For clarity, I will use the term ‘virtual reality’ in a literal sense, i.e.: a reality, fiction or otherwise, created by the mind existing separately to our true reality. I will use the term ‘VR’ to refer to the kind of virtual reality that requires ridiculous headgear.
What is our obsession with virtual reality? Bearing in mind that it has existed for as long as we as a species have told stories. It could be a means to escape our own boring lives. That is a true component, but I think there is more to it than that. I believe the brain contains within it, a completely insatiable need for novel experiences. Our brains have neurological potential that is locked behind the engagement with completely novel and significant experiences. This is one of the most valuable (but not often obvious) reasons for traveling abroad, reading books and generally learning new skills and ideas, it allows us to open up new neural pathways which is a big proponent of us becoming better people in a great variety of ways.
So perhaps stories were told not only for entertainment but as a means of sharing important knowledge. Books were created to record this information so that they were less likely to be lost across time. But it seems that our association with stories has grown beyond that still, particularly in the realm of fiction. Stories now attempt to create a high-level distillation of all the most profound and deeply moving experiences. Experiences that one will never have when living in a time of peace and abundance.
The human race has been creating virtual realities for millennia, in the form of spoken stories, books, plays, and in the more modern era, television, movies, and video games. This is where VR comes in, it is the natural progression of these technologies. At this time we are witnessing it take its first steps away from stupid gimmicky bullshit into maturity. Video games themselves have only within the last decade developed from time sinks into deeply engaging interactive stories comparable to (and in some cases surpassing) television and theatre. Within our lifetimes, we will witness VR mature into an absolute powerhouse comparable to the invention of the internet or the printing press. A powerhouse certainly, but maybe nowhere near as positive as those inventions were, and maybe even detrimental.
In the beginning, the most obvious application for VR, was video games, movies, and TV. A way of engaging more deeply with the medium. That said, it hasn’t been until the last few years that VR has made significant strides, particularly in the video game sphere. VR went from standing obnoxiously close to the TV screen to achieving a level of immersion and engagement never before seen, and in some cases impossible to achieve by traditional video games (see Half-Life: Alyx and Boneworks). As well as this, VR has in a similar period moved into the sphere of education. Some examples of this being used today are Labster and Praxilabs. These are softwares used to simulate laboratories in a hyper-realistic way. This has proved wildly successful in preparing a student to conduct a potentially dangerous experiment in a real laboratory. I believe with increasing certainty that as time goes by, there will be a significant cross over between video game developers and educators to improve this tech further still.
As this tech improves, our ability to educate the STEM folks will advance exponentially. This means better doctors, scientists, and engineers, i.e.: the people that are exclusively responsible for making our lives comfortable enough that we can devote stupid amounts of time to bullshit activism and ultimately undermine our progress.
However, and it is a big “however”. We as a species are a pack of monkeys that constantly insist on building better shit. The consequences of such creations are seldom thought out.
Virtual realities demand that we fragment our attention away from reality. We are in a sense built to do this which is why we are capable of abstract thought. However, there is a balance that must be struck. As VR grows, it will require more and more of our attention away from the world. Graphical fidelity that is indistinguishable from the real thing already exists. We will see this move from niche to prominence very soon. Because of this, it exceptionally difficult to know with certainty if having novel experiences in VR produces comparable neurological results to experiencing the same thing (whatever it may be) in reality.
Our brains are incredibly far behind technology as a whole. To the point where both AI and VR will be constantly ahead of the capabilities of the human brain. AI and VR will learn to trick our brains so effectively that we will no longer be conscious of it. This is a terrifying concept to behold. The potential exists for modern humans to be the most valueless and aimless individuals of a species that has or will ever exist. A species that is no longer addicted to the transient pleasures of drugs or sex, but addicted to experience. Engaging with exclusively profound experiences that the real world becomes so dull, and uninteresting that existing within it is worse than solitary confinement.
The answer to this is unclear because the questions themselves are unclear. We understand the tendency of the human mind towards addiction. When people engage in a meaningful activity of growth, the brain knows it, and it rewards itself with a big rush of good old brain drugs. However, and this is particularly true in times of abundance, our brains are not so proficient at recognizing the difference in value between the success of a task of self-improvement and the injection of black tar heroin. Because our brains are so bad at this, is one of the main reasons that addiction is so widespread across societies worldwide. So what happens when we become addicted to experiences in VR?
If our brains can’t tell the difference between meaningful experience and drug use or overindulgence, how are they to tell the difference between meaningful experience and meaningful experience that didn’t actually happen? And the answer is that they won’t. But the more concerning aspect of this is how do we as a species condemn the false experience over the real one. It seems obvious that spending 12 hours of the day in virtual reality is the wrong thing, but how can we justify it as the wrong thing if all our needs are being met? Even more so when our needs are being met and our bodies become useless.
The reason I talk of this as a certainty, i.e.: something that is definitely going to go down in the near future, be it near or far (I think nearer than we realise), is because there is always some fuckwit in a lab or their parent’s basement, continually pushing technology forward, no matter what. Ernest Rutherford might have thought twice about splitting the atom if he knew what would happen to Japan, but then again, maybe he wouldn’t have.