Virtual reality has been a pipe dream of humanity even before the technology to make it possible even existed.

One of the first VR headsets, was a goggle/glove combo from the late 80s named the “Eyephone 1” (no joke). Being the 80s, this “cutting edge tech” ran at four frames per second and cost a whopping $250, 000 USD.

Two and half decades later, an 18-year-old named Palmer Luckey pieced together a prototype for a VR headset in his parent’s garage. Funded by Kickstarter in 2012 and commercially released in 2016, the Oculus Rift is now a household name. And now all the other big tech giants are jumping on the train, with devices from Google, Samsung and Playstation all available to buy.

VR is becoming less of a novelty and more of an everyday occurrence. Even heading down to Timezone Arcades you’ll see VR headsets casually offering Beat Sabre and a handful of other VR games. Most headsets are now available at reasonable prices. You can even make your own smartphone-powered VR device for free, with the downloadable Google Cardboard template.

So It’s Everywhere, But What Even Is Virtual Reality?

Going by the movies, virtual reality looks something like this:

Even though most people have heard about or tried some form of VR, I reckon some of the sci-fi reputation still exists. At the very least, VR feels like a niche hobby, meant for gamers and their kin. So on the surface, VR seems destined to go the way of products like the Xbox Kinect or 3D TVs - fun, expensive and impractical, and ultimately forgotten.

Hold onto that thought, and let’s take a detour. Back in the 1740’s, peoples’ only exposure to electricity was through these sorts of bizarre devices:

"The Electrical Boy"

Static electricity generators were a popular source of entertainment. Popular parlour tricks included attracting feathers to balloons, or zapping your friends with a big human circuit. There would even be groups who travelled around with this equipment to perform to nobility or to crowds, like the weirdest travelling circus ever.

Knowing this, I’m pretty sure no 18th century peasant could imagine what electricity could bring us. They probably couldn’t have even conceptualized 24/7 electrical lighting, not to mention all the other great stuff electricity has brought us (internet, air conditioning, the Sydney Light Rail). To them, electricity was a novelty to mess around with on a rainy day. To us, it’s pretty much the foundation of modern convenience.

You might see where I’m going with this. It’s 2021, you’re the 21st century peasant, and the VR travelling circus is in town, metaphorically. Dismissing VR as a gaming device is like looking at a computer in the 1950’s and dismissing it as a math machine. In one sense you’d be right, but it’s only scratching the surface of what the technology is and what it can do.

So let’s break down virtual reality a bit more. You can’t explain what electricity is by listing a handful of electronic devices. Likewise, VR is not a set of devices but is instead a concept.

Based on how much of reality you still feel like you belong to, we can plot this concept of artificial reality on a spectrum.

1)      The most “real world” is of course matter reality, where our squishy, meat-sacks of bodies live. You might access the virtual space through portals like your computer, but you’re still firmly grounded in physical reality.

2)      Along the scale, augmented reality overlays the real world with digital content, extending the digital world away from our desks. The most famous example is Pokémon Go, which lets you interact with real life locations with your phone screen to gain Pokeballs and other resources. Or it might come in the form of glasses or contact lenses which could add navigation markers or information popups into your environment.

3)  Mixed reality is another step along the scale. Here digital objects are items you can interact with, seamlessly merged amongst real objects and people. In mixed reality, you could head out to your real backyard and play catch with a digital ball. Or like the car company Ford does, you can crash-test your physical prototypes in a simulated environment.

4)      Virtual reality is the full-on immersive experience, where your perception of the real world is blocked out and replaced with an entirely different environment.

According to researchers, the quality of VR tech is defined by three main ideas:

  • How well your senses are stimulated by the environment. The human body has between 14 and 20 senses, and the human body is very perceptive at noticing when even one of them doesn’t match up with the rest (this is where motion sickness comes from). So for a VR system, it’s very important to get this right.
  • How well you are able to interact with your environment
  • How much you feel the freedom to interact with your surroundings

All these combine to create a sensation of “being” in an environment, something researchers call “psychological presence”. It’s this sensation that differentiates virtual reality from other forms of technology, and what makes it so powerful. In fact, the ideal VR technology would be able to make the technology itself seem to disappear, so that anything you do in virtual reality would feel exactly the same as your existence in reality-reality.

What VR Can Do for You

Traditional understanding teaches us that there’s no substitute to hands-on experience. No matter how many movies or books about the topic you consume, the physical world has a richness that second-hand abstractions cannot replicate. But with VR technology, this gap between real and simulated experience is narrowing.

There’s a popular VR simulation - it comes in many forms, but it’s often called ‘Walk the Plank’. In it, you navigate along a teetering, 30cm wide platform hundreds of metres above the ground.

