Painting by The Most Famous Artist
Right now, at this very moment, you are looking through a window. It has four corners and there is light shining through.
This window opens into a virtual world which we have created, aka the Internet.
The Internet is a beautiful and scary thing.
It is a vast ocean of information, which our lives and work depend upon.
At times, we find ourselves drowning due to the sheer amount of information that is available. We can become addicted to buzz of activity online, instead of being present here (in the real world).
So, what if we could actually climb through the window and enter the digital world?
You see, looking through the window in itself is not enough.
It doesn't feel real to us.
We can all understand the difference between sending a ♥ emoji to someone’s smartphone and actually gathering the courage to look that person in the eyes, feel your heartbeat accelerating, open your mouth and tell them that you love them.
Well, that is what virtual reality allows us to do.
As Kevin Kelly points out, we’re shifting from “the creation, transmission, and consumption of information to the creation, transmission, and consumption of experience.”
That changes everything.
The question then becomes if we hack our brain into thinking something is real, does that make it real?
If we switch from consumption of information to consumption of experience does that make it legitimate?
Virtual reality is an experiential medium.
Inside the machine, it feels like the truth.
You feel present inside and you feel present with the people you’re in their with.
We persuade our brain into thinking this is a real experience by manipulating our senses. But whilst we're tricking our brain, we're simultaneously aware that we’re actively deceiving it. So while we feel the experience is real, deep down we know it isn't.
In fact, virtual reality is so real that you can’t actually be there for that long. It is emotionally taxing. The experiences can be too overwhelming for prolonged use.
Forget about the physical effects of nausea and eye strain - what are the psychological effects of fooling your mind and body?
It may seem harmless at first. We can escape reality and have dinner on top of the Eiffel tower before watching the sunset across Andaman Sea in Thailand, escaping the cloud of mosquitos that usually accompany nightfall in the tropics.
Where's the harm in that?
The problem is virtual reality is so realistic that it can change how a user thinks and behaves.
For example, you may choose to replace an unhappy reality with a better, virtual one.
You may stop wanting or needing social interaction with others because you are so immersed in your digital life that physical interaction seems foreign to you.
People may not even want to leave their homes, preferring to live in isolation.
Source: Surrogates (2009)
As virtual reality becomes more mainstream and affordable, it will improve. The experiences will become more life-like and thus more attractive.
It may be hard to resist the temptation of spending more and more time on the other side of the window.
How will we handle this new medium in a way that ensures our humanity does not erode?
Can we create a virtual world that is about making authentic connections with each other? Or is that a contradiction in it’s own right?
Mark Zuckerberg and guests use Gear VR virtual reality headsets during the Axel Springer Award.
In the future, virtual reality will include the possibility of connecting with real human beings around the world.
You could wake up and find virtual flower in your virtual vase, dropped their by an old friend who lives in Paris.
Kelly advocates that the more people are involved, the better your virtual experience will be. “The joy of VR is proportional to the square of the number of people sharing it. That means VR will be the most social medium yet. More social than social media is today.”
Well, we can already send virtual roses to anyone, anywhere, anytime. And it's true that Facebook is only fun because our friends are there too.
Yet, we know that we can have a ‘full life’ online that can actually be quite removed from our own.
We have already seen the negative side effects of this, as pointed out by critics such as Shelly Turkle.
We are becoming less able to fulfil our basic psychological needs.
We have forgotten about the benefits of solitude.
We are distant but ‘connected’.
We are always on.
We are distracted.
Toshiba Head Dome Projector
So, do we really need more screen time?
Well, that’s exactly it - isn’t it? At some point in the future, it won’t be 'screen time' - it will just be part of our real life. We won’t have to suffer through the unnatural act of strapping a plastic visor to our face.
Who knows what format it will be but as we spend most of our time in virtual environments the line between virtual reality and actual reality will become blurred.
What is your take? Is virtual reality really "an alternate level of human consciousness"? A machine that can make us more human?
Every technology has downsides; the only question is how do we handle it as a society.
Want to find out more?
Monika Kim 'The Good and Bad of Escaping to Virtual Reality' via The Atlantic
Jack Nickas & Deepa Seetharaman 'What Does Virtual Reality Do to Your Body and Mind?' via WSJ
David Carr 'Unease for What Microsoft's HoloLens Will Mean for Our Screen-Obsessed Lives' via NYTimes
Kevin Kelly 'The Untold Story of Magic Leap, the World's Most Secretive Start Up' via Wired