Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Education – Blair’s poisonous legacy

Can you name the Shadow Secretary for Education? No? Not a single person I’ve asked can and some of those are teachers, some even staunch Labour supporters. How has it come to this?
The answer is to be found in Tom Bower’s excellent book on Tony Blair - Broken Vows. It’s brilliant. Forget Chilcot – this book reveals so much more about Blair and why Labour Party commentators feel as though they’re watching a slow-motion implosion. Prior to this, Polly Toynbee wrote a critique of the Blair years, The Verdict, its successes and failures. It was good book, a balanced summary. What it also revealed was that most of the failures were either Blair’s own idiosyncratic beliefs or his undoubted ability to persuade, pick and promote people who reflected those personal beliefs. Much of the rest was actually quite good.
This was certainly true of his now obviously flawed forays into Iraq but it is even more obvious in his legacy in education – basically a neo-liberal policy that opened the door for diversification of schools, faith schools, obsession with testing, their separation from state control, doomed pilots and projects (truancy, literacy, numeracy), ILAs, the introduction of fees in Higher education and the continued destruction of vocational learning. For these wondrously wrong-headed moves, we have Blair, and Blair only, to thank.
Remember the painfully shy Estelle Morris, who at least had the good grace to resign when she could no longer take Blair’s diktats? Remember Charles Clark with his white heat of technology initiative – eh… whiteboards? Remember Ruth Kelly and ILAs (Individual Learning Accounts)  – which collapsed under the weight of massive fraud? Brown hated the idea and it became a Blair project that existed only to stymie his rival. Remember David Bell who warned Blair about the divisive and odd idea that faith schools reflected diversity, when all they did was divide? Truancy projects that failed miserably. Literacy and numeracy initiatives where huge sums were spent with little or no impact. The mantra was ‘choice’. If only we gave everyone more choice, which simply opened up a market for education where the sharp elbows of the middle classes went to work, as they always do, with a ferocious elbowing aside of the people who needed help the most. This has, in the end, led to from free schools to academies and now t the resurrection of the Grammar School nonsense. None of this would have happened without Blair.
More recently we had Tristram Hunt, a hapless a shadow Education Secretary, who simply reflected what Blair had initiated and went along with what Gove had completed. Ignoring the working class needs on vocational education, despite the fact that the majority of kids do not go to University, he was clueless. Two elections lost and a working class vote that has been betrayed by ignoring their plight.
How did we come to a position where a Conservative government has had more progressive policies on vocational learning than Labour, namely, the apprenticeship levy? Labour stood by while progressive policies, in Conservative manifestos trumped them.
The Blair legacy was an army of technocrats who confused student politics and bookish views with the real world. They were hired, groomed and selected, with a tremendous sense of entitlement. This went on and on with the idea that having NGO experience on your CV meant you had been in the middle of the class war. No – it largely meant a comfortable sojourn and almost no contact with typical, Labour constituents. I saw this in my own constituency, where a good, local MP, with a healthy majority retired, only to be replaced with two candidates who were ‘selected’ not so much for the abilities, as their CV. They lost – badly. This Blair legacy has lost Labour the last two elections. The empirical evidence is now clear. First, in Scotland, Labour has already imploded, as other, fresher politicians land-grabbed. Even the leader of the Scottish Conservative Party demands more respect. Second, Labour lost the last two elections, which clearly shows a long-term rot. Third, Brexit proved that Labour had now officially disengaged from their traditional voters and working class concerns. This all adds up to an existential threat, as Labour fractures down the middle, slogging it out over footnote issues such as anti-semitism and rule-book changes, while the world around them ignores their petty domestic disputes.
I’m no Corbyn fan and O’Connel is a liability but Corbyn’s education policies are quite good, with a core idea being a NES (National Education Service) like the NHS. What I’d like to see is a move towards all schools being secular, drop charitable status for fee-paying schools, force HE to cut costs rather than raising fees and a massive push on apprenticeships.

