In case you hadn't heard, former Republican House speaker Newt Gingrich has recently reinvented himself as an amateur futurist and tech blogger. He's visited Google X, opined on Uber, and is currently reviewing the Apple Watch for Mashable. But he reserves his biggest affections for virtual reality — in particular, the Oculus Rift headset, which he tested out earlier this month at Facebook's headquarters.
"Within a minute of putting on the Oculus Rift," Gingrich wrote on his blog, "you know that millions of people are going to spend hours with these devices strapped to their faces. It’s that amazing."
The other day, after Gingrich tweeted about his love of virtual reality, I tweeted back, asking if I could interview him. No idea why. Maybe I was bored and trolling. Maybe I thought a 71-year-old conservative who talks about moon colonies would say something interesting about Oculus Rift's potential. Sure! Why not? I don't know.
Gingrich called me yesterday. We talked for a while. He was very nice, and only hung up on me once (by accident, I think?). And I got a taste of his hopes for a future filled with exciting technologies, intimate experiences, and hyper-realistic VR movies about the Founding Fathers.
So, Speaker Gingrich, what excites you about virtual reality?
We went from still pictures to black-and-white motion pictures without sound to black-and-white pictures with sound to Technicolor to Cinerama to television. Now we’re in a situation in which we can create literally a reality which feels so vivid that our senses react to it as it were real.
What I saw in Oculus Rift…there was a particular scene where you were standing on the edge of a 70-story building. And your initial reaction is: you’re standing on the edge of a 70-story building. And you have to sort of control yourself and realize that it’s not true.
Obviously virtual reality games are going to be enormously powerful. And I would suggest to you, for example, in terms of teaching — what if you could be in the room with George Washington, and have a conversation?
What was the Oculus app you tried?
Uh, the version I tried [DK2] is the one they’re very close to launching. It was obviously a prototype.
Are there any political applications for virtual reality?
The first phase is for it to become popularized. It has to become pretty widespread to really have an impact. And we’re a number of years from that, in all probability. But when I look at a million Apple Watches being sold in the first day, there are a number of interesting breakthroughs.
Are you going to order an Oculus for yourself?
Almost certainly. We’re actually talking with the Oculus people. We have a big interest in doing a movie on George Washington. We’re exploring with them the possibility of doing part of the movie in virtual reality.
Google, Facebook, and other tech companies have run into some trouble with the NSA. What can the federal government do to get back in the technology industry’s good graces?
I think they have to have extensive conversations, frankly, where they learn each other’s viewpoint. It’s one thing for Google and Facebook to be concerned about NSA. But I think it’s also important for Google and Facebook to be concerned about ISIS—
[Gingrich’s other phone rings. The ringtone is loud and triumphal. He apologizes, and says he’ll be right back. The line goes dead. I wait for 20 minutes before realizing he’s hung up. Eventually, he calls me back.]
Sorry, I got caught up on a phone call I couldn’t get off of.
No worries. What was that ringtone? It sounded like the Monday Night Football theme song.
No, no, no, it’s "Dancing Queen."
How long have you had that?
Oh, since 2010. I saw "Mamma Mia" and liked it. All my calls are "Dancing Queen" except for my wife.
You asked about technologies we’re looking at. Mashable has asked us to review the Apple Watch, so we’re going to be playing with that to see what we think of it.
Are they paying you?
Are you an iPhone guy or an Android guy?
I’m personally iPhone. I still don’t use a Mac. I don’t understand Macs. But I have an iPad and an iPhone. And I don’t use anything anymore except my iPad for writing. All of my books and things are written on an iPad.
You wrote a book on an iPad?
Yes. You can do it in Pages. I just type on the glass. I do two newsletters a week on my iPad.
Lots of people are excited about Oculus porn. Is that something you’re looking forward to?
Well, look, I think it’s almost inevitable that the human experience gets translated in many different ways. And it’s no accident that a lot of the most successful games involve scantily clad people killing each other. It meets several different human needs simultaneously.
Do you worry that virtual reality will detach us from the reality we live in?
Oh, look, I think when Homer was sitting around the fireplace singing the Iliad and the Odyssey, there were people worried deeply that getting lost in all those fancified ideas would ruin the young. In all of human history, one of the complaints about art has been that it challenges us in ways that take us out of what people define as reality. I would argue it also expands what reality is.
This interview has been condensed and edited.