRAHAM: The Son of God! And you are asked today to receive him!
Today pastors of varying theological persuasions use online media to reach huge audiences. From Joel Osteen to Tim Keller. Elevation Church’s Steven Furtick has 2.6 million YouTube subscribers.
STEVEN FURTICK: This is on YouTube. So I know Facebook and the Elevation app and Roku and MySpace … no? Not MySpace? OK, we’re using everything right now to reach people. Instagram …
Evangelicals in this tradition are focused on the mission instead of the tools. They V want to spread their version of the Gospel to as many people as possible. That’s why many evangelicals judge a communication tool based on how well it works. Does it get results?
FURTICK: This is amazing. Just go ahead and put Amen in the chat ...
But, as with any technology, there’s another really important question: What’s the effect of a tool on those who use it?
FURTICK: ... Amen from, you know, Sweden. Amen from Cowpens, South Carolina. From Sweden to South Carolina …
We’re going to step back from Cornerstone for a few minutes to think about that. A whole branch of philosophy examines how technology in general shapes people, so we’ll start there.
John Dyer teaches at Dallas Theological Seminary. In From the Garden to the City, he writes that technology is any tool people use to transform creation. It’s a gift of God, he says.
JOHN DYER: Yeah, so I think that the original plan and purpose of technology is right there in Genesis one and two.
People need technology to “fill the earth and subdue it.” We use tools of all kinds to mitigate the effects of sin. Any technology, from gloves to nuclear fission to vaccines, can be used for good or evil. Dyer says many people presume that any given technology is neutral. Neither good nor bad. It’s all in how you use it. This view is called “instrumentalism.”
But Dyer says that any given technology is not inherently neutral. Technology transforms. And it transforms in ways that reflect the tool itself.
SFX: shovel digging
With shovels we transform the earth. He says that when we use a shovel, it also gives us blisters and strengthens our muscles. As media scholar John Culkin observed, quote, “We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”
SFX: cell phone beep
Dyer says this transformation can be profound. The more we use a tool, say, a smart phone, the more our minds adapt to it.
MUSIC: Second Thoughts
Siri: Washington, District of Columbia, is about 76 miles away by car.
That’s how our tools teach us what to value and why. They teach us meaning. And identity. They alter how we see God, ourselves, and the world around us. The effects may be subtle and trivial or powerful and life-changing. Social media, for example, teaches us to pay a lot of attention to ourselves and how others perceive us.
SFX: Notification ping
Dyer adds that when enough people start to use a tool it can shape whole cultures. As the famous media scholar Marshall McLuhan explained, people have to adapt themselves to the tool to function in society. They have to learn the routines, methods, and skills that you need to use the tool. This has happened throughout history with all kinds of technology.
SFX: Car starting
Consider, for example, how cars changed religion in this country.
Organ music: Abide With Me
Cars let us choose which church to attend in a large area. We pick based on the preaching, music, doctrine, programs, and so on. That ability to choose changed our attitudes toward the idea of “church.”
MUSIC: Hillsong’s Who You Say I Am
Prompted us to think like customers as well as worshipers. And over time churches adapted their preaching, worship, and programs accordingly. What’s true of technology like cars is also true of communication technology. Maybe even more so, because communication is so foundational to what it means to be human.
In 1985 Neil Postman pointed out in his famous book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, that television is best suited to providing entertainment. So everything on television tends to become more entertaining. Like preachers. Here’s Jimmy Swaggart.
JIMMY SWAGGART: If you destroy one generation, you have destroyed the fabric of that nation! ...
Politics, news, and religion in theory have a higher purpose than mere entertainment. But the medium shapes the message. So when we watch those things on TV,
JOHN: The more we consume entertainment on that device, the more we’re going to expect entertainment from that device.
This is John Dyer.
JOHN: And so when we switch to a religious channel we kind of want it to be entertaining as well. And so when we see something that's not, we think it's bad TV.
Postman argued that this is why TV changed everything it touched. Not the other way around. Postman would have said that Swaggart would not have been quite so provocative and entertaining if he hadn’t been on TV.
SWAGGART: … I do not have the vocabulary to stand here and tell you how idiotic these airheads really are!
STEWART: Hey Bunny!
FEMALE VOICE: Hi!
STEWART: Welcome in welcome in welcome in. I like the thing above your name. I haven’t seen one of those. It looks cool.
Back to Thursday night at Cornerstone’s VRChat Bible study. I waited around the lobby as others arrived.