Don't look down.

Almost everyone who’s played it experiences the pounding heart rate, sweatiness and shaky legs that you would have were you genuinely standing on that flimsy plank of wood, high above the ground. Even though you know you’re logically on solid earth ground, your dominant senses tells you otherwise. That’s enough to trigger your subconscious brain to react.

It's this sense of presence that makes VR so revolutionary. The power of VR is that it will allow us to experience those startling and profound moments previously exclusive to the real world.

But if VR just simulates reality, what’s the point? Well, I’ve broken down VR’s main advantages into a numbered list.

1. Accessibility

Unsurprisingly, not everyone can afford a three month cruise around the Mediterranean, or the time off work to go skydiving, or a private beach to relax on at the end of a long day.

Digi-tourism, in the form of VR, is a huge, untapped market that opens up the world for people who can’t afford to, or are physically unable to travel. Instead of just looking at pictures of the view from Mount Everest, you can virtually hike up there and see for yourself. Or if you’re teaching a kindergarten class about the solar system, instead of modelling with oranges and basketballs, you could step into outer space and visit each planet in turn.

Other live experiences, like sports games or music concerts, will also be viewable from across the globe. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a different country, or trapped in hospital, or isolated at home (like in a global pandemic maybe). Journalists will be able to report on current events and historians on the past, and you’ll be able to stand in replicas of these moments and understand them from a first-person perspective.

And just like how astronauts report feelings of transcendence gazing down at Earth, or tourists feel a sense of wonder looking over the Grand Canyon, VR can grant these feelings of discovery to anyone, no matter who or where you are. VR democratises access to resources and experiences in a way that surpasses not just normal tech, but also our physical reality.

2. Learning in real-time

The immersiveness of VR allows for a version of hands-on learning which extends far beyond the normal classroom.

You probably performed fire drills at school, so you’ll understand when I say it’s a pretty chill experience. Leave your stuff behind, follow the instructions written on the evacuation plan, walk calmly in single file. But knowing the principles is hardly the same as knowing what to do in a real fire, with all the panic and the running and the heat and the smell of smoke in the distance.

In this situation, a persuasive virtual reality simulation which mimics all these qualities would train people’s reactions and reaction times for these worst-case scenarios without putting them at risk. Therapeutic uses for this exist as well- for people with crippling phobias or PTSD, we can craft situations to give them just the right amount of exposure therapy that they can quit at any time.

VR is used to immerse NFL players in virtual footage of games, allowing them to experience and learn hundreds of plays in a way memorising diagrams in a playbook could never match. Flight simulators are able to transport pilots-in-training to the air, allowing them to learn the real-life intuition that flying a plane needs without ever leaving the ground.

Preparation goes a long way. We could let surgeons practice before a heart surgery, practicing their fine motor skills with unlimited repetitions and real-time feedback. Or search and rescue workers could learn to spot and retrieve trapped victims in a wide range of scenarios that they don't have to personally experience.

Imagine trying to learn how to swing a tennis racquet from written text alone. The jump to photos and videos would be huge. And the jump to virtual reality is the same. With all the nuance of the real world, and yet the ability to change all the variables as we please, we lose the “contextual poverty” of previous forms of media and are able to absorb more, and better.

3)     Empathy and connection

The common advice for developing empathy is to "put yourself in the other person's shoes". VR lets you do this - literally. One short VR film by producer Chris Milk called Clouds Over Sidra lets users follow around Sidra, a 12-year-old Syrian girl living in a refugee camp, along with 80,000 other Syrians, displaced by civil war, and experience a day in her life.

The number 80,000 is an empty statistic, until it becomes faces and people standing in front of you. Some things are easiest to understand when you’ve experienced them.

And other initiatives are being developed along these lines. There’s a “virtual mirror” to show you elderly versions of yourself, to fight ageism. There’s an interactive VR film where users experience the transition to becoming homeless: from being forced to choose which of your possessions you want to sell - your sofa, your television, your phone? - to afford rent; to being harassed by police as you try to sleep in your car. And games where you use a virtual chainsaw to decimate a virtual forest, to bring awareness to the effects of climate change, These VR initiatives bring people together and can connect vulnerable communities to the broader consciousness, touching people in deep and intimate ways.

On a more personal level, there’s limits to how well we can interact with our friends and family through current technology. Your average conversation is probably carried out mostly through texts and words, and at best through a square video feed on Zoom or Facetime. VR would essentially let you meet up and have face to face conversations with these people, capturing and letting us experience all their nuances of body language and expression in the process. Add that to VR’s ability to let us access a huge range of experiences, and suddenly you can explore the world with people you love.