Her name, by the way, is Angela Raynor, a more invisible and lightweight Shadow Education Secretary is hard to imagine.

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Monday, September 19, 2016

Why I got married on Blockchain and paid by Bitcoin

I got remarried on Blockchain this year. Seriously, in Edinburgh, I opened a Bitcoin account and we both entered our details via two iPhones onto a blockchain system and renewed our vows. Why not? When I got married in that same city, 34 years ago, we signed a document and that document lies somewhere in Edinburgh – to be honest I couldn’t tell you where. We were doing the same thing but getting it confirmed by a piece of technology that is arguably more transparent, safe and tamperproof. This piece of tech was provided by my alma mater, the University of Edinburgh. I was determined to learn abut this stuff by doing something. So what role has academia had in Bitcoin and Blockchain?
Who is Satoshi Nakamoto?
Let’s go back to 2008 and the first appearance of Bitcoin and Blochchain. Who is Satoshi Nakamoto? This has become a modern myth, like the Loch Ness Monster, the Yeti or Bigfoot. There have been lots of candidates, one disastrous false claim, lots of denials and a recent false claim. We don’t know. We don’t even know if it is one person. What we do know is that Satoshi Nakamoto published one of the seminal papers in computer science Bitcoin: A Peer-to-peer Personalised Electronic Cash System at the very time that the world’s financial system was on the brink of meltdown.
He has good reason to remain anonymous, as he, or she or they, had created a dangerous piece of technology that threatens to reshape, not only the world’s banking system, but the way government and many other areas of human endeavour operate. Satoshi disappeared just as the US government, the CIA and the FBI, even the department of Homeland Security, were becoming active around Bitcoin. It was clear that they saw it as a potential threat to the dollar and existing banking system, as well as a system that could be used for money laundering and drug sales (they weren’t wrong and closed down Silk Road some time later). When Wikipedia became the target of US agencies, who used Visa, Mastercard and PayPal (disgracefully) to starve it of funds, Bitcoin was associated with Wikipedia, but Satoshi Nakamoto did not want to become another Julian Assange and went to ground.
Academia’s reaction
Academia was slow to react. This was clearly an astonishing technical achievement and serious figures in the computer world agreed that it could be a game changer, some claimed it could be as great a shift as the invention of the internet itself, certainly a major advance. Yet they were nervous of its disruptive and transgressive nature. The main players were not academics but hardcore coders and hackers, often with strong libertarian views. They weren’t fond of institutional values and inertia.
Nakamoto’s astonishing nine-page paper was not published in an academic journal but part of a community of coders and hackers, where the real action was on Reddit and Sourceforge. These are people who comment quickly, contribute and do things. They quickly went on to create exchanges, wallets and dozens of applications in the Bitcoin ecosystem. The players lie largely outside of institutions and prefer the world of doing and action, rather than research and papers.
As things progressed, however, academia started to take an interest. So where is the activity on Bitcoin and Blockchain? There’s a curious dynamic here. Bitcoin and Blockchain were created to decentralise and disintermediate institutions, so why keep it locked up within institutions? And if you offer courses can learners pay in Bitcoin? Should they be decentralised and free MOOCs or MOOC-like? Should the qualifications be on Blockchain?
There seems to be four approaches to Bitcoin and Blockchain, in terms of academic activity. First, the technical stuff around cryptocurrencies and the design and coding of Blockchain. Second, courses and research on the governance, social and policy issues. Third, the practical applications, in different domains. Fourth, the actual use of Bitcoin and Blockchain to deliver education. So who is doing the interesting stuff?
Academic offers