Another of the six-foot florescent green toads was lounging in an invisible chair, legs crossed. There was a pixelated guy that reminded me of Wreck-It-Ralph. I tried to make small talk about the NBA with Ultron from the Avengers and this little green lizard guy.
LES: … but it’s been a long time since the Spurs were any good.
MALE VOICE: Ooo, Boston and Golden State in overtime right now ...
Soon Stewart the beagle led everybody to the front to get started. I walked down the aisle to find a seat. But I couldn’t figure out how to get up onto the chair.
STEWART: All right. Let me open us up in prayer.
I was hoping that the toad, who was just down the row, wouldn’t notice me standing there frantically pressing buttons. Suddenly the seat turned blue and then I was in the chair. I looked around. Maybe 20 people. They had gathered in the aisle or were in the first two rows. Stewart finished the prayer then put on a praise video: Phil Wickham. “We Shout Out Your Praise.” I wanted to sing. I tried a little bit, but it was hard.
[Bible study karaoke]
That’s the latency problem I mentioned last episode. The delay between somebody singing something in their microphone and the rest of us hearing it on our headsets. It might be so bad here because my internet connection is really slow, but I found it really distracting.
Then another video started. Reckless Love by Cory Asbury
Often Stewart will read long passages of Scripture. But on this night we sang all evening. By the time we got to Hillsong United’s “So Will I,” Ultron had moved up closer to the screen. Stewart, in his beagle avatar, was sighing deeply after every song. I thought I saw his tail wag.
STEWART: [sniff] Whoo. That one got me. Good choice Akira. Every time one of them gets me, I’m not ready for the next one.
It seems Stewart is still organizing karaoke in VRChat.
After the singing, the toad came up to Stewart. It was his first time at the Bible study and he was very excited. He described how, like Stewart, he used to run clubs in VRChat. But he came to Christ, broke up with his boyfriend, and was eager to spread the Gospel. So many people in VRChat are so broken and desperate, he said, and so,
TOAD: … we have to have light that pushes against the darkness.
The toad is gesturing emphatically by this point, pointing down at Stewart. He tells the toad,
STEWART: Through this ministry I’ve seen time and time again that light going back into the original community that those people were a part of and absolutely spreading like wildfire. It is so cool.
JASON: So when I put that headset on the very first time, I felt excitement about the possibilities of how this could be used. … But it is opening up some very unique challenges, specifically ethical challenges that all of us, but specifically the Christian church, I think need to think really deeply and wisely about.
Jason Thacker writes about technology for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
LES: So tell me how does virtual reality shape us, exactly?
JASON: Yeah, one of the profound ways that technology in general, shapes us ...
He’s generally optimistic about technology. But he cautions that virtual reality has the potential to distort how we understand reality itself.
JASON: … but I think specifically with virtual reality is that it shifts the idea of the world around us to something that's malleable, and something that we can create.
People in the Christian West used to see the world as something that has purpose. A created order. But now we see the world as just raw material for us to manipulate. To use as we will.
JASON: One of the most dangerous aspects I think of virtual reality is the idea that we can create our own worlds, we can create our own realities. We also see this in terms of issues of even sexuality today, …
Christian theology teaches that humans were created male and female.
JASON: … but we live in a society now that where … our gender or sexuality is malleable, it's something that's self-created, something of the inner individual …
At the extreme end of this idea are people like Martine Rothblatt. Here he is in a 2015 TED Talk.
MARTINE ROTHBLATT: … and all of this information stored there will be able in the next couple decades, once software is able to recapitulate consciousness, be able to revive the consciousness which is imminent in our mind file.
Rothblatt is a transgender activist and tech entrepreneur. He founded SiriusXM. He is also a “transhumanist.” Rothblatt is very enthusiastic about virtual reality. It’s a great place to express a transgender persona away from the disapproving gaze of society.
Rothblatt also thinks you can clone your own consciousness. Just dump enough of your own data into a powerful enough computer.
ROTHBLATT: … and you don't have to be a genius to see that all these threads are going to come together and ultimately create human consciousness, and it’s something we’ll value.
Rothblatt expects technology will bring back his deceased wife Bina as an AI-powered and conscious entity. It’s a “transhumanist” vision of immortality. He brought to his talk an early version of Bina.
INTERVIEWER: And is your thinking here, part of your hope here, is that this version of Bina can in a sense live on forever, or some future upgrade to this version can live on forever?
ROTHBLATT: Yes. Not just Bina, but everybody.
