by Hailey DeWitt Williams
Virtual Reality has been a topic of discussion in the tech industry for many years. But, 2016 is being deemed the year that virtual reality becomes reality. According to TrendForce, in the next year VR device sales are expected to hit 14 million units worldwide. Revenues for VR platforms are expected to hit $120 billion by 2020. A world where VR is a part of our daily lives is no longer a futuristic plot, but a likely scenario. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has said, “One day, we believe this kind of immersive, augmented reality will become a part of daily life for billions of people.”
But the conversations and concerns that surround our increasing addiction to social media and electronic devices are the same that surround the rise of VR. How is it helping us? How is it harming us? What does it mean for our future as a society?
In simplest terms virtual reality is an immersive multimedia or computer-simulated life. It’s true that no matter how realistic VR technologies become, something will always be missing. Regular users have reported that the more time they spend in a virtual world the more they become aware of what it lacks; the all sensory experience. No matter how many senses are re-created or how real the simulation feels, it will never be reality. The Sensorama, what many consider to be the first VR system, was created in 1962 by filmmaker Mort Heilig. The machine offered movies in 3D film with sound, aromas and wind. Heilig’s ideas of mixing sensory stimuli to improve the movie-going experience paved the way for today’s obsession with augmented reality.
Still, it is getting harder to ignore the fact that we are becoming slaves to our devices. Articles and statistics pile up about how technology has been hijacking our attention whether we’re driving on the highway or sitting at the dinner table. The term “hikikormori” has been used in Japan to describe close to one million Japanese citizens who have become shut-ins. These people are addicted to technology in some form. They end up socially isolating themselves while developing depressive and obsessive compulsive tendencies. Users of the 3D virtual world Second Life have been reported to spend 20 hours a day submersed in the universe, putting their real life and relationships on the back burner, coming close to losing their jobs, and in some cases ending their marriages. World of Warcraft is a MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) that has become infamous for its players becoming addicted. High school student Zhang Xiaoyi committed suicide after playing WoW for 36 consecutive hours. These are just a few examples among many of unhealthy escapism. If our current technology addiction hasn’t already sent us over the edge, then the rise of virtual reality might just be that final push. Escaping to a fantasy world to hide from the challenges of everyday life only prevents us from seeing things clearly.
It isn’t all bad. Virtual reality devices such as the Oculus Rift are an exciting advancement in the tech, entertainment, and gaming world. Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey says the uses of VR devices expand beyond gaming. Training in emergency response and surgical procedures could benefit from the use of virtual reality scenarios. VR experiences could assist teachers in the classroom, relieve homesick astronauts, aid in police or military training, and even help in treatment for things like PTSD and phobias. With correct use of VR devices there are endless possibilities for creating social good. VR is even starting to infiltrate the travel industry. We could one day soon be travelling around the world simply by wearing a headset and sitting in our rooms, but would that really be travelling? It’s believed that VR and AR (augmented reality) will alter and revolutionize almost every industry in some way.
If used correctly VR has positive potential, but if it is not used thoughtfully and in moderation the effects could be harmful. The dopamine that is released when we interact with social media, video games, and virtual reality satisfies our social needs and makes us feel good. But those feelings are temporary and leave us repeatedly coming back for more. The truth is we can only see the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the ways technology is changing society and evolution.
Only time will tell what kind of lasting effects virtual realities will have on human behaviors, communications, and industries. We must remember to take control of our technology so it doesn’t take control of us.