Joichi Iti, college drop-out and Director of the MIT Media Lab (where else could that happen), was first to do something substantial. He saw a role for academia to provide research and stability. In a bold move MIT had already offered 4500 students $100 in Bitcoin. 3110 took up the offer but 40% traded it for cash (so much for their appetite for innovation). Two years later about 14% are using it in anger, the rest holding it as an investment. This, perhaps, says more about the modern student than Bitcoin or Blockchain. Iti wanted something more substantial and set up The Digital Currency Initiative (DCI) with some serious developers and an ex-White House advisor. Interestingly, he sees this as a way of opening up Higher Education to successful entrepreneurs like himself, making it more agile. In his own words “It’s an opportunity to pilot the future of academia.”
Simon Fraser University in Canada has been doing some edgy stuff, as have many other research departments around the world. Courses in business schools have become common, with appropriate price tags for corporate customers, not perhaps entirely in the spirit of the exercise.
There’s even a free textbook on Bitcoin from Princeton, which is both readable and informative. Although, for the less technically minded I’d recommend Dominic Frisby’s Bitcoin: The Future of Money, which is an excellent introduction to the topic. Blockchain Revolution, by the Tapscotts, is a thorough introduction to Blockchain.
One University that offered something substantial was in 2013, when the University of Nicosia, who offer a MSc in Digital Currency, started to deliver courses on Bitcoin but also accepted Bitcoin for tuition fees. Andreas Antonopoulos and Antonis Polemitis also launched the first free MOOC in the area - An Introduction to Digital Currencies. In the true spirit of the thing, you got your certificate on Blockchain.
The University of Cumbria offer a MOOC on Money and Society and you can pay with Bitcoin. Princeton has a Coursera MOOC on Cryptocurrencyand Blockchain. There’s a French MOOC on Blockchain itself and Bitcoin and Blockchain increasingly appear on more general Fintech courses and tech-oriented MOOCs.
In our own EdTech world, Audrey Watters has taken a keen interest with her Blockchain for Education: A Research Project. She’s rightly taking neither a hyped nor skeptical approach, simply asking some key questions.
In this age of concern about finance and banking, advances in cryptocurrencies, along with a general trend towards things being decentralised, open, transparent, yet secure, has led to intense interest in Bitcoin and Blockchain. There is a sense in which institutional research and teaching can emasculate a technical movement and Bitcoin/Blockchain started outside of academia and certainly does not rely on academia for its progress. However, it has rightly become a topic of interest in research, formal courses, MOOCs and books. That is a good thing as the Wild West world of Bitcoin could do with some sheriffs. Whether it has any impact on the actual delivery of education remains to be seen.
But there are others, such as academic, Melanie Swan, who set up the Institute for Blockchain Studies, who think that “academia is not the right place to do academic thinking about very new things like the blockchain”. This is a fast moving world where the speed of academic publishing is too slow.  Her vision is one where students are paired with courses, accredited or even more relevantly, she thinks – MOOCs. The decentralised MOOCs could benefit from blockchain functionality around identity, actual attainment, accreditation, cost and payment. Going further she sees the possibility of directing donor funds to poorer countries, straight to families and learners, at little or no cost, based on progress and attainment.
It's an interesting clash between one world and another. Education does;t cope with change very readily, certainly not the rapid rate of technological change that we've seen over the last 20 years. On the other hand technology doesn't often see the nuances in education, and is often too quick to prosthelytise solutions. In a series of blogs, I plan to explore Bitcoin and Blockchain further. The first is here 10 ways blockchain can be used in education. If you're interested, I'm giving a talk on the subject in Berlin at Online Educa in November.

