The ELYX Foundation is positioned around three pillars: art, innovation and commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals (1). For the past 20 years, one of its founders, Yacine Ait Kaci, has studied the potential of virtual reality and the issues it raises for citizen participation.
Missions Publiques. Ten years ago, you created Elyx. In 2015, this character became the very first virtual ambassador of the United Nations. You have also been working on virtual reality for 20 years. In your opinion, how can it be an opportunity for citizen participation?
Yacine Ait Kaci. I have been involved in the adventure of virtual reality for more than 20 years. And I have witnessed the staggering acceleration of the field in recent years. Soon, I has warned my friends and partners of the rapid evolution of this field and its breathtaking potential. Among them, Missions Publiques, which today is launching a research-action on these technological developments with Arizona State University and the Elyx Foundation. Virtual reality makes it possible to spatialize a collective experience, that is to say that each person at a distance can take part in an assembly in a space that seems very real to them. From the way physical debates are organized, we can imagine a virtual assembly without geographical or physical limits. Everything remains to be written, I think it is important that the metaverse is a space open to citizens and that they can speak as soon as possible.
Missions Publiques. You talk about metavers, a contraction of “meta” and “universe”, which refers to an experience in a virtual environment in three dimensions. What is your point of view on the evolutionary perceptions of this technology?
Yacine Ait Kaci. The metaverse is a concept first introduced in 1992 in a science fiction novel, Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. It describes a persistent virtual reality space in which avatars share the experience of a sort of gigantic virtual city, with its buildings, shops, private spaces, means of transport, etc. By extension, it is the term that has been used for some time to describe connected virtual spaces, without there being a definitive official definition. However, the term has taken on a particular importance since Facebook changed its name to Meta, which has multiplied the interest in the term and in the same time proportion of articles and papers trying to explain it. As there is no standard, many definitions are competing and the term will continue to be mysterious for some time as it covers realities that do not yet fully exist, despite all the components that already exist separately.
"This new digital territory will support the way towards material sobriety imposed to us by climate challenges
Yacine AIT KACI
Artistic and Strategic Director at GROUPE ELYX
Missions Publiques. The “identity” of your virtual ambassador, Elyx, is original: it has no distinctive sign, no gender, language or predominant culture. Is virtual reality a lever for better inclusion?
Yacine Ait Kaci. ELYX is a part of each of us, in fact HELIX in English refers to the DNA helix: it is a part of our collective DNA, which is another way of looking at the notion of network and therefore of metavers, which includes virtual reality. We are now in a real revolution, well beyond technology, because the notions of value and interest are coming into play, literally and figuratively. The race has already begun and is already reproducing the shortcomings of the old world, artificial scarcity, speculation, exclusivity. It is in this context that a more ambitious and inclusive narrative will allow the greatest number of people to enter this universe and benefit from it. This new digital territory will support the way towards material sobriety imposed to us by climate challenges, but the transformation will not only be done by constraint but also by aspiration: it is a race between these two paths that has begun. It is a generational transformation that will create friction and conservatism but is already underway. In a few years, it would not be surprising if children were happier to receive a virtual gift than a plastic toy “made in China”. This is an example, but if we have fun pulling this thread, the whole society is about to change.
Missions Publiques. What would you say to someone who is still skeptical about these new features?
Yacine Ait Kaci. It all depends on the generation, we won’t talk the same way to a “1900” as to a “2000”, a boomer or a digital native. These are somewhat caricatural generational labels, but we find them in every era and every technological breakthrough. As soon as we talk about virtual reality, there are always the same 3-4 thoughts that we could have heard at the beginning of the internet, smartphones or even television, or even printing. Some will not enter it or very late. It is worth remembering that this story is not totally new. In 19th century Paris, the public would flock to what were then called panoramas, large circular rooms in which one was immersed in another reality by means of painted panels and lights. The whole history of humanity is a long parallel road between history and the stories we tell, reality and fiction are two twins that walk at different speeds, meet and sometimes mix. I would tell skeptics to try it out. At least once. Just to understand what we are talking about. Until you’ve experienced it, you really have no idea what you’re talking about.