1 April 2016

Why the VR revolution will suit a world bereft of its sense of causality


Unless you’re deeply into the esoterics of technology, the news that VR is about to become mainstream will have had the same effect as somebody telling you that duck magic is going to be next year’s craze in the world of witchcraft. VR or ‘virtual reality’ has been talked about for decades but usually with a level of hype that only affirms the prejudices of sceptics who sensibly wait for each bubble to burst before tutting, nodding, and telling you ‘I told you so’.

The VR bubble this time is different. It has been developing slowly, with more deliberation as befits a technology that aims to be around for a long time, as well as change the way we all think about, inhabit, and interact with the world.

VR as a commonplace in your everyday life is still some distance away. Among the kind of people who built hotrod PCs, however, 2016 will be pivotal to what arrives in the future. Strange new terms like ‘Occulus Rift’ and ‘HTC Vive’ are already slowly trickling through to the mainstream press as enthusiasts embrace the first generation of consumer hardware. More intriguing still is what is coming from Sony, the makers of the Playstation games consoles. Launching in October for the relatively low price of £350 in the UK (rival VR units for PC use are upwards of £600) , Playstation VR will work with any PS4 and promises to give a true virtual experience.

Until it becomes mainstream, it makes sense to briefly describe what is meant by ‘virtual’ so we don’t confuse it with Hollywood fantasies involving Keanu Reeves pushing lawnmowers on neon-lit roller blades. Simply, VR involves a headset which usually covers your entire field of vision. Enclosed in darkness, you look through lenses that cleverly focus each eye onto one of two images generated by the console or computer. Your brain combines those images to produce a sense of looking through a narrow viewport into three dimensional space. What makes the VR experience special is that clever tracking technology means that as you move your head, your viewpoint in the space moves. You will feel immersed in a way that hasn’t previously been possible. Add some controls allowing you to move virtual hands and you can interact with that reality, leading to a whole new genre of games and interactive experiences.

Or so the marketing would have you believe. There will be some who naturally shout about the dangers. Others will extol how good the experience can be. The doomsayers will overstate the doom whilst even the most devote advocate will be incapable of advocating how deep the immersion will become as the technology develops. The truth will be somewhere between the extremes but it is understandable that people yearn for the space offered by VR. In a world increasingly crowded, with urban life increasingly defined by the walls of cars, buses, trains, offices, and small houses, virtual reality offers a chance to escape into a boundless universe.

There are, as yet, a few technological hurdles that still need to be fully overcome. VR done poorly can easily produce motion sickness in the wearer. The viewing area is still much smaller than natural vision. It’s also not yet entirely certain how real world movement, such as walking, can be seamlessly integrated into the system. Currently, the most convincing VR experiences involve standing still or being seated in a car or cockpit. Lastly, sensory feedback is limited to sound and vision, with hand controllers having limited feedback in the form of rumbling or input resistance. The days of sensing your virtual surroundings are still the business of science fiction.

More intriguing is that VR really proposes to develop further the habit of mind that has become familiar in the past twenty or so years. It is the immersion into a private world that exists through the screens of our computers, consoles, tablets, and, of course, our phones. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Samsung’s solution, called Gear VR, uses Samsung’s latest generation of phones which can be clipped into a headset. Facebook now owns Occulus VR, suggesting that the future of social media might also be in a VR space. Certainly, VR will deepen the immersion that we already feel in our data-driven world. Unlike previous attempts to make VR work, our computer technology finally has the power to generate our alternate realities and further that very modern trend of changing the way we think about the world around us.

You needn’t be a technophobe to lament this change. Over successive generations, society has paradoxically become more insular as it has become more connected. We already struggle with the lack of causality afforded to us by our virtual existence. A generation of children is now growing up in a world where ‘sexting’ is a prevalent danger, where the peer pressure of the here and now produces momentary lapses of judgement whose ramifications could last a lifetime. Consider what has already happened to Hollywood’s elite. The now notorious hacking of Apple’s iCloud servers released intimate photographs of celebrities who had used their phones without giving proper thought to how the technology works or where their naked ‘selfies’ were actually being stored. This disconnect between our real and virtual worlds is just one example of how we fail to understand how our actions can have serious consequences.

It goes further, however, in that it is often hard to distinguish between the world as we know it through technology and the world as we understand through our interaction with physical matter. The example is now a cliché but it is still relevant in that people attending special events tend to view it through their phone’s camera. For some, ‘seeing’ a famous person in the flesh only feels ‘real’ if it’s paradoxically viewed through a screen. The sense of virtualisation goes even further, though the examples are far more subtle and harder to detect. Consider Western responses to the migrant crisis and how a sentimental movement emerged as a spasm of anger to news reports and especially the photograph of Alan Kurdi lying dead on a beach. Social media presents reality as though it’s simpler and much more malleable. Trivial solutions are offered to difficult questions. E-petitions, memes, and electronic protests are increasingly offered as real solutions to a failing political process. Governments that wish to move us to electronic voting in general elections should consider the consequence, whereby the political process is unshackled from real world consequences. Is the political process really helped by increased virtualisation or does it merely make it more trivial, fleeting, and shallow when voters are voting for candidates they have never even seen in the flesh?

War, famine, homelessness: a world of horror exists beyond the sanitised world we know, though that’s not to say the new media is incapable of projecting the horrors of some war into our daily life. Yet those horrors are themselves transformed in the very same way that the Youtube generation has been desensitised to pain, taught to laugh when some innocent victim accidentally gets punched in the face or falls through the open manhole cover. How many videos now exist which portray events in which one, two, a few, or a great many people lost their lives?

Not that there’s much we can do to change any of this, merely note how things will change as these developments arrive. VR offers to completely separate us from our reality in ways that are exciting, fascinating, challenging, and sometimes even inspiring. Yet we already lead thinly virtualised lives, where consequences are no longer part of our world. The VR future is exciting but also another step away from reality and the less notice we take of the outside world and its political processes, the more we leave ourselves open to losing our power to know or influence it.

David Waywell writes and cartoons at The Spine.