Any time a new technology is introduced to the public, the initial conversation surrounding it is often centered around one thing — entertainment value. This is how many innovators get people on board with new tech; if something is fun to interact with, people are more likely to make a habit of using it.
The growing virtual reality craze is the latest example of this in action. For decades, consumers have been promised the world where they could strap on a device and be fully immersed in a new digital reality — and they’ve been promised, first and foremost, that it would be fun.
But as it is with many other innovations, entertainment is only the tip of the iceberg.
While VR has great potential in the realm of gaming, its possible applications reach far beyond, into places that are still largely unknown. Finding and harnessing this power can seem daunting, but it’s also what makes it so exciting.
The Surprise of the Unknown
When Rafi Letzter donned his first VR headset, he didn’t expect much from the experience. A laundry list of vision problems — most notably a lack of depth perception — meant his experience would most likely be lackluster at best.
But after a few minutes with the HTC Vive on, something extraordinary happened. He began to see more than just a flat expanse — for the first time in a long time, he saw true depth.
While this effect wore off shortly after he removed the headset, Letzter’s story is a good example of how little we know, both about VR’s potential uses and its long-term effects.
One major reason for this, of course, is because the tech is still new. Studies on VR’s effects are in their infant stages, and there’s a distinct lack of cohesive standards across the industry. But there’s one other obstacle in our path to understanding the possibilities in VR — one that doesn’t have to do so much with the present state of VR, but the future. It’s our own imaginations.
Pushing Past the Impossible
In George Orwell’s classic “1984,” every member of society is required to have an “always on” viewing screen that operates as a camera — essentially a moving two-way mirror.
But in his initial concepts of state-driven surveillance, Orwell could never have imagined the world in which micro-cameras could be placed in any corner of any structure, completely outside the view of those who live or work in the area.
As technology continues to advance, widespread acceptance of it will, too, and people will learn to interpret the world in new and unforeseen ways.
When futurists conceptualized in-home entertainment, its execution was distinctly different from the eventual reality. Similarly, when we begin to fathom how society will change regarding VR, our imaginations can only go so far.
We are typically held back by the current execution — bulky devices that sit on a user’s head, separating them from the physical world. But that limitation is as unreal as anything we may see when donning those headsets.
A Glimpse Into the Future of VR
Eventually, both virtual and augmented reality will move beyond the preconceived storylines or programs written by developers — transforming into a tool of creation. Soon, artists and engineers will be able to sculpt or move objects with digital hands, going from mental concept directly to (virtual) reality.
VR will go far beyond the reactive notion of “feeling like you’re there,” approaching a more proactive mindset where each VR experience is a new world that can be manipulated and owned simply through the power of thought.
Already, developers are crafting more proactive approaches: amazingly realistic simulations for those wanting to learn new skills — from soldiers to pilots, to doctors or surgeons — all without the potentially dire consequences of failure. For example, Microsoft’s HoloLens is even being sent into space to help astronauts prepare for crisis situations.
Serious therapeutic possibilities exist for VR as well. Sufferers of vertigo, for instance, could potentially address their issues in simulations of the real world while still physically in a safe space. Even something as ancient as meditation