Inaugural Virtual Identity Summit asks questions beyond headsets and ‘Westworld’
As the recently released Western “Red Dead Redemption 2” makes history by selling 17 million copies in 12 days, according to its publisher, Lisa Joy sees more similarities between the video game’s virtual characters and its human players than the latter might want to admit.
“People are easily hacked,” the co-creator of HBO’s “Westworld” said to a packed Grand Ballroom at the Grand Summit Hotel on Wednesday. Her adaptation of the 1973 film, which depicts a futuristic, physical simulation of the Wild West, was partly inspired by video games and players’ interactions with their non-player characters.
She expanded on the thought by relating the story of an acquaintance who made money as a telephone psychic.
“If you were to microscopically drill down into our decisions, further and further down, it becomes like a logic tree,” she said. “It becomes somewhat binary; collections of ‘yeses’ and ‘nos.’”
Heady conversations and warnings about the future were the topic du jour as about 450 engineers, academics, investors and enthusiasts gathered in Park City on Tuesday and Wednesday for the inaugural Virtual Identity Summit, a conference organized by Salt Lake City virtual reality tech firm Morph 3D.
Beyond the headset
The summit focused on the intersections of philosophy, engineering and politics as they relate to virtual (VR), augmented (AR) and “extended” (XR) reality tech. VR, still a new technology, has leapt from a punchline to a product over the past decade as tech giants develop headsets and brands like Hot Pockets incorporate it into their advertising.
Matt Wilburn, chief operating officer of Morph 3D, in an interview alongside general manager Berkley Frei on Thursday said the conference exceeded their expectations and that a star-studded schedule of speakers “validated” the conversations and concerns they’ve shared within the walls of their company.
“Ditto to that,” Frei chimed in.
The creator of the most prominent virtual world and a leader behind the scenes of “Westworld” are huge gets for the first installment of a conference organized by a 3-year-old Utah tech firm (part of Daz 3D, founded in 2000 and based in Draper). Though the conference is in its infancy, the docket of speakers included notable names from a variety of disciplines, such as Philip Rosedale, founder of the massive online economy and virtual world Second Life, Brittan Heller, longtime advocate against online harassment and Jeremy Bailenson, a top academic at Stanford, alongside dozens of others.
The speakers, in a general session and in smaller breakout engagements, covered topics like racism and social justice, responsible business practices and more. Headsets and graphics cards, while getting their due, were secondary to questions surrounding their application on Wednesday.
The ramifications of immersive worlds are most visible today as a well-trodden topic in science fiction; everything from the grim state of humanity in “The Matrix” to this year’s blockbuster “Ready Player One” and its ruminations on nostalgia. Much of the conversation around VR has taken place around its applications in entertainment, given its ability to immediately transport the viewer to places like an Arkansas Razorbacks football practice, a birds-eye view of the solar system or an entirely fictional world.
State of play
The philosophical quandaries surrounding the topic can be traced back to Descartes, but it was recent political and social events that drove the summit’s organizers. Questions about the social trajectory of the internet and social media have permeated the zeitgeist, perhaps highlighted by Facebook founder and billionaire Mark Zuckerberg’s appearance in front of a U.S. Senate panel in April amid questions about the social network’s role in political polarization.
The public sector’s encounter with Zuckerberg was seen as uninformed and floundering, and commentators seized on the laconic response Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, 84, received when he asked the tech magnate 50 years his junior how he sustains his business.
“Senator, we run ads,” Zuckerberg replied.
Foundational questions about the future of tech were very much within bounds at the summit, with Rosedale decrying the role microtransactions and targeted advertising play in society. The creator of Second Life said that, going forward, power players need to “make the right governance and business decisions to make VR at this scale a safe tool for humanity.”
With VR and tech increasing in prominence at Park City’s marquee event, the annual Sundance Film Festival, Frei and Wilburn said while nothing has been formalized, they are actively looking for ways to try getting a piece of Virtual Identity on the schedule next January.
Frei and Wilburn said they view VR as a transformational development on the level of the automobiles and social media, and that they hope to have played a part in shepherding the technology responsibly, because people might not realize its ubiquity before it’s too late.
“It’s incredibly encouraging, for me, to see so many people across so many industries give a (expletive),” Wilburn said.
Onstage at the conference, Joy echoed their sentiment with a word of caution about the future, saying its arrival might not be as obvious or as fantastical as people think.
“If you think AI is going to come in the form of Evan Rachel Wood with a gun, you’re going to be sorely disappointed.”
An attorney representing a critic of Park City’s plans to build restricted affordable housing in Old Town sent a letter urging officials to meet the same standards that would be required of a private-sector developer in the neighborhood.