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Virtual Reality will kill us, but we’ll die smiling

I didn't take virtual reality very seriously. I thought it was over-rated. Then I tried it. 

I didn't take virtual reality very seriously. I thought it was over-rated. Then I tried it. 

It took all of five seconds to realise I didn’t want to remove the Oculus Rift goggles… ever. I was disappointed by the poor resolution but given the fact the goggles were powered by a Samsung phone, it was pretty impressive.

As I floated through a nightmarish London night, chasing Jack the Ripper in the Assassin’s Creed VR promo, I may have been immersed in visions of the past, but my mind was exploding with possibilities of the future.

A positive future? Hell no. Nevertheless, it’ll be an intoxicating and entertaining one. If we think we’ve experienced addictions to gaming and porn in the past, the line will have to be redrawn once Oculus Rift is released at the end of the month.

In terms of the effect on society, if you’re a macro thinker, you get a crystal clear view of Coleridge’s Kubla Khan as well as Dante’s Inferno. In truth, the term ‘the sky’s the limit’ is now a flaccid phrase because the sky is just the beginning. The only limit worth mentioning is the fact that there isn’t a single promo Oculus can produce for a 2D screen that can prepare you for their product. Ironically, the first thing people do is watch videos, and seriously, they can’t do the technology justice.

Let me give the uninitiated a hint of how tangible the alternate reality is. When Jack the Ripper punched a mirror, I ducked as the shards of glass approached me. Sounds like 3D, right? Wrong. You are in the middle of the scene. Look up, down and 360-degrees around—you are there.

Optimists will rightly tell you that this technology gives us the opportunity to create a generation of highly educated and efficient humans. Unfortunately those of us who have watered down our idealism via life experience will pragmatically assume that the worst human traits will be championed by VR, and this is evident in Oculus’ marketing. The company knows gaming is where the bucks are. In the shadows, the porn industry will continue to fund and lead technology as it cashes in on this long stride towards virtual realism.

While VR will leapfrog robotics and augmented reality as the buzz technology, it will not render them useless. In fact, it will become their champion. Augmented reality will become part of the Oculus experience and I believe during those few moments each day when we reluctantly remove the goggles to enter the ‘real’ world, we’ll at least want to retain the AR (yes, Google Glass and its competitors still have a future).

As for robotics, the physical world will seem increasingly mundane and so too will the chores that stop us exploring our alternate realities. As my friend (a robotics engineer) pointed out, few projects in his industry are designed to relieve us of our daily chores, but finally there will be a strong push to limit our physical responsibilities. Given the fact that robotics seems intent on skipping practical enterprises in favour of sex and destruction, the Terminator franchise may still become a prophecy. But don’t picture humans bravely defending their territory; by the time the robots launch their hostile take-over, they’ll find us all lying around, looking catatonic as we use our VR tech to escape this world.

It’ll be an incredibly easy and disappointing invasion. Then again, if AI mimics or improves on human intellect, the robots may simply recline next to us and plug themselves into the system. Intent on conquest, their only viable method of making us suffer will be to defeat us in our alternate realities.

Don’t get me wrong; I absolutely love virtual reality and can see myself balancing my addiction by seeking equal quantities of entertainment and education. But in addition to my cynical predictions regarding its mainstream use, there’s a particularly large and quiet elephant in the room.

You can’t put a drug on the market without rigorous testing, but a technology that can dramatically alter perception can be released without any serious long-term analysis of psychological repercussions. I’m sure the usual warnings will accompany both hardware and software (epilepsy, nausea and possible issues with eyesight) but so far, I can’t find any research of scientific merit. From the limited tests I’ve found (mostly quite old), there are definitely red flags.

As a result of my friend’s obsession with Oculus, he claims to be lucid dreaming in 3D. Considering he’s a fellow Carlos Castaneda fan, I put this down to prior attempts to experience awareness while dreaming. I was a bit tipsy when I tried the goggles for the first time so I slept like a log that night. But last night, during that brief transitionary period between consciousness and sleep, I glimpsed the VR effect. There was a slight psychotropic feel to that netherworld we’ve all experienced. I’m sure you’ve sat up in bed, startled after a dramatic falling sensation. My new experience reached beyond that cliché. As my conscious thoughts handed the baton over to my subconscious mind, there seemed to be a strong urge to experience a complete 360-degree scape. In addition, there were some disquieting patterns and layering that I’ve never seen before.

Suffice to say the implications of this new technology are too numerous to address in a single article. There’s enough speculation to fuel a series of books. I’ve quoted Victor Hugo’s classic line, ‘this will kill that’, many times when describing a new breakthrough’s effect on society or superseded tech, but VR trumps anything I’ve seen during my lifetime.

I’m only sure of one thing: we are not prepared.

Stand by for more articles as I gleefully investigate this technology further. I haven’t even touched on the brilliance of Oculus’ launch strategy, the incompatibility with Apple, the consequences for artistic expression (look out film industry!), the utopian ideal, the possibility of philosophies becoming frighteningly tangible (e.g. solipsism), and the transition from human being to ‘character’. Don’t even get me started on crime.

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