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Beginnings: The Breakthrough Moment

Jaron Lanier, Virtual-Reality Pioneer

“For many years, I sort of didn’t really know how to connect to people or to the world."

I’d been a pretty awkward and lonely kid because my mom died when I was young, and I had an extraordinarily hard time overcoming that. For many years, I sort of didn’t really know how to connect to people or to the world.

I got to college early, and at the college library, where I was, there started to be these journals showing images that were created from inside a computer for the first time — the first computer-graphics images that kind of looked like solid objects. And also reports of the work of the guy who invented computer graphics named Ivan Sutherland. He had talked about this kind of display where you could look into a virtual world. And the two things came together in my mind of imagining a computer as a way to look into imagination. This notion of being able to create a world that was closer to you as a bridge, as a step, kind of like bridging science and art, bridging technology and art — it just immediately spoke to me as kind of a lifeline.

I had an incredibly fortunate youth where I was able to connect with a lot of older figures in the sciences and also in the arts who were just extraordinary — people like Marvin Minsky at MIT and Richard Fineman at Cal Tech, although I wasn’t enrolled as a student at either place. And so it just felt normal to me that you can take a central role in changing things — that didn’t seem exotic. I just was around people who had done it, and so I had the luxury of not understanding that it was unusual. It just seemed like the normal thing. When did I realize I could do it? I didn’t even really think in those terms, it was just something very personal like, “This is something I have to do.”

This feeling of finding a new way for people not to be so separate from one another was so important to me. We’re all kind of burning inside our own skulls, and the ways we can connect to each other are actually kind of limited, through speech and the arts and writing and whatnot. We’ve had the invention of new ways to connect, speech for instance — that was a really big one back in the day, whenever that happened some hundreds of thousands of years ago or maybe even millions, no one’s really sure right now. And then there was writing quite recently — we measure that only in centuries. And then you know there’s movies and there’s recorded music and radio and TV, blah blah blah. And then there’s this whole thing of the internet, which in many ways I have to say I’ve been disappointed with but at the core of it, there’s still this feeling that’s always grabbed me that there was this potential for some kind of new creative connections that would be just a little more — I don’t know quite what word to use here — a little more liquid, a little more intimate somehow then what we had before. That’s one thing that just seemed, especially after I lost my mother, kind of sacred to me. I had such a hard time reaching people at all. I was really knocked out by that. I mean it’s hard to remember sometimes because the whole tech world has become so much about money and power, and people are just so drunk on money and power that I think we kind of forget what originally got us into it when we were young, but I still remember that so clearly.