Despite advancements in the field, does virtual reality ultimately make us too vulnerable?

Written by Michael Thomsen (@mike_thomsen)


The first virtual reality machine was an intimidating machine, discomfortingly named the Sword of Damocles because its metal housing was so heavy it had to be suspended from the ceiling, hovering over its soft-bellied user like an accident waiting to happen. In many ways the aim of virtual reality is the opposite of the workaday laptops, tablets, and smart phones, which perform mundane tasks at dramatic speeds. Virtual reality seeks to add complication to our lives, filling our interactions with atmospheric minutiae that, rather than enhancing productivity, ensnares it in a digital veil of persistent vision, unaware of the vulnerability such states produce.

Occulus Rift is the newest entrant to the virtual reality field, a company founded by 20 year-old Palmer Luckey around the premise of bringing a newer and less intimidating form of virtual reality to the consumer market. Sprung from an early prototype comprised of panoramic 3D screens fitted into ski goggles with accompanying motion sensors, Luckey sent one of these prototypes to Doom co-creator John Carmack, who took an immediate interest and was soon re-coding Doom 3 to work as a demonstration for how motion-enabled virtual reality glasses could enhance videogames. 


Virtual reality creates the dual thrill of being magically elsewhere, but it comes with the price of losing control over the context and implications of that experience.


Soon after, Occulus Rift's Kickstarter campaign reached and surpassed its goals, while impressing a number of other major game design studios, including Valve and Epic Games, makers of the Unreal Engine that's used to develop a large number of major console games. The first batch of headsets are scheduled to ship to Kickstarter backers in March, primarily to other game developers who will hopefully begin working on experiences built specifically for the goggles. Luckey's attempts to rekindle the public interest in virtual reality has been preliminarily joined by Microsoft, which released a concept video for IllummiRoom at this year's CES. Developed by Microsoft Research, IllumiRoom combines the Xbox 360's Kinect sensor with a projector to turn an entire living room into a dramatic game space, with level art and special effects projected on walls to expand the field of view beyond the television.

The time is not exactly right for a resurgence now, with the initial wave of excitement over 3D screens in movie theaters, phones, and Nintendo's 3DS seeming to have waned, but the cost of producing the devices has become cheaper. Following the massive success of the iPhone and touchscreen devices, the cost of high-resolution mobile screens has dropped significantly now that they are being manufactured in such high volume. Likewise, Microsoft's Kinect has sold more than 24 million units in a little over 2 years, creating a huge group of users already invested in one of the key technologies to enable full room projection.

While the newness of these endeavors make them exciting, it remains an open question as to what the actual benefits are from creating fake environments that exploit the way our bodies process sensory experience. Technology has already diluted wide swathes of human experience with the promise of recreating what already is, from the compulsion to experience our daily lives in context of what our phones make possible to document and what social networks make possible to share. These technologies heighten our moment to moment awareness in many ways, but they also narrow the parameters of our awareness, forcing them to think in terms of our technology's limitations. A night out with friends is interrupted by the vigilant desire to take a photo, share it on Twitter, and then regularly monitor the flow of responses. A vacation comes with a persistent desire to find socially distributable mementos of it, to experience it as a thing we might share through digital simulacra as much as it is an occasion of self-reflection. With Vine and Snapchat, the narrowness has become an asset, transmitting ghostly fragments whose hard stops do not reverberate so much as they slam the door shut on the kind of slower meandering thoughts one has when life is not a jumpcut vortex of subliminality.


It's this subliminal susceptibility that virtual reality would pry open, making even more of our interior lives open to the artificial suggestions of designers in some distant office park. Think of it as an exponential intensification of the Kuleshov Effect, making it possible for the experience of an event and a place to be subconsciously driven toward one particular impression. Imagine the Wii U's Google Maps app being transformed into a surrogate vacation tool when connected to Occulus Rift for instance, and imagine giving designers the power to rewrite how one experiences a distant place and culture to suit the emotional wants of the user. We still have the freedom to question the truth of these experiences, but our capacity to do so depends on the ability to access experiences on terms controlled by natural phenomenon, not a designers. For centuries art has come in limited media formats, ones with clear boundaries between them and the environment we experience them in. One remembers not just the book, but the time and place one reads it. Even in the submerssive arena of movie theaters, one has a constant awareness of surroundings, the creaking of the seats, the chomping of popcorn, the ushers marching up the aisles with their flashlights.

Virtual reality creates the dual thrill of being magically elsewhere, but it comes with the price of losing control over the context and implications of that experience. People like new experiences and learning about how life might be outside of their own limitations, but they also like the control of being able to pursue those ends consciously, as part of our relationship with the world's natural phenomena, not its handmade artifice. As the merchants and technicians behind virtual again try and pitch its wonderments, it's worth asking why we should want to give our senses and perceptions over to such an experience, if even just for a few minutes at a time. And it’s worth double skepticism over why a technologist of any stripe would want access to us in our most vulnerable states.