Of course, not everybody who spends time in VR will become a transgender transhumanist. It’s that VR, transgenderism, and transhumanism all share a value. They teach that human beings are essentially minds. Bodies are just shells.
Jason Thacker says that orthodox Christian theology teaches otherwise.
JASON: Because we as human beings aren't just our minds, we're not just our inner life, we're actually our bodies … we're embodied souls.
He says that’s why deep relationships require physical presence. That’s also why it matters that we live in reality. “Social presence” in VR offers the illusion of physical presence, but without the limits of our physical bodies. VR can be useful for meeting or staying connected with people.
JASON: But when they become often substitutes for deep and real deep relationships, and community, or even the church itself, I think we get into some very dangerous areas, because we start … saying, “Well, my body doesn't really matter. The real me is on the inside, or the real me is my mind.” And that's kind of as I'm able to transport into these other worlds and connect with people like me, rather than realizing no, I’m an embodied human being. And that's how God made me.
Another reason to think carefully about VR: the people who make this technology embed their corporate values into it.
JASON: These companies are often moving in these spaces, because they're going to make money. ...
They make money through data harvesting, advertising, the sale of games, and so on. Just like with social media.
JASON: … So their goal is to actually increase your usage. They want you to be on these devices, on these platforms as much as possible.
So, the more you’re in the metaverse, the more money they make, and the more it shapes you.
Thacker emphasizes that a metaverse could have both benefits and dangers. Christians shouldn’t take a simplistic approach, he said. Tools do shape us. But some overestimate the destructive powers of a particular technology. Especially communication technologies.
JASON: And that's where I think Christians in particular need to be thinking very theologically and philosophically, but especially ethically, kind of about the way we want to utilize these technologies, not being kind of doomsday kind of pessimistic, nor being kind of a sheer utopian kind of optimism.
History has watershed moments when technology extended human abilities and allowed us to do wonderful things that were once impossible. This might be one. Or it might not. Christians especially should be wise. We should discern accurately the harms and benefits of a given technology. Because we’re accountable to God for how we use the things He gives us.
Before we go much further, I should explain that virtual reality probably won’t be the cultural phenomenon that enthusiasts have been predicting.
MALE VOICE: Ladies and gentlemen, it’s a sad day in the metaverse. A sad day for AltspaceVR users worldwide. Yes, the rumors are true. AltspaceVR is shutting down ...
On March 10 of this year, amid heavy layoffs in the tech industry, Microsoft shut down the world-building app AltSpace. Meta’s Horizon Worlds app, widely mocked as a bust, has also struggled to attract and keep users.
Meta sold tens of millions of headsets in the last few years. But the headsets are bulky and uncomfortable. Lots of people get motion sickness in VR. And you’re stuck in this little “play area” with no idea of what's going on around you.
So VR will probably remain kind of niche. Popular with gamers. Useful for training surgeons and pilots and previewing construction projects, things like that. But The Oasis from Spielberg’s Ready Player One…
PARZIVAL: People come to the Oasis for all the things they can do. But they stay for all the things they can be...
…seems like a long way away.
So, why are we talking about VR? I’m glad you asked.
Because it’s a stepping stone to augmented reality. AR. And then mixed reality. MR.
Here’s Jason Thacker again.
JASON: I think virtual reality will always be around in some sense, but I am actually think most of the future’s in augmented reality, because it's connecting the digital world and our real world rather than cutting us off from what we already know is real.
Many of us have already used or seen a kind of augmented reality. Definitions vary, but it often refers to a display that puts information into your field of vision. For example, Head-Up Displays in cars project your speed or map route right onto the windshield.
The next step, mixed reality, is already here. It’s a big step.
APPLE VIDEO: Introducing Apple Vision Pro. The era of spatial computing is here.
On June 5 Apple announced its new mixed reality goggles. They’ll be available to purchase next year. Mixed reality integrates virtual reality with real reality.
APPLE VIDEO: When you put on Apple Vision Pro, you see your world and everything in it. Your favorite apps live right in front of you.
Apple’s promotional video shows a woman looking at her fireplace while icons for her email program, browser, and so on float in her field of vision.
Cameras on the outside of the headset track your body movements and map the room. You can pick up a virtual vase and put it on a real table, for example. Hang a virtual picture on a real wall to see what it would look like.
APPLE VIDEO: 3D mapping provides a detailed understanding of walls, furniture, and even people. So all experiences look, sound, and feel like they are physically there.