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Saturday, September 17, 2016

Could AI composed music win a Grammy?

It hasn’t but I’d argue that one day it could. Classical music, many would say, is a crowning human achievement. It’s regarded as high art and its composition creative and complex. Jazz is wonderfully improvisational. Whatever the genre, music has the ability to be transformative and plays a significant role in most of our lives. But can AI compose transformative music?
At a concert in Santa Cruz the audience clapped loudly and politely praised the pieces played. It was a success. No one knew that it had all been composed by AI. It’s creator, or at least the author of the composer software, was David Cope, Professor of the University of California, an expert in AI composed music. He developed software called EMI (Experiments in Musical Intelligence) and has been creating AI composed music for decades.
Prof Steve Larson, of the University of Oregon, heard about this concert and was sceptical. He challenged Cope to a showdown, a concert where three pianists would play three pieces, composed by:
1. Bach
2. EMI (AI)
3. Larson himself
Bach was a natural choice as his output is enormous and style distinctive. Larson was certain of the outcome, and in front of a large audience of lecturers, students and music fans, in the University of Oregon concert Hall, they played the three pieces. The result was fascinating. The audience believed that:
1. Bach’s was composed by Larson
2. EMI’s piece was by Bach
3. Larson’s piece composed by EMI.
Interesting result. (You can buy Cope’s album Classical Music Composed by Computer.) Conclusion – this is getting somewhere.
Iamus. named after the Greek god who could understand birdsong, created at the University of Malaga, composed a piece called Transits - Into the Abyss, which was performed by the  London Symphony Orchestra in 2012 and also released as an album. Unline Cope's software, Iamus creates original, modern pieces that are not based on any previous style or composer. You can listen to its output here. Their Melamics web site has an enormous catalogue of music and has an API to allow you to integrate it into your software. They even offer adaptive music which reacts to your driving habits or lulls you into sleep in bed, by reacting to your body movements.
Further examples of the Turing Test for music have been applied to work by Kulitta at Yale. But is a Turing test really necessary? One could argue that all we’re doing is fooling people into thinking this has been composed by a machine that cheats. I’m not so sure. Cope has been creating music from computers from 1975, when he used punch cards on a mainframe. He really does believe that computers are creative. Others are not so sure and argue that his AI simply mimics the great work of the past and doesn’t produce new work. Then again, most human composers also borrow and steal from the past. The debate continues, as it should. What we need to do is look beneath the surface to see how AI works when it ‘composes’.
AI techniques in musical composition
The mathematical nature of harmony and music has been known since the Pre-Socratics and music also has strong connections with mathematics in terms of tempo, form, scales, pitch, transformations, inversions and so on. Its structural qualities makes it a good candidate for AI production.
Remember that AI is not one thing. It is very many things. Most have been used, in some form, to create music. Beyond mimicry, algorithms can be used to make compositional decisions. One of the more interesting phenomena is the idea of improvisation through algorithms that can, in a sense, randomise and play with algorithmic structures such as Markov chains and Monte Carlo tree decisions, to create, not deterministic outcomes, but compositions that are uniquely generated. Evolutionary algorithms have been used to generate variations that are then honed towards a musical goal. Algorithms can also be combined to produce music. This use of multiple algorithms is not unusual in AI and often plays to the multiple modality of musical structure, playing to different strengths to produce aesthetically beautiful music. In a more recent development, machine learning, presents data to the algorithmic set, which then learns from that data and goes on to refine and produce composed music.  This is the new kid on the block and brings an extra layer of compositional sophistication.
We, and all composers, are organisms created from a bundle of organic algorithms over millions of years. These algorithms are not linked to the materials from which you create the composer. Whether the composer is man or machine, music is music. There is no fatal objection to the idea that organic algorithms used by organic composers can do things that non-algorithmic algorithms will never be able to replicate, even surpass. The bottom line is that this is going places, fast.
AI and aesthetics
The AI v human composition of music also opens up several interesting debates within aesthetics. What is art? Does ‘art’ reside in the work of art itself or in the act of appreciation or interrogation by the spectator? Does art need intention by a human artist or can other forms of ‘intelligence’ create art? Does AI challenge the institutional theory of art, as new forms of intelligent creation and judgement are in play? Does beauty itself contain algorithmic acts within our brains that are determined by our evolutionary past? AI opens up new vistas in the philosophy of art that challenge (possibly refute, possibly support) existing theories of aesthetics. This may indeed be a turning point in art. If art can be anything, can it be the product of AI? I think Duchamp would have approved.

