Keeping It Real: The Oculus Rift and Virtual Reality

In January of this year came news, to excited reviews in gaming publications, of the imminent release of a new Virtual Reality headset called Oculus Rift.  As a headline in a British newspaper put it: “Virtual reality just got real: Could the Oculus Rift change the way we play, work and learn?

The short answer to that question is no.  The Oculus Rift will not, by itself, have that impact, but Virtual Reality, writ large, perhaps could.  The point is that it’s going to take a lot more than sophisticated display gear to do the trick.

In the terrific book Infinite Reality, published just a few years ago, authors Jim Blascovich and Jeremy Bailenson assert that Virtual Reality has in recent years “accelerated at an astounding pace,” such that “in a few decades the norms of social interaction, war, education, sex, and relationships will change drastically.”

But if VR is ever to achieve the kind of cultural revolution that its enthusiasts predict, it will have to be marked by a number of things that are not here now, and by conditions that may not obtain even if and when the technology is perfected.

First and foremost, though, is the technological necessity that VR be fully immersive and received by the senses as indistinguishable from real life.  People experience reality through their senses of sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste; for VR to be fully immersive it will have to provide at least the first three of these.

This means that people entering virtual reality will need gear (like 3D stereoscopic headsets, and full body, or its equivalent, data suits) that provide (through avatars) representations of themselves and other people that look exactly like real people rather than cartoon characters.  This gear will also have to provide sounds and movement that are perfectly reproduced and, crucially, the ability to feel those things their avatars touch.

One of the more difficult technological problems is called latency, which is the lag time when a person turns his head in VR before the new scene is rendered.  If it happens too slowly the effect is unreal and causes motion sickness.  Indeed, according to an account in the Guardian, some gamers report that even the Oculus Rift induced nausea within 10 minutes of use.

But a dramatic cultural shift would require more than perfect technology: The requisite hardware, software, and telecommunications equipment would have to be widely available and affordable.  If availability or price had the effect of limiting VR just to those places where it’s mostly found now – university labs and certain government facilities, like the Pentagon – VR would fall far short of being a cultural tsunami.

Yet another obvious condition would be whether a sufficient number of people wanted to spend real time in “cyberspace,” the name for VR coined by the brilliant science fiction writer William Gibson.  For widespread cultural effects, large numbers of people would have to spend lots of time in VR.  Otherwise the whole thing might amount to something no more culture- or life-altering than an occasional real-life bungee jump, or white-water rafting trip.

There’s another condition that would have to obtain for VR to be all it could be.  But this one, judging by the literature available, is not so obvious even to the experts.  This condition lies in the nature of the restraints and imperatives, in law and regulation, which governments in the real world will inevitably seek to impose on Virtual Reality.

Whether premised on an asserted need to “protect the children,” or help close the “income inequality” gap, or promote “healthy lifestyles,” there is no chance that governmental bodies will leave VR alone.

Even today, for instance, the national debate over privacy – brought to a head by the overreach of the NSA, and negative effects of social media – is reaching a point where Congress, the courts, and/or agencies like the FCC may soon act.

Assume for a minute, however, that all of the technological, economic, and regulatory issues can be overcome, and that software programmers create worlds that are sufficiently complex and attractive. In that case, one can see how any number of things might take place in Virtual Reality.

Things, for instance, like commerce.  Of course there would need to be a wide variety of services offered and some kind of widely accepted digital currency, with a relatively stable exchange rate in the real world, into dollars, pounds, euros, etc.  Early prototypes of this might be Bitcoins, or the so-called Linden dollars that are used as currency in Second Life.

Other obvious attractions in Virtual Reality would be education, medicine, tourism, and games.  Imagine the growth in the already substantial industry of online gambling.  In a fully immersive VR environment, one’s avatar could look around the table at the other players in search of what gamblers call “tells.”

And then, of course, there is sex.  According to Blascovich and Bailenson there’s a lot of sex going on even today in Second Life, though there’s no sense there of touch, and the environment is just observed on a computer screen.

Imagine what would happen in a deeply immersive virtual world where everyone was beautiful, and where there was a sensation of feeling, through some kind of data suits, in the users’ entire bodies.  As reported in Infinite Reality: “As virtual reality becomes more immersive, virtual sex will become more and more … satisfying.  Indeed, “teledildonics” is an emerging field that incorporates haptic devices, those capable of transmitting virtual touch, into virtual sexual experiences.”

For certain people, and certain applications, Virtual Reality would be overwhelmingly attractive.  Consider, for instance, the handicapped.  In VR a quadriplegic confined in real life to a wheelchair would be able to present himself, through his avatar, as fit and healthy, and in addition be able to experience the sensation of walking and running!

People who will never have the money to travel the actual world could travel virtually not only to places they’ve never been, but also to places that nobody has visited, like the bottom of the sea, or a realistic reconstruction of a long-since destroyed city like Pompeii.

The benefits of VR are vastly – one could say infinitely – more numerous than have been described here. Indeed, one could write hundreds of pages just about the educational benefits alone.  But there would definitely be prospective downsides as would impact individuals and society alike.

This can be inferred by reading the literature, especially the academic books.  In many cases these books read as though they were as much about psychology (social psychology especially), or even philosophy, as about technology.  What is the brain?  How does the brain observe reality?  What is reality?

It’s a short distance from those kinds of questions to the development of ideas about some of the downsides of Virtual Reality.  What happens, for instance, to individuals and/or society if people decide that cyberspace is more attractive than the real world?  When, through their avatars in VR, they are more successful, more beautiful, and more socially connected than they are in the real world?

What happens to their interest in real-life issues like politics and the environment, or in their neighbors and family, when people spend most of their life in cyberspace?

As with most things in life, the actual impact of VR will likely come to rest somewhere in the middle of the range of hypothetical benefits and liabilities.  And for this reason, and also because of the digital handwriting on the wall (as with the extraordinary growth of cell phones, social media, and the Internet), it would be folly to try to stand in the way.  For better or worse, Virtual Reality of some advanced sort is coming our way.


The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.