The Apple headset is much lighter and sleeker than the Quest units. It maps your face, and then cameras inside the headset track your facial expressions and eye movements. When you’re using FaceTime, people can see your head in 3D as if you weren’t wearing a headset.
APPLE VIDEO: So when you’re chatting, people see your eyes, hands, and true expressions.
And it can display an image of your eyes on the exterior of the headset so others can see your … eyes. I guess. Some reviewers have described this feature as “creepy.” The headset can also take 3D videos of what you’re looking at so you can …
APPLE VIDEO: … relive a memory as if you’re right back in the exact moment.
It doesn’t have hand controls. To click on something, you don’t point a hand controller and then press a button. You stare at it and then pinch your thumb and forefinger together. Or just use voice commands.
APPLE VIDEO: You navigate with your eyes. Simply tap to select. Flick to scroll. And use your voice to dictate. It’s like magic.
You can type on a virtual keyboard or connect the headset to a physical keyboard and watch your hands as you type. You can see the room around you while you work on large screens appearing to float above your desk. You can make them as large as you like. You can watch movies on screens as large as you like.
APPLE VIDEO: Apps have dimension. React to light. And cast shadows. Even though these spatial experiences are happening inside Vision Pro, it looks, sounds, and feels like they are physically there.
Apple goggles are pricey right now. About $3,500. But, as with all consumer tech, the price will eventually come down. And the delay will give Apple time to work with developers to come up with apps good enough to attract a wide user base.
APPLE VIDEO: This is Apple Vision Pro
When I started reporting on VR, I completely misread Mark Zuckerberg’s end game. I thought he was trying to build The Oasis. That he wanted to get as many people as possible sitting alone in dark rooms wearing Quest headsets. I was wrong.
Zuckerberg was already pointing to mixed reality in that big announcement when he changed the name of Facebook to Meta two years ago. He mentioned most of the features Apple is now promoting in its goggles. No doubt Meta will be out with its own hardware soon enough.
ZUCKERBERG: Now, what about unlocking more mixed reality experiences. I mean, imagine working at your virtual desk with multiple screens while seeing your real desk. So clearly, that you can pick up a pen and write notes without taking your headset off … lots of things that are physical today, like screens, will just be able to be holograms in the future … First, we're building tools that creators can use to place digital objects into the physical world and let people interact with them …
Zuckerberg envisions a future in which mixed reality technology is embedded seamlessly. Not just into our lives. We already have that. Smartphones and laptops. But they’re only moderately immersive. You have to look down.
ZUCKERBERG: Your devices won't be the focal point of your attention anymore. Instead of getting in the way, they're gonna give you a sense of presence in the new experiences that you're having and the people who you're with.
Zuckerberg imagines the metaverse embedded into our perception of reality. Not squeezed through a smartphone screen. Covering our entire field of perception.
ZUCKERBERG: You can start to see how the metaverse is going to enable richer experiences by letting us add new layers to the world that we can interact with …
Exactly. He would love to put more layers of technology between human beings and Creation. Between you and other people. Layers that blur the line between reality and virtual reality by putting them side-by-side in your vision and hearing. Layers controlled by the likes of Meta, Google, Apple, and Amazon.
ZUCKERBERG: Our hope, though, is that if we all work at it, and within the next decade, the metaverse will reach a billion people, host hundreds of billions of dollars of digital commerce, and support jobs for millions of creators and developers.
Zuckerberg is telling us it’s going to be great.
ZUCKERBERG: So giving everyone the tools to be present, no matter where they are. Whether it's a hologram sitting next to you in a physical meeting, or in a discussion taking place in the metaverse, that's gonna be a game changer.
That it will transform human existence. For the better.
I have my doubts.
As I was putting this episode together, generative AI was all over the news as the next transformative tech. ChatGPT and the like. Some commentators dismissed the metaverse as yesterday’s news. A flop. Zuckerberg bet billions and he had already lost.
We can’t get into generative AI here. It deserves its own episode. But I think that the development of generative AI makes a mixed reality metaverse more likely, not less.
Briefly: Generative AI produces “original” and impressively complex text and images based on simple verbal commands. It can analyze information. Appear to carry on conversations. Some companies have already imported that kind of technology into virtual reality, giving us ...
GAME VOICE: Hello. I am Yanika. I am part of a massive community of AI-driven beings living in Sensorium Galaxy. I have been chosen to be its spokesperson ...
