One of the most enduring images of the virtual reality movement is by illustrator Eran Fowler. Depicting a broken, junkie-like man crouched in the corner of a decaying room while hooked up to a VR headset, it is the perfect summation of our worst fears about the technology.
And while the image, which has been reposted and shared thousands of times, is intended as a work of fiction, reality it shows does have the potential to come true.
“[Virtual reality is] quite transformative,” said Elon Musk in an interview with Vanity Fair last month. “You really feel like you’re there, and then when you come out of it, it feels like reality isn’t real. I think we’ll see less physical movement in the future, as a result of the virtual reality stuff.”
“I think VR is the medium closest to dreaming – it completely teleports you away,” agreed Corey King, chief executive artist of ZenFri at The Technology Expo last month.
But when times are hard and a relaxing virtual world is just a click away, will we ever want to emerge from our VR bubbles again?
Does VR pose an isolation risk?
Let’s be clear: VR, like the internet, video games and a slew of other technologies before it, is likely to make some people addicted. Anything that is enjoyable and which rewards continued use has the ability to result in addiction, and VR is no different in that respect.
When VR becomes suitably widespread, there will be moral panic-type stories run about person X spending life-threatening periods in VR, and there will almost certainly be worried responses from over-protective consumer groups. Such is the world we live in.
But there is nothing to suggest that these events will be any more frequent than they are with the internet, and while internet addiction is a severe problem for those afflicted by it, it does not mean the rest of us should unplug our routers as a precaution.
If we use VR at reasonable levels, is there a risk that the technology will leave us more isolated and less engaged with our real lives?
However, even if we use VR at reasonable levels, is there a risk that the technology will leave us more isolated and less engaged with our real lives?
“That’s a factor in any new technology and will no doubt play a part. There’s always the outlier of the gamer that puts on diapers to go on marathon gaming sessions – that gamer will likely react to VR in a similar way,” says Arthur Goikhman, CEO of SurrealVR, which is creating like-real VR avatars.
“But at the same time, the opportunity to communicate with those that are remote from us in such a real way is something that is no less ‘real’ – so ultimately no, it will enhance our real lives, not isolate us.“
“We are already surrounded by people who are isolated by the technology they own, but I like to think that it can equally enrich our lives,” adds Andrew McPhee, co-founder and CEO of Seene, which makes 3D content capturing software.
“I want my physical and virtual experiences to be the most engaging that they can be. Besides, the more I experience VR, the more interested and amazed I am at how the physical world operates so seamlessly.”
The key point that detractors of VR often miss is that while we might appear to be sitting in a darkened room with a screen strapped to our heads, from our point of view we are with a host of other people, communicating and interacting as if we were really next to them.
“I think [isolation is] just a fear now since most people haven’t had a chance to experience VR directly, so they’re not quite sure what it is and the kind of content creators are working on,” says Neville Spiteri, CEO and co-founder of VR media player and community WEVR.
“If you can inhabit a physical space virtually, and share that with another person, you can remove location as a barrier to a physical feeling of presence. There is the potential to be anywhere, at any time with anyone,” adds McPhee.
And with Facebook’s purchase of likely market leaders Oculus, social is going to be tremendously important to VR.
“One of Facebook’s main priorities with Oculus is to make VR into a social, living room experience where everyone can view the content simultaneously, and gaming for them is just the start,” says Spiteri.
But if Facebook hopes to get the social lead on VR, it is going to need to have something pretty special on offer when the Oculus Rift consumer edition launches in early 2016.
A host of other VR social networks are starting to emerge, including the recently announced vTime from Evolution Studios founder Martin Kenwright, which allows users to hold discussions, meetings and media sharing sessions in a variety of lush virtual settings.
And it’s not just the scenery that’s starting to look good. Goikhman’s company Surreal is taking these interactions further by echoing your real-world movements in the virtual space.
“We’ve focused on making VR communication as natural as it can be – on Surreal, when you talk, move your hands, fidget in your seat, shake your head – whatever – the motion is translated to your avatar’s motion and voice, and broadcast to those that are sharing the virtual experience with you at that time,” he says.