This area is rich in innovation and pushes and challenges us to think about what music is and could be. Is the defence of the ‘artist’ or ‘composer’ just a human conceit, built on the libertarian idea of human freedom and sanctity of the individual, that makes us repel from the idea of AI generated music and art? The advent of computers, used by musicians to compose and in live performance, has produced amazing music, some created live, even through ‘live coding’. The possibilities of 3D audio in VR (already available) open up other compositional opportunities with interactive music. As in other areas, where AI is delivering real solutions, music is being created that is music and is liked. Early days but it may be that musical composition, with it’s strong grounding in mathematical structures, is one of those things that AI will eventually do as well, if not better, than we mere mortals.

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Friday, September 02, 2016

10 deep dive questions to ask about LEARNERS before you start

The whole ‘Blended learning’ thing turned out to be an excuse for ‘Blended teaching’. It's largely used as an excuse for using teaching techniques you've used before with a couple of new things thrown in, whereas the promise had been delivery based on an analysis of learners and learning (the clue was in the second word – learning). To partly rectify this, here’s ten questions you may want to ask to inform your blend, questions about your learners. It’s easy to ignore learners when teaching but teaching, remember, is a means to an end, not an end in itself, and that end is learners and learning. 
Most methods of audience analysis focus on attributes such as age, gender, ethnicity and so on. Sure, you need to know whether you’re learners are children or adults and at what level in the education system but you need to take a deeper dive to get to the issues that inform design. So these are not the usual questions about age, gender, educational background and diversity. That’s dead easy – takes about five minutes. These are the questions that allow you to create, adjust and target your delivery to make it a success. These are the harder, more oblique questions that dig deeper.
1. Personas – mmm…
Personally, I’m not a fan of personas, named profiles of typical audience. You know the line, ‘This is Matt, he’s 23 and loves sports…..” They tend to focus too much on the average, which is dangerous with a wide and diverse audience. I’d much rather get some concrete ideas that will really shape the experience. Nevertheless, they can be useful as a means to communicate intention to a team. Each to their own and if you think this helps – OK by me.
2. Why?
Why? That’s a great question to start with. Why should they do this? Why should they learn this? Understand their motivations (or lack of) and you can respond accordingly. Is it compulsory? Do they care? Why should they take it seriously or even do it at all? Teachers and trainers tend to assume that people are gagging for learning – when much of it makes them gag.
3. What will they NOT like?
People love online stuff, that’s why 1.7 billion are on Facebook and online time is soaring. Yet they often recoil when they get very structured online learning. Why is this? Have a look at these 20 reasons why online learning sucks. You may be surprised to learn that they don’t want all of that jazzy graphics, animation, cartoons, beeps and gamification. Maybe they do. How can you find out what they don’t like? Ask them.
4. What will they like?
What would your target audience like to experience? Do they want the light touch or more solid, challenging learning?
You may be surprised when a bunch of engineers come back and say they want it straight, no frills. How can you find out what they want? Ask them.
5. How distributed are they?
If you have a highly distributed, global audience, you may wish to seriously consider the social side of learning. Or are they all on one site – makes blended learning a lot easier. Different time zones, different cultures, different languages are all issues you may have to wrestle with. Do you really want virtual classrooms across seven time zones? Or should the design be more asynchronous, so that all can access the experience in their own time. What has one location got than another does not? Can you leverage their differences?
6. Language(s)
This matters, especially when learners are taking a course in a second language (often English). This doesn’t mean dumbing it down but being smarter in the level of language you use and media mix. Take it easy on long sentences and jargon when it’s in the target audience’s second language. It may also influence media mix. Ultimately cultural and literal translation may be necessary. Think about this, as you can stay more culturally neutral. They may even want the learning in their second language, if that is the language of business or medicine.
7. Personality types?
Forget Learning Styles – they don’t exist. Let me repeat that – they don’t exist. Forget Myers Briggs – it’s a Ponzi scheme. What does matter is personality types. Are you dealing with extrovert sales people, largely introverted IT types, sceptical academics? The OCEAN (openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism) is a scheme that is well researched, stable and a good guide. Get a feel for this, as it will affect the language you use and media mix. This often uncovers features of the audience that relate directly to design in terms of language used, formality and images.
8. What went before?
How is training currently delivered? Are they used to full-day classroom courses? Do they have experience of online learning? People come with expectations and if you shatter those expectations, explain why. If this is a dramatic change you may have to consider marketing and change management issues.
9. Where do they learn?
Will they learn in a formal learning centre, at their desk, during class, in the library, at home, on the move, while commuting? It may be a combination of these. Know where they are likely to learn and tailor your design to that environment.
10. What time do they have for learning?
When will they learn? Do they have time off their normal work to do this? How much time will they have? This will determine the ‘chunking’ of the content as well as its target devices. If mobile, remember to keep the chunks short.
You can use what you have harvested here in your blended and online learning design. Tell your audience what you learned from them and why you’ve responded with the current solution. That would impress me – it should impress them. Beyond that, be sensitive not just to who, what, when and where they are but their deeper needs – what they want and how they can help you design your learning experiences.
For a further 500 learning design tips click here.

