Growing up in high school I was a tremendous fan of a number of book series. Of course being a complete nerd and bookworm I’m sure this fact comes as a total shocker. Some of them were the standard childhood classics: "Harry Potter," "Redwall," "Clive Cussler," "So You Want to Be A Wizard," "T.A. Baron’s Merlin Series," "The Inheritance series," etc.
But one of my all time favorites was a sci-fi series called "Pendragon," written by D.J. MacHale. The story followed Bobby, a teen from NYC who discovers that he is a Traveler – someone who can move through time and space to other worlds (*cough* Dr. Who). Working with other travelers, Bobby tries to save each world from the evil manipulative influence of the antagonist Saint Dane – an entity determined to bring out the worst in humanity wherever he goes, by any means necessary.
On one world called Veelox, Bobby enters a metropolis that has fallen into complete disarray and decay. The reason? All inhabitants are addicted to a technology called "Lifelight," a highly advanced computer system that makes everyone’s dreams and desire come true while they sleep. Everyone has become obsessed with their own perfect virtual lives that they remain in Lifelight 24/7 while their physical bodies are stuck in a form of permanent stasis.
The thought of that storyline ran across my mind at my friends New Years Eve party. He had recently gotten an Oculus Rift, one of the numerous brands of VR headsets released in 2016 along with Sony, Google, Samsung, and HTC. Unlike the others, Oculus initially started as a Kickstarter project by 23 year old Palmer Luckey until Facebook purchased the rights for a whopping $2 billion in 2014.
Throughout the celebration each of us took turns diving into these dynamic worlds where we climbed gigantic mountains, flung discuses while riding hover boards in Tron-like worlds, and being scared out of our minds by raptors that jump out at you from god knows where. You’re truly immersed inside the game; you can look, move, and play just as you do in real life but the environment around you is computer-simulated. After having a few drinks, you can only imagine the level of hilarity that ensues.
When you stop and take it all in, it really is a marvel the number of technological advancements we’ve made in the past decade. I mean just take a brief look at the list: advanced prosthetics, iPads, high speed internet, smartphones, self-driving cars, artificial intelligence, robots, social media etc. Each one of these advancements have opened new avenues through which we become increasingly interconnected and engage with one another. Not to mention the fact that we also tend to define our status and ourselves by the tech we own. In the 1970’s it was what kind of car your drove. In 2017 it’s whether you have the iPhone 7, the Android, or a Samsung that can spontaneously combust.
Virtual reality is on the cusp of opening up yet another, particularly tremendous door in terms of human interaction. Just to give you an idea, a new film called "Ready Player One," based on the novel by Ernie Cline and directed by Steven Spielberg, is going to be released in the upcoming months with a VR component. People will be able to log in and experience the virtual world of OASIS, the pop culture infused cyber world that’s featured in the film.
Think of all the other possibilities! Imagine being teleported with your friend to an AC/DC concert in the eighties and fully witnessing it as if you had really been there, walking outside and seeing all the information on your neighbor flash by your goggles as they pass by you on their way to work, or being a med student and having the ability to witness a 360-degree video of a surgery happening as it's live-streamed straight through your headset. By the way, that last one actually happened not too long ago in London.
Yet with all these incredible advantages and benefits that virtual reality offers to better enhance our daily lifestyle, there are still valid and serious concerns that must be voiced. For one, there is still little scientific research on the affects long-term exposure to virtual reality has on the brain. There is a known phenomenon called “cybersickness” that has a lot of similar symptoms to motion sickness because the inner ears aren’t experiencing the motion your eyes are witnessing through the VR headset. There is also the concern of severe addiction to the VR world – where the lines between reality and fiction become blurred and people become so addicted to the technology that they become withdrawn, isolated, and their social skills severely inhibited.
Many have noted the strong potential for increasing desensitization in users. If people participate in violent games in virtual reality or intense training exercises meant for soldiers to engage in combat scenarios, could they grow accustomed to extreme acts of behavior and fail to show compassion or empathy for real world cases? This has been noticed with gamers, especially those using first person shooters.
There are also issues that need to be resolved regarding ethics of virtual criminality and whether it is possible for someone to become traumatized by the acts carried out by another in a virtual environment. Would the perpetrator then be faced with the same consequences as he or she would face if those acts had been conducted in the real world? Are there any rules and laws implemented to prevent such criminal cases from occurring?
The interesting thing is that a large portion of these concerns are reoccurring ones that originally were aired through social media. In a world dominated by tweets, grams, statuses, and selfies, people are lacking in the ability to communicate one-on-one without a smartphone as an intermediary. There have been numerous cases made for social media addiction where people can’t go five minutes without checking Facebook notifications, texts or emails.
As for desensitization – we constantly see images of devastating attacks, bombings, and murders from the Pulse Nightclub at Orlando to the rampaging terrorist truck driver in Niece, France. Many of us (meaning Millenials) have experienced first hand the brutal, unshakable pain that comes from suffering any one of the grotesque forms of cyberbullying.
It is only natural for technological developments to continually strive for progress and advancement. And it is true that we have become more dependent than ever on them in areas of communication, education, design, and medicine. We enjoy them because they are sleek, shiny, personalized forms of power and status. Trust me, the irony that I’m going to post this on Twitter and Facebook is not lost on me.
But we as the users have to develop a greater awareness of the fact that this virtual reality, like other technologies before it, frees us of previous burdens while simultaneously imposing new ones. Part of the reason we become so addicted to social media, Netflix, and the virtual cyber world is that it is so much more comfortable, enjoyable, and vibrant than the real world.
We have to remember that the difficulties that come with real life make us who we are as a person. They make those timeless moments like the birth of a child, a first love, or a trip to the beach with family so irreplaceable. They give substance and meaning to our individual achievements. That's the real of reality.