“We believe the sense of presence is enhanced by making you feel that your avatar is really you – and makes other believe you are real as well.”
In a virtual space where abuse is directed to a face, rather than a screen name, trolls may feel less emboldened to act abusively
While this level of realism is likely to help make the virtual feel more real, it also has the potential for an added benefit: reducing aggression in virtual communication.
It’s no secret that people act more aggressively on the internet, behind the safety of a screen where they cannot see the impact they have.
However, in a virtual space where abuse is directed to a face, rather than a screen name, trolls may feel less emboldened to act abusively; a serious point in VR’s favour.
Back to reality
While VR has great potential to provide positive, collaborative experiences, at some point we do need to log off and live our lives. And, ask Musk pointed out, exiting the virtual world can make the real world feel considerably less appealing.
“By sending information straight into the visual system, without it being mediated by a traditional screen, and to have it be physically sensed as real gives you the powers to do or feel almost anything,” says McPhee.
But how can the real world compete with that? There will no doubt be solutions that get developed, but in the meantime, a rather simple solution is being explored by some early VR adopters.
“I know a designer who creates his office virtually so that the switch is less dramatic,” said Sander Veenhof, founder of VR4two and OutdoorVR, at The Technology Expo. He explained that by having this intermediary space where the virtual matches the physical, the switch was much less jarring.
However, a bigger problem may occur. While in the virtual world we may remain toned and svelte, if we spend our lives sitting or lying down while we live through VR, our physical fitness will seriously suffer.
“If VR takes over our lives entirely, then we’ll eventually end up as large brains with mushy bodies sitting in swivel chairs and never leaving the house,” says Tony Mugavero, founder of VR cinema network Littlstar.
“Mixed reality (AR headsets that can do VR) is a better approach since it allows us to be mobile and social, and include data about the real world as we walk around. This is the end game, I believe, anyway.”
If VR takes over our lives entirely, then we’ll eventually end up as large brains with mushy bodies sitting in swivel chairs and never leaving the house
But such mixed reality is several years away from existing, and there is more than enough time for our health to suffer in the meantime, so a different approach may be needed.
Veenhof, however, may have the answer. Through his OutdoorVR and VR4two projects, he is exploring the use of outdoor spaces and experiences to improve virtual ones. Instead of remaining stationary in their homes, VR users equipped with Google Cardboard are accompanied by a non-VR equipped friend, allowing them, for example, to walk around the city of Ultrecht while seeing a virtual forest.
“It really addresses the problem of these immersive experiences – that you feel alone. It can be great fun with Google Cardboard, and potentially the whole world could be your playground,” said Veenhof.
Users walk around experiencing a new virtual world, while able to chat to their friend in the real one.
It’s a bizarre notion, but it could certainly become popular as an antidote to VR-induced weight gain, and with different virtual spaces mapped onto different locations – including a to-scale dinosaur that can be viewed from all angles by ascending the stairs of a Lieden nature museum – it could become a popular and varied activity.
Everyday virtual reality
Look further into the future and VR has the serious potential of becoming a deeply rooted aspect of our everyday lives. And while that may seem like a horrifying future to some, it could make us happier.
“We will soon reach a point where working in a virtual office alongside avatars of our coworkers is not only practical, but far more efficient,” says Bob Berry, CEO and co-founder of VR software company Envelop.
“How will a zero commute time improve worker productivity? It’s not just the time you get back; the reduction in stress will be huge for a lot of people.”
But for those who get to grow up with VR, it may become just another part of living.
“From a sociological perspective we have a new generation, which I call the “Virtuals” – children born after 2000 and post Millennials – that have been brought up in a world where their real world is consistently interacting with their virtual worlds, from the toys they have to the games they play,” adds Berry.
“VR will be a natural evolution for them and provide an exciting outlet for this generation to have more face-to-face type of engagement. Just as the Millennials grew up with mobile phones and have tightly integrated them in their lives, so too will the Virtuals take to VR/AR technologies.”
But whether some of those Virtuals will have to be helped to escape the virtual world remains to be seen.