Coronavirus sheltering reveals new VR use: emotional escape - Los Angeles  Times

Studies predict VR will only take off and become mainstream once social networking is possible on the platform. VR has the power to recapture the sense of presence we’ve lost, and might serve us well in our ever-isolating technological era.

4)      Experience different realities

Finally, from a purely unpragmatic perspective, VR is just plain cool. With software’s ability to rewrite the laws of physics, VR unlocks new possibilities for interacting with the world.

Shelter Anime GIF - Shelter Anime PorterRobinson - Discover & Share GIFs

Want to live life from the perspective of a shark? You’ll be able to do that. Want to fly? You’ll be able to do that too. Travel through time? Grow a third arm? VR allows people to design fantastic environments and creatures, and make them into reality. And of course, virtual reality will continue to push the boundaries of video games, offering more escapism and compelling gameplay than ever before. The only limit will be your imagination.

The state of technology

“Wait,” I hear you say, “this sounds like it would take a lot of processing power and fancy technology! My computer lags when I play Minecraft! We’re never going to reach the point of rendering photorealistic images in real time!”

In 1999, one author surveyed the state of virtual reality and concluded that it “barely works”. Comparing VR now to the ideal, you’d probably say “it kinda works”. It’s true that the transportive qualities of VR exist, and you can probably feel immersed for some time. But as anyone who has used a headset before can attest, no matter how good the graphics are, the immersion is always eventually ruined by the VR device itself. The headsets can be heavy and tiring to have on for a long time, or you’re sweating, or tripping over cables, or feeling sick from the motion blur. That’s not to mention the fact it’s a purely audio/visual experience, and you’ll never be able to touch the environment, or walk around freely. In the end, you’re still aware you’re just standing in your bedroom, holding two controllers.

Well, the advent of hyperrealism might be sooner than you expect, since the progress of technology is moving almost exponentially, even if you don’t notice it yet.

We can use video games as an example. We started from Pong in 1977, a pixel and two lines. Only fifty years later, we have games with millions of polygons rendering in real-time, specialized lighting and physics engines, and servers holding millions of people around the world, all accessible on your home computer and improving by the day. Likewise, it took us only 30 years to go from the “Eyephone 1”, that first VR headset ever made, to the Oculus Rift. That’s a thousand-fold price drop and pretty much a thousandfold increase in quality.

Tracking the improvements of resolution indicates a clear upwards trend that shows no sign of slowing down.

So even though it seems like a big jump to hyper realistic graphics, the fact is the technology is almost there. All technology needs to be is a little cheaper, and a little faster.

In terms of the all-important other senses, there’s a lot of promising tech in development. Gloves like the HapTX will allow users to feel the weight, size, texture and shape of virtual objects, allowing us to not just see our virtual hands pick things up, but feel them too.

The TeslaSuit and other haptic suits in development extend this idea to the whole body, letting you feel physical touch and temperature by sending neuromuscular signals to your limbs.

I would say the biggest barrier to a truly immersive VR experience right now is free motion - after all, nothing breaks the immersion of a sword fight more than smashing into your computer’s desk. And still, companies are beginning to experiment with what are essentially more stylish hamster wheels, designed to keep you in place while you run to your heart’s content.

Virtuix Omni video clip

And just like how mobile phones went from bricks to sleek paper-thin devices in only a decade, so it’s likely that headsets will ditch the clunkiness and the cables too. The entire experience will be more portable and easier to use, and body tracking and image rendering technology will only get better. In fact, the gradual development of brain-machine interfaces, which let you control technology directly with your brain and vice versa, might even make all of this redundant in the future.

My point is that VR is not just a sci-fi concept of the distant future, it’s bullet-training towards us at breakneck speeds. It’s not a question of ‘if’, it’s a question of ‘when’.

The ethics of inhabiting an online world

It's said that humans are so preoccupied with whether we 'can', we never stop to consider if we 'should'. But every new technology carries its own ethical pitfalls, and VR is no exception. Here are some things we should be considering:

→ We’ll be wired in a lot more

How many hours a day do you spend on your devices?

If you're an average computer science student, the answer is probably “too many”.As the generation with the lowest attention span yet, Gen Z suffers from a stimulation addiction - videos are shorter, titles are catchier. The one thing  we can say is that the virtual world has not replaced our real one. We visit cyberspace from time to time through our screens, but ultimately we stay grounded in this world, doing real-world things.

But in virtual reality, where the world can be warped to your whims, surely instant gratification will become the norm? With the addictive effects of technology multiplied by immersion, how many people will willingly exchange those dazzling fantasy worlds for the inconvenience of the real one? That’s not even mentioning mixed reality, which will infiltrate our daily lives with digital content, like a sixth sense we use to interact with the world.