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Monday, August 29, 2016

20 ways to make your e-learning totally suck

A lot of e-learning sucks. It’s like wearing a suit or coat that’s two sizes too small – all a bit cramped and makes you feel uncomfortable. Here’s a selection of 20 things that drive me CRAZY when doing e-learning.
1. Learning objectives – don’t bore me with your teacher and trainer-speak up front. I’m bored already and we haven’t even started. More here.
2. Long introductions – history of,…background to… here’s your tutor… No, give it to me straight, stop padding things out. More here.
3. Cartoons – cartoon style imagery is for kids. I don’t watch cartoons on TV, so don’t give me them when I’m learning - they’re so damn condescending.
4. Perfect people – I know this is about management but I don’t need stock pictures of perfect people in perfect suits with perfect teeth and hair – believe me, real offices don’t look like that.
5. Text-graphic, text-graphic – Lord Privy Seal – picture of Lord, Picture of toilet, picture of seal. Stop just selecting a lazy image for every bit of text, page by page. More here.
6. Text and audio at same time – stop – I can’t do both at the same time. Give me images with narration or text only – not narration and text at the same time – it makes my head hurt.
7. Too much text – I don’t want all of this legal stuff, detail, overlong stories. I’m never going to remember all of this, so cut it until it bleeds, then cut it some more.
8. Over-engineered effects – too much distracting movement, effects and buzz makes my head spin – when I learn, less is more.
9. Long video sequences – OK you’ve hired a video guy and the academic wants to prattle on a bit but I’m bored after 5 minutes and learning precisely nothing. Keep it short. Less is more. More here.
10. Tinny audio – you sound as though you’ve recorded this in a tin shed. Get a proper mike and record in a proper environment. More here.
11. Sound effects – you may think it’s fun but those beeps for correct answers and bongs for wrong answers are doing my head in! More here.
12. Music – who  told you that background music aids learning – it doesn’t  - get rid of it. More here.
13. Multiple choice questions that simply take a noun from the text and ask me to select it from a list. In real life I never select answers from lists. It’s a test of recognition, not knowing. More here.
14. Stupid options in multiple-choice questions – don’t do it, I’m not a dumb-ass, treat me like an adult.
15. False buttons – don’t make me click on something that looks like it’s interactive when it’s not. That annoys the hell out of me. More here.
16. Opaque icons – your graphic artist may think he/she is an ‘artist’ but I haven’t a clue what that icon means. More here.
17. Gamification – I’m not one of Pavlov’s dogs, so don’t make me collect coins, chase rubies or do silly gamey things in order to learn – I’m not 12. (Note that I'm all for deep gamification.) More DOs & DON'Ts here.
18. Learning styles – what are you talking about - they don’t exist. Let me repeat – they don’t exist.
19. Mindful – let’s stop and be mindful – no that’s a mindless fad and I have a mind that wants to learn– move on.
20. Chat – so you’ve got a chat box for ‘social’ learning, as you believe in social constructivism. Forget that Vygotsky shit – chat is usually boring, long winded and irrelevant.
Note that I'm not against all of these things, especially gamification and collaboration. I'm just against simplisitc implremntations that learners don;t like. I could have gone on with another 400 DOs and DON’Ts but they’re all listed, explained and categorised here if you want to check out more.

