In the Fall of ’97 I got to experience Virtual Reality for the very first time. The experience consisted of a Glasstron hooked up to the classic PlayStation running a racing game at a 800×225 resolution.
Calling it an immersive experience would’ve been heresy.
Two Decades Later
Today I experienced the Oculus Rift for the first time. I put on the headset and found myself in a fun ride located in a residence area of a medium-sized city. Granted, the graphics of the scene were a bit cartoony, like a cheap animation movie, but as soon as I started moving my head, I was in.
As the ride took me into the air I looked around my temporary world with awe. My fellow thrill-seekers, the cars driving around below my feet and the polluting factories I could spot on the horizon. I was locked in the ride’s car, but desperately wanted to get out and explore the rest of the city. For five minutes I forgot all about the real world.
Those five minutes made it all clear to me: two decades after Sony pioneered VR in the consumer market we arrived at real immersion. And it’s not hard to see that VR is going to change everything. Soon the movie experience will be unique for every individual moviegoer. Gaming will make a bigger leap than when text became graphics, or when 2D became 2.5D. But the potential is much, much bigger than that.
Applications of Virtual Reality
Today VR mostly serves entertainment purposes and expert training such as astronauts and special forces. But VR will disrupt many other fields. I see a future where history is taught in full context, where the professor takes her students back to ancient Rome. Wikipedia will become a catalog of virtual worlds.
I can imagine the applications of VR in psychotherapy, where a therapist takes his patient into a scenario and analyzes it while being in the simulation. Perhaps the most liberating application of VR will be for disabled people whose physical abilities are limited: VR will give them the opportunity to be mobile and enjoy the many things they are unable to enjoy in the first world.
In a world where we carry a computer in our pocket a thousand times as powerful as the one used on the Apollo missions, it’s only to be expected that the production of VR scenes will become cheaper and more accessible. In ten years you’ll take out your phone to make a full snapshot of your surroundings, allowing anyone to join you in this virtual recreation of your physical space.
VR bridges the two greatest barriers of life: time and space. It allows us to travel across time, going back to any historic situation and experience it as if we were there. And it allows us to travel without having to move. Skype calls will become a whole new experience. We will watch sports inside the stadium from the comfort of our couches. We will visit museums somewhere on the other side of the world.
Let’s stay with that last example for a while: to visit a museum. There’s something weird about the idea of a virtual museum. Museums contain carefully curated artefacts of history. The value is in experiencing the physical artefact: you are seeing the exact same painting as the artist saw 500 years ago. Although not appreciated, you are able to touch it and feel the strokes of the artist’s paintbrush.
Does a virtual representation of a museum make sense then, when you could also join Leonardo da Vinci in his studio in Florence and see the master at work? And if not, will physical museums be reduced to gateways into the virtual worlds?
Living With Virtual Reality
The potential of VR is gigantic. At the same time, we cannot ignore the social impact of this technology. Every introduction of disruptive technology has consequences to how people interact. And in the past two decades we’ve seen the rise of a technology that completely redefined social dynamics: the mobile phone.
Thanks to the mobile phone we are living in a world where people continuously tune in and tune out of different social contexts. One moment you’re having breakfast with your family, the next moment you are engaged in a conversation with a colleague three timezones away. And switch – back to your family again.
Being immersed in a virtual world, while physically being around people who are not, is probably the most isolated experience technology has brought us so far.
Today I realized how much bigger this issue is with VR. As I was experiencing the Oculus Rift, I was looking around in amazement with a huge smile on my face. My girlfriend saw me smiling, and smiled back. But the thing is, I wasn’t smiling at her. I was smiling at my city, and never saw her reply. I wonder: is this so different from experiencing drug-induced hallucinations?
Being immersed in a virtual world, while physically being around people who are not, is probably the most isolated experience technology has brought us so far. In that light, augmented reality, such as the one provided by Microsoft’s Hololens, is a much more social experience. But by giving up the social cost, we also give up a fundamental aspect: immersion.
Addicted to Virtual Reality
The social dilemmas surrounding VR extend far beyond the social rudeness of one escaping into his own reality while other people are present. Already today vast amounts of people prefer living in the virtual worlds of WoW and Second Life over their first life. Forbes calls it real world emigration: large groups of people who spend the bigger part of their life in a virtual world.
Escaping into a world were no barriers exist and being God for a couple of hours seems fine. But what if you don’t want to get back?
Remember that scene in Inception, where you saw a group of Dreamers in a shady dump wired into their own realities. Their physical existence was reduced to supporting their virtual being.
Virtual Reality As a Commodity
The current generation of VR – sprung from the genius mind of the 22-y/o Palmer Luckey – made the technology accessible to anyone who can part with $ 350 USD. Half the price of your iPhone.
As every technology in the consumer market, VR will become a commodity. But what will happen then? Will we live in a world where human interaction is mostly happening in a rendered version of it?
Will we get to the point where we don’t know whether we are in in or out? Where the line between virtual and physical has become so blurry that we need to establish what reality we are in before taking action?
No one knows. But even though I do think the impact of VR to be bigger than the popularization of the mobile phone, I also think that society will learn to adapt. There will be some initial friction, but then VR will find its place.
These are very interesting times we are living in. After decades of slow progress, the fields of VR, robotics and AI are back in the spotlight. And with it come our social struggles.
We are on the eve of another big technological push forward and I can’t wait to see what’s around the corner. And for those who can’t wait, take a little sneak-peek.