The harms of spending two hours a day in your virtual life is not equal to the harms of spending every waking moment there. Prioritising the virtual world over the real one is a dangerous path to head down. Learning moderation and self-discipline regarding technology will undoubtedly be more of a priority in VR.

→  VR will basically become the new Wild West of Technology

Our modern day legal system wasn’t designed to adapt to the rapid way our society is changing. For instance, laws about the Internet have been slow to be legislated and are always poorly enforced. Think the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica data harvesting scandal, which took years to be uncovered and resolved, and by then the damage was done. That’s not to mention the thriving dark web and other unsavoury corners of the net living in plain sight without a hint of regulation.

Just like how the Internet is barely glued together by the goodwill of its citizens and the forces of capitalism, I think it’s likely that the way we behave in the world of virtual reality will be guided not by law, but by the users and corporations that live in it.

The motivations of corporations are obvious. In a place where real world laws don’t apply, our usual cyber-crimes like theft, harassment or fraud will probably be commonplace. But what about the everyday, well-meaning person?

It’s tempting to assume that users will just behave according to common sense. But “common sense” is often based on generations of teaching and learning that haven’t had time to accommodate technological developments. So it’s hard to know what the “right thing to do” is in virtual reality.

Is it ethical to go through all the gory thoughts and motions of beating a person to death if you’re only beating their digital avatar? What about creating hyperrealistic child pornography with computer-controlled virtual children, with no minds of their own? It's true this stuff is technically constructs of imagination, and it’s treading dangerously into 1984-territory to suggest policing people’s minds. But there’s something unsettling about ignoring (and implicitly condoning) these behaviours. The same way violence in video games is often accused of leading to real life gun violence, virtual reality might be influential in shaping the norms in the real world.

Even if users can draw mental boundaries between VR and reality, VR still triggers that 'psychological presence'. "Our brains are not specialized for 21st-century media. There's no switch that says, 'Process this differently because it's on a screen,” says Bryan Reeves, a professor of communication at Stanford Uni. For all we know, virtually living through violent or high stress situations in a game or movie might have the same psychological impact as trauma does in real life.

Creators of VR content will have to evaluate this balance between the freedom and immersion of VR and their ethical obligation – are actions that are “immoral” in real life encouraged or dissuaded? Is it as realistic as possible, or toned down? Is it accidentally making a target of a particular social group or demographic?

The concern, of course, is that you can’t enforce this on every amateur creator or even most tech companies. The burden then falls on us, the consumers.

→ Big Tech is watching (as always)

It’s clear that the big tech giants are going to play a pivotal role in virtual reality. Even though the original creator of Oculus was a guy in his parents’ garage, in a few short years he was bought out by Facebook and Big Zuckerberg. And other tech companies are all developing their own VR technologies.

And of course, companies are going to do what they do best: mine our VR data for as much personal information as they can manage. Already digital home assistants like Amazon Echo are able to monitor your conversations, even when they’re not turned on. The VR experience will be this, but amplified to a hundred. If Google owns your headset and the server you’re standing in, there’s nothing stopping them from tracking your every word and gesture, from the exact details of your surroundings you notice or gloss over, to the “private” conversations you have in confidence.

There will be a lot of subtle advertisements beamed into your virtual path. More maliciously, this detailed data could be sold to third party companies or government agencies. And we can’t forget that the very graphics of VR are controlled by the companies that sell them. In a VR conversation even the facial features, expressions, gestures, appearance and other traits of both people can be manipulated to sell you any product or idea Big Tech wants you to consume next..

What’s beyond?

It’s hard to say what the future for virtual reality holds – like this series says, VR is a burgeoning technology. At any moment, some new innovation could kill every current speculation and leave it dead in the water. But, just as a thought experiment, let’s think about the far, far future. Here’s a question: is the world - the real physical world as we know it - a simulation?

It’s possible that one day we’ll be constructing (or generating with AI) virtual worlds so realistic they’ll be indistinguishable from real life. And it’s possible that in some dystopian future, we won’t interact with real people, but with pixels and algorithms instead. In essence, we might withdraw completely from reality, in favour of the freedoms of our new, virtual world.

Does it even matter? Does the “real” world hold inherent value that the “virtual” one does not?

In the movie The Matrix, the enemy is the virtual reality itself, and the software (“agents”) that impose it on us. Virtual reality is a contract of deception, and we are the ones agreeing to be deceived.

VR is amazing, and limitless in its potential, but there can always be too much of a good thing. Whatever the future holds, it’s certain humanity will keep dreaming of a new reality.

Bibliography and references