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Saturday, August 27, 2016

7 weird ways the porn industry leads in VR (and what we can learn from it)

Sex was not invented in the sixties and it is likely that our prehistoric ancestors were pretty turned on to the use of sex-tech, which has been dated back to at least 26000 years. The dildo predates agriculture, and there’s enough examples of usable phalluses to state that this was a common object in prehistoric culture. A case has also been made for the ‘venus’ figures, especially those with exaggerated sexual features, as being a form of early pornography.
The porn industry has always been quick to grab the opportunities that innovations in technology offered. In painting, print, photography, film, videotapes, telephone, television, the web, streaming video, webcams and now VR. In marketing and commerce, they pioneered progression from free to paid services, from video to live, pop ups, local offers and personalised recommendations.

Sex and VR
Sex, like most forms of human activity, is a 3D affair. It involves the intimacy and physicality of the 3D human form. Virtual sex gains a lot from ‘presence’ in VR – the actual feeling that you are there with someone else. It’s one thing to watch, quite another to feel as though you are actually there, with that person, or actually having sex with that person. VR is not watching sex it’s having sex. It is a natural for VR. Pornography is the creation of fantasy sex. Those fantasies can now be very real. If you want an idea of the effect of early content on people experiencing VR sex for the first time, watch this 
1. Content – human presence
VR content is a mainstream category in many porn sites. They have been experimenting and quick to innovate with VR, long before any consumer VR hardware was available. One thing they quickly learned was that the full 360 degree was unnecessary. Interesting things in sex tend to happen in one direction - that's alesson many 360 and VR folk need to learn. As most sex is in one direction, so they limited the fixed field of view to 180 degrees or less. At this level, you are still the voyeur but the sense of presence is increased and you have the ability to look around. What some have reported, who have used Naughty America’s passive porn in VR is a sense of being there but also an experience, not of small figures on a small screen, but sex on a human scale. We should listen to this as it is exactly what we need to learn about the use of VR in learning – presence, the human scale, the idea that we can simulate human experiences in soft skills (as oposed to hard skills!) and all of those things we regard as difficult to teach.
2. Interactive – human touch
To really participate, one needs to add the sense of touch. The haptic side is exactly what has been offered for centuries through sex toys. This has been supplemented with VR, so that the sex toy is accompanied by imagery of a real or graphically created partner(s). Even before any commercial VR was available as a consumer device, there were people working on mechanical masturbation devices matched against the 3D vision of someone you are having sex with. Tenga developed a masturbator that synched with a VR image back in 2014. Much of this took place in Japan, with dolls providing the haptic stimulation. This ‘haptic’ market had been dominated by sex dolls, and by dolls we mean something way beyond cheap plastic blow-up balloons. 
This married Japanese businessman fell in love with his doll (‘she isn’t just after money and never betrays me’). These figures are now being used with VR to add the haptic dimension. The use VR with AI programmed dolls are also being made, where you choose the personality and your partner talks back.

