Pando

Steve Wozniak doesn't think Oculus is creepy: Pando goes to Silicon Valley Comic Con

By Dan Raile , written on March 24, 2016

From The "You know, for kids" Desk

The thirty thousand humans, aliens, superheroes, robots, and villains that assembled last weekend in downtown San Jose for the first ever Silicon Valley Comic Con made for an impressive turnout for the first year of a gathering.

For event producer Steve Wozniak, though, it was an event of middling ambition, compared to the nearly 500,000 people he brought together in 1982 and again in 1983 for the US Festivals. Unlike the US Festivals, which together lost over $20 million in the quest to unite popular music, tech products and America’s youth, the Comic Con was orderly and a smashing success in bringing together the less disparate tech and comics worlds.

Most of the event’s programming and of the convention floor space was devoted to comics – the art, the characters and the movie stars that bring them to the screen. William Shatner headlined the first night and waxed rhapsodic about his emotional connection with horses, then proceeded to break a brony’s heart by explaining he only tweets his love of brands like Friendship is Magic to get shwag to auction for his charitable efforts. “That’s the real reason I do all that Twittering,” Shatner said, firm on his feet just days shy of his 85th birthday, demonstrating his grasp of the tech landscape still.

Elsewhere, among the rows of comics-related exhibitors was an area set aside for people to try on some virtual reality headsets, queued up with new content from a number of independent and studio outfits.

As sort of a compliment to this subtle techie marketing presence, Saturday’s lineup included a interview with Wozniak and Oculus founder Palmer Lucky. The interview was conducted by Vox Media’s Kara Swisher. As one might expect, this was a fairly breathless marketing gig for the future of virtual reality, as manifested in the forthcoming, much-anticipated Oculus Rift. Swisher did her hardboiled best to bring things back to old-fashioned, consensus reality, but once the audience started asking Lucky questions the spell was unbroken.

The tacit analogy between Lucky and Steve Jobs was enforced at one point when Wozniak referred to the 23-year-old thusly: “That’s why Palmer is one of the great technical communicators, because he talks about things how they are going to affect people, not about the specs of the product.”

Several mentions were made to the incredible mainstream adoption of smartphones precipitated by the release of the iPhone. The implication, of course, is that the Rift is about to do the same for immersive face-bricks.

The most telling exchange, for this reporter at least, occurred when Swisher tried to hammer down just what people will do with such devices, besides gaming and autoerotic stimulation. Wozniak responded: “I can’t recognize faces, so if i was looking at you I would just have this thing up here in red and it would just say your name, your history, your birthdate, everything you’ve done in your life…”

“That’s a little creepy… so... you want that?” Swisher asked, cutting him short. Wozniak clarified that he didn’t necessarily want that, he just thought it was somewhat inevitable.

Moments later, Lucky aired his “relentless optimism” regarding such qualms.

“To you [addressing Swisher] it might seem creepy to have all that kind of information on other people. But especially if you have the proper privacy tools where they can opt in or opt out, I think that myself included, as a younger person, who doesn’t really have the same concepts around those things, a lot of people are not going to find it creepy at all. They are going to find it extremely useful.”

In his optimism he also patiently awaits the day when augmented and virtual reality become better than good old Heideggerian In-der-welt-sein.

“You can have people coexisting in virtual spaces as if they are real space, that’s not something you can get with digital communication technology right now, which is all very broken compared to the real world. That’s why we are up here on this stage, at a convention. It’s because it’s so much better than anything you can get out of a web forum or Facebook or email, Twitter, or anything else. Virtual reality is going to be better than that at some point though.”

Wozniak has tempered his ambition since those early-80s rock festivals, with which he hoped to toll the ending of the  “me decade” and to ring in the “us decade.” It’s enough to host a large-scale event in one’s hometown where the whole family can congregate to share and express their common nerd culture.

But in Palmer Lucky, who has made a cool gadget that one can strap to one’s face to enter another world, Woz seemed to find a surrogate for that generation-defining ambition, if an imperfect one.