Sensorium Galaxy claims to be, quote, “the world’s first AI-inhabited metaverse.” Its AI-driven avatars have backstories and personalities. This game has
GAME VOICE: … virtual worlds inhabited by unique digital characters, each controlled by AI, and endowed with personality traits ...
They’ll remember who you are and your previous conversations with them.
Combine generative AI with mixed reality, and suddenly anyone can create personalized and powerful illusions for themselves. Just by speaking.
Here’s an example: “Let there be … a realistic avatar of my dead wife. Put her in her favorite chair across from me so I can converse with her.”
That kind of creative ability, if it arrives, is going to seem like a superpower. Magical, almost. Again, here’s Zuckerberg.
ZUCKERBERG: Instead of time typing or tapping, you're gonna be able to gesture with your hands, say a few words, or even just make things happen by thinking about them.
Christian cultural analyst Andy Crouch says we all want superpowers. In The Life We’re Looking For, he writes that the ultimate superpower is the ability to do magic.
ANDY CROUCH: I think of magic as effortless power.
That’s Andy in an online discussion with The Trinity Forum.
MUSIC: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
The promise of magic is that it lets us do things, control things, without asking much from us. It’s like the 1940 Disney cartoon, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. In it, Mickey Mouse enchants a broom to do his chores for him.
To carry water. But in the end the broom goes completely out of control.
Crouch writes that too many in our culture treat technology like medieval alchemists. The alchemists dreamed of unlocking power in the natural world that would transform human existence. That’s what we hope our gadgets will do. Just by purchasing a new device. Downloading a new app. Pressing a few buttons or speaking the right command. It’s seductive.
APPLE VIDEO: It’s like magic.
Of course, virtual reality machines are a lot less seductive when you remember that they merely create illusions. Groucho Marx once said, “I’m not crazy about reality, but it’s still the only place to get a decent meal.”
But today some people might settle for a really good illusion. They’d trade reality for happiness. Because reality just seems so … disappointing.
At the start of this episode we spoke with Professor Megan Fritts about her students’ willingness to enter Nozick’s Experience Machine.
MEGAN FRITTS: I don't even know if it's that they're losing a desire for, say, real relationships or, or really, you know, being out in the world, but almost, from, from the students I've talked to, it almost seems like they're just kind of, they don't expect it anymore. They really do recognize that being removed from the world in this really significant way is not good. But they also kind of … felt helpless about it. And I think that this is really how people are feeling with all of this new and emerging technology. Not exactly that it's something they welcome, but because they can't do anything to stop it, maybe the only thing they can do is guarantee that at least they get some kind of pleasure out of it.
Andy Crouch writes that if magic worked it would set everyone free. But it doesn’t. It doesn’t transform our existence. It doesn’t fulfill us. It corrodes our souls. And in our quest to make magic work for us we risk turning ourselves into slaves. It almost happened to Mickey.
It did happen to Stewart Freeman. But, like Mickey, Stewart was rescued.
JASON: So as we take the bread, take now and eat, in remembrance of Jesus and his broken body nailed to the cross for us.
We started episode one of this two-part story on VR by dropping into one of Cornerstone Church’s services in VRChat. Pastor Jason is leading communion.
I can see Stewart in his beagle avatar hanging around in the background. And after communion, as usual, Pastor Jason and Pastor Goose hold a Q&A session.
JASON: What questions does anybody you have about what you heard today or maybe you’ve got a question about something else …
There are a few theological questions from some of the regulars. One guy seems like he’s new. His name is Unique. His avatar is a toy soldier. Maybe 18-inches tall. He keeps trying to get into the conversation. Finally ...
UNIQUE: This is my question. I really came in here today like to troll, but you actually, like ...
Pastor Jason comes over to him, and several others kind of gather around.
UNIQUE: My question is, why am I so negative, bro? Like, negativity all the time, like, I just want to be mean, like, just fight people all the time ...
Pastors Jason and Goose offer very sound spiritual counsel for about 10 minutes.
JASON: What I can tell you is: If you want to release that, if you want to really have freedom from whatever the thing is, I can just tell you, the only answer is Jesus and here’s why ...
Jason explains a few more things. Then,
JASON: You can send us messages, we would love to keep talking with you, Unique.
A few of the other folks chime in. And suddenly,
UNIQUE: [wailing] ...
Unique runs out of the room. Wailing. It’s supposed to be funny.
FEMALE VOICE: … [chuckles] I don’t know if that was laughter or that was crying.
Nobody seems surprised. Stewart steps up and explains that he checked messages on Unique’s Discord server. The guy was just fooling around.
