Virtual Reality Has Always Had Celebrities Connected to It
Throughout VR’s history, there have been several key players that helped raise awareness of the emerging medium – similar to what Ken Kesey did with LSD. Among those people was well-known counterculture icon Timothy Leary – who amassed fame in the 1960s and 70s when he became an influential advocate of psychedelic drugs as an intellectual tool.
Soon, Timothy Leary began hanging out with technology and virtual reality pioneers looking for ways to expand human consciousness.
Interestingly enough, Leary’s interest in VR happened around the same time when increased external pressure from legal forces was put upon him. This caused Leary to search for legal ways to experiment with the mind – bringing him face to face with the fringe ideas surrounding visual computation and virtual reality.
At this point, Timothy Leary got involved with a company called VPL Research who was selling virtual reality products. Those working at VPL, like Jaron Lanier and Mitch Altman, would see Leary on a regular basis at their lab. The comparisons between psychedelics and VR were so strong for Leary that he modified his popular catchphrase “turn on, tune in, drop out” to “turn on, boot up, and jack in” to go along with what he was calling the “LSD of the 1990s.” 
During his touring lecture series ‘From Psychedelics to Cybernetics,’ Leary would occasionally demonstrate a prototype of the Mattel Power Glove and would often compare psychedelics to virtual reality. Leary then experimented with the medium, which culminated into a handful of video game projects that few people actually knew about.
The programs I’m developing are programs that help you operate your mind and package your thoughts, dimensionalize your thoughts and communicate them clearly to other people.
There’s another group of programs we call “brain operating systems” that allow you to boot up and activate different circuits in your brain, create hallucinations, reprogram your own brain. So what we were trying to do in the ’60s and ’70s with LSD—by “we” I mean people at Harvard and serious scientists—you’ll be able to do now using computers.” – Timothy Leary (interviewed by Whole Life Times)
For the most part, Leary’s games and virtual reality projects remained relatively hidden. However, those experiments were unearthed and released at the New York Public Library in 2013.
According to Arts Beat, the library displayed a monitor at the celebration that showed “a continual loop of samples from the dozen or so games Leary developed in the 1980s, alongside cases containing paper documents relating to his famous LSD experiments. The games were recovered from the roughly 375 computer disks included in the Leary archive.”
Of of those projects by Timothy Leary was a software program developed for Electronic Arts in 1985 called ‘Mind Mirror.’ The goal of the game was to allow people using Commodore 64 and Atari 8-bit platforms to digitize their thoughts for entertainment or educational purposes.
In addition to Timothy Leary, another proponent of virtual reality in the 1990s was American psychonaut, ethnobotanist, lecturer, and author Terence McKenna. The rumor goes that Terence McKenna and Timothy Leary met at a virtual reality-related warehouse “rave” called Cyberthon in July 1994. Shortly thereafter, Terence McKenna started openly speaking about his thoughts into the socioeconomic aftereffects of the medium.
During an event in Amsterdam dubbed Ego-Soft in 1995, McKenna gave a 90 minute talk where he discussed “The New Psychedelics” that were emerging at that time. He started out by pitching the idea that psilocybin mushrooms shaped human consciousness. McKenna also described what he saw was the true importance of psychedelic plants. From there, he goes on to suggest that technologies like virtual reality allow people to share their inner-thoughts in an entire new way. His presentation provided several powerful quotes, which are transcribed below.
The importance of virtual reality, as I see it, is it is a technology that will allow us to show each other our dreams. We will be able to build structures in the imagination that we cannot now share with each other. I image a world where children begin to build their virtual realities by the time they are 5, 6, 7.
By the time they are 20, these virtual realities may be, practically speaking, the size of Manhattan. Well, then what real intimacy will mean is saying to someone, “would you like to visit my world? My world with my visions, my values, my dreams, my fears…” In a sense, what virtual reality is is a strategy to let us turn ourselves inside out so that we see each others’ minds.
In that talk, Terence McKenna goes on to compare the evolution of virtual reality with the modes of communication that octopi use. The far-fetched ideas that he proposed is somewhat of a stretch, technically speaking; but the theories are sound, if one keeps an open mind.
You know, octopi wear their minds on the outside of their bodies. Octopi communicate by changing colors; and the smoothness of their bodies. They wear their meaning. We have an organ that we do this with, but it is very limited. It is called a face. If you look at people’s faces, and you are open, you can see into the mind.
Virtual reality is going to allow us to share much, much more of ourselves. After all, my reality is not how I look. My reality is who I am, and the only way I can give that to you is if I can invite you inside.
So, I think that this hasn’t much been said about virtual reality, because it doesn’t interest the commercial people who are developing them. But I think is what it will eventually be; a tool for sharing our dreams and the insides of our heads.
As seen in the history books, there was definitely interesting discussions going in the early days of VR’s inception. Similar to now, people of like minds were getting together to explore the ideas of virtual reality.
Those types of “meetups,” in part, were sparked by the psychedelic cultures of the time. Active influencers like Timothy Leary and Terence McKenna brought the steadily emerging medium further out into the world. Their unusual methods of raising awareness became an instrumental piece in getting more people knowledgeable of the wide-ranging possibilities of VR.
Now, those involved in the culture today are finally looking back through time in the hopes of getting a better understanding of where this wild virtual reality ride began.
*Featured image originally created by artist Anastasia - source