A full body sex suit has also been developed that delivers touch all over your body, with the addition of a sex toy. Synched with VR you get the sensation that someone else is touching you. It was invented by, you guessed it, the Japanese company Tenga. It’s actually an April Fools joke but for the full weirdness of this potential idea, here’s the video.
The haptic dimension has obvious applications in healthcare, where one has to investigate, apply CPR and so on. It is also applicable in the manipulation of objects in vocational skills. We get a glimpse here of a direction of travel as the haptic moves beyond hand controllers to full body sensations nd manipulation of 3D objects in a 3D environment..
3. Interactive live
Live performance, where the performer operates a joystick that controls a device (sex toy) over the internet has been around since Realtouch in 2009. It can also be synched to videos and VR experiences to deliver. There are also, wait for it, mind controlled dildos. You think that is odd, wait for teledildonics.
4. Teledildonics – do it to each other
Ted Nelson coined this term back in 1975 and it has been around for some time, with physical, hands free masturbators, for men, women and couples. We used to call on the telephone, now we Skype and Facetime, next is VR - and for some Teledildonics.
Realtouch was quite a design piece, with movement, heating and a lubrication reservoir. A couple of years later Lovense launched iMan and iLady, then Max and Nora, which could work remotely over Bluetooth. LovePalz then produced Zeus and Hera for couples who want two way control. The idea was that each device reacts to the other – faster/slower, tighter/looser.
The new kid on the block is Kiiroo with Onyx and Pearl. Pear and Onyx are paired devices that allow sex at a distance with your partner. Onyx is for men with ten rings that can send and receive signals. Pearl is its female partner device, with a vibration motor and five rings. If you’d like an idea of what sex at a distance is like watch this VICE video, where a couple try this for real. The woman masturbates the dildo and he, remotely experiences the sensation in his vagina device. The guy describes it as half-way between masturbation and real sex – in other words, it’s getting there.
5. Context and fantasy
There’s even a service in Las Vegas that allows you to experience VR in your hotel room. It provides VR porn in a room built to look like the hotel room you’re actually in - to add realism. Porn has always been about fantasies and hyperreality has been around for years in the popular anime porn as well as exaggerated fantasy figures. VR means that anything is possible in terms of created fantasy worlds. There are literally no limits to what the imagination can dream up and turn into a sexual experience. You can literally have sex with anything, anywhere at anytime. There's already some pretty weird stuff out there – expect more.
6. Group sex – virtual bachannal
As multiplayer VR develops, group sex is also possible and, guess what, it’s already here. 3DXChat avatars and in the game they meet, chat, date and have sex. You can be anyone and operate on a fantasy level with other like-minded fantasists. This is the sort of world that Facebook envisage in social media. They know that the real social world is 3D, as opposed to the current flat world of text and 2D images. Zuckerberg bought Oculus Rift for $2.3 billion - that may be a bargain if he has bought a huge chunk of the future.
7. Sex education & therapy
Many moons ago I produced an interactive version of The Joy of Sex, complete with Mr & Mrs game, instructional pieces and so on. It was designed for couples and not porn, although the boundary, as the original book showed, is not at all clear. There may well emerge some positive applications for VR in sex.
Virtual Sexology, an educational site for sex, is already up and running.. Actually, what they say is that this is the world’s first fully interactive lovemaking tool, a safe space for learning how to have great sex using VR. The site has a sexologist discussing the possibility of both sex education and therapy. This idea of coaching and instruction over a distance in real acts is interesting.
Future of virtual sex?
We have to be honest here. Sex is a powerful human instinct and its application in satisfying basic human urges through VR will be huge. One can therefore expect a huge amount of innovation here in the quest for realism and beyond that, fantasy, as well as some interesting consequences, in terms of regulation. This may well be the area that drives VR and exposes the many issues, good and bad, that VR raises.
VR may challenge the very concept of what sex will be in the future. It takes technology beyond the simply visual realm into the participatory and on to levels of realism, even hyperrealism, that have never been possible before. VR offers not flat images and video for the voyeur but being there, experiencing sex as if it were real.
Will the virtual world be so alluring and enjoyable that the real world pales by comparison? Will virtual sex be cathartic, excessive or damaging? What are the political issues? Will boundaries be transgressed? Will we all experiment more? How will it be regulated? The technology is always ahead of the sociology, so we need to start thinking about this now. Porn will lead the way in making us face up to the realities of virtual reality.

The porn industry has been quick to pick up on embryonic VR technology and we have much to learn from how they have gone, and are going, about this. The porn industry has always been a frontier for consumer technology. If it works there, it will work elsewhere. Look to the effect ‘presence’ can have on human experiences, supplemented by haptic devices and you literally get a feel for where this is heading. Beyond this who knows? We can dismiss all of this as an intrinsic evil or embrace the opportunities, while being careful about the consequences and effects.

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