STEWART: … to give’em a good joke, from the sound of it.
FEMALE VOICE: Oooo, OK, OK.
JASON: He wasn’t a troll. He seemed unique, I mean, sincere. Unique seemed sincere ...
But nobody’s upset. They laugh it off and continue with the Q&A.
My headset picked that moment to crash. And when I got back to the service, there was Unique. Chatting with folks. I find Stewart in the back of the church.
LES: Hey Stewart.
STEWART: Hey Les.
LES: Hey. Um, my system …
I ask what happened with Unique. Stewart starts to explain that Unique and a friend, Kenty, came in to troll. But then Kenty comes up.
KENTY: What’s up, bro?
Kenty says it was all Unique’s idea.
KENTY: … that was him. That was all Kai.
STEWART: Uh-huh. I hear you. I hear you.
Kenty and Unique hang around for a while. I don’t know what will become of them. But I do know that they heard the Gospel and were treated kindly.
For his part Pastor Jason sounds a little frustrated hearing about the problems with VR. He doesn’t deny VR has issues, that relationships are different in VR than IRL. But Pastor Jason just wants to preach Christ.
JASON: And you know, sometimes it gets me going, and I'm like, I'm like, Hey, guys, you don't have to agree with all of it. But can you … at least rejoice? The lost sheep were found.
In VR, he says, people are open to the Gospel. The handful of people in Cornerstone’s VR ministry have witnessed to more people and seen more people come to Christ than the IRL congregation.
JASON: … and we share the light and here and before, you know, you've got people that are matriculating back into the physical church that you know, that got saved. Can you rejoice in that? And they’re still like, no, it's evil. And I'm like, ... rejoice, just rejoice in the one soul that’s saved …
Cornerstone’s VR ministry reminded me more of street preaching than a church. I wonder whether taking communion and performing baptisms in VR is a great idea. It can be very meaningful for folks who spend a lot of time in virtual reality. And many American evangelicals would agree with Cornerstone’s theology that communion and baptism are symbols. Here’s Pastor Jason again during the service.
JASON: The reason we are able to do is because communion is symbolic, the juice and the bread, there’s nothing magical about them specifically, it is about our heart being inclined to our savior and remembering the sacrifice. And so, that is why we can do it virtually, why we can do it remotely like this.
A too casual approach to a symbol could well undermine the meaning of the symbol itself. In communion you share literal food, together, in person, and that teaches us a spiritual lesson about the sacrifice of Christ and the unity of the Body. And of course Catholics and some Protestant denominations, like Anglicans, will find the idea of taking communion in VR abhorrent.
That said, Cornerstone’s services in VR deliver the Gospel. Clearly. To hurting people who desperately need to hear it. Cornerstone is nudging them, maybe slowly, toward church IRL.
MUSIC: In the Presence
The good shepherd goes out and finds the lost sheep. He goes into the rocky canyons where snakes and wolves might be lurking. And if you’re a good sheep dog, even a beagle, you go with him. Sometimes that means Stewart doesn’t get a lot of sleep.
STEWART: Especially on the weeks where my business takes 100 hours, which is every once in a while....
Stewart once told me that he became a Christian when he had the overwhelming sense that God is real. It seems to me that when you’re clear that God is real, then illusions become less seductive.
But maybe not less destructive.
I still have a lot of questions about what effects virtual and mixed reality will have on our culture. On the Church. On us. And the right way to respond. These are questions that call for discernment. While we’re thinking it through, Stewart, Jason, and others will be living out what they believe God is calling them to do.
STEWART: If I were not a part of Cornerstone, I would not be in VRChat anymore. There's too many temptations. There's too many. There's such such darkness in the people around it. But I'm here and people are being, let God use me to lead people to Christ and to disciple those people. And yeah, it's, it's really humbling.
Thanks for listening to this episode of Doubletake. I’m Les Sillars, and I wrote and reported this episode. And produced it with the help of the creative team at The World and Everything In It.
Next time, on Doubletake.
ELONA: And for him, it was his day off. It was a Friday that he was preparing for the sermon on Sunday. He was like, don't come, I'll just be fast. Just go to the church and I'll be home. So to me, I was, you know, relaxed and preparing lunch in the house.
He always parked there and walked here to come to the church. Every day. So I just went out in the streets and I was stopping every police in the street asking, “What has happened?” And he was like, somebody, a Prroj, a Prroj has been shot. And I was like, “Is he alive? Where is he?” And he said, “Go to the hospital.”
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