The assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Human Ecology is an expert on VR — computer-simulated worlds that a person can visit by strapping on an electronic headset or walking into specialized rooms filled with 3D projections. With the Virtual Environments Group at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, Ponto has devoted himself to figuring out ways VR can be a helpful real-world resource. His research has explored using VR to map out crime scenes, recreate houses that medical professionals can walk through to identify potential hazards for recently discharged patients and to map out culturally significant sites and landmarks.
But as much as Ponto believes that VR can be a force for good, he also says that the technology raises a lot of ethical, philosophical and political questions that society will have to grapple with in the not-so-distant future when VR becomes a facet of everyday life.
What do you find so compelling about virtual reality to make it your life's work?
It's this idea of how do we interface with artificial worlds in more unique and intuitive ways. We used to have mouse and keyboards, and now we're more on touchscreens, and voice recognition is starting to take off. But in terms of the way we view things, it's still this 2D screen. And I think there's other ways to experience digital technology and digital information.
Can you give some examples of how VR is used in meaningful ways?
One of the projects my team is working on, is we're working with people from the IceCube project — this crazy neutrino detector in the Antarctic. It's a space that most of us are never going to go to: To get down to Antarctica is a lot of work, and you'd have to be somewhat crazy to go there. But with virtual reality, we can take people there. We have a chance to experience these things that we could never experience physically.
Another project we're doing is with the National Parks Service involving shipwreck reconstruction. I'm not a diver, but boy is it fascinating to go into VR and experience shipwrecks in a first-person way, and experience the ways they were built and have decomposed over time.
Crime scenes is another area that we're really trying to push forward. It’s super-duper interesting. I've seen a bunch of things now with cold cases, even the O.J. Simpson case. They're looking at photos, and you're like, “Is that a footprint? Is that not a footprint?” You're really stuck with the information that was gathered at the time. If you had a full 3D model reconstruction that you can walk back through, that enables people to go back and test hypotheses, you can imagine really transformative ways that we can really do investigations.
Is using VR to capture and analyze visual information, like at a crime scene, advantageous because of how you experience it? Like, you feel like you're actually there?
When you have data that is 3D and you project it into 2D, like with photographs, you don't have a sense of the scale of everything and the size of everything. That's why in a crime scene, for photos you have put a ruler down or a penny.
You also lose all this information (with photographs). Because it's an overwhelming amount of information, you simplify it. With this idea of 3D acquisition, you can capture pretty much everything.
Where are we at right now in terms of public adoption of VR?
My personal take is, we're one more hype cycle away from this actually being in most people's homes.
Back in the 1990s there was a big hype around virtual reality. You see this in the movies of the late '90s especially. “The Matrix” is the one people today still know — it's entirely set in a virtual world. Then we hit what we call a "trough of disillusionment" in the 2000s. Even when we started up the lab at the UW-Madison, there was some skepticism about virtual reality, about the utility of it. But then with Oculus Rift and Facebook acquiring them, and all of these new investments, we've hit this new hype cycle.
I think my skepticism of VR being in the home (right now) is with the current form factor. It's crudely kind of ski goggles with cellphones strapped to them. I think there are limitations to it. It's not comfortable to wear for a long period of time, it's isolating.
If the form factor gets down to sunglasses or glasses, where it's lightweight, where it's non-confining, people will be able to buy into that. Or if people have rooms in their house where the floors and the ceilings turn into 3D projections, I could see myself wanting to watch a sporting event like that. If my living room turned into Camp Randall, that would be amazing.
You were recently on a panel at the Cap Times Idea Fest on how technology is changing us. What are the ways VR might change us?
The day that you go into virtual reality and you're not sure if you're in virtual reality or actual reality is a really scary day and raises all kinds of philosophical questions and ethical questions. In some ways we're lucky that today when you go into virtual environments, there are telltale signs.
Even before that stage, there's this interesting idea of, does what I see project reality? My goofy example is, in an upcoming election, you're going to go into virtual reality and you'll have a candidate look you in the eye, and talk to you and tell you something. As humans, we feel that eye contact is very intimate, and you can have this type of experience in VR that you can't have in television or in movies or radio or anything else.... Will these experiences make it difficult to discern what happened and what didn't?
There's a bunch of work about using VR to reshape people — say, for social good. Trying to correct biases people have, whether they be about race, or whether they be about environmentalism. The idea is they see VR (as) this force for positive change. The ones for race are really interesting. The idea is, I can put you in someone else's body. When you look in the mirror, you see someone of a different race. When this happens, people's implicit racial bias gets better. This study has been shown over and over again.
What's really scary is, if VR is that powerful to undo something, how much more powerful could it be to reinforce people's biases?
Another interesting thing: There's going to be a day when someone goes into VR, and they're not going to come out. They're going to forget to eat or drink. They're going to have to go to the emergency room, or potentially die. There's going to be a huge media uproar over this. And I don't know what to do about this — it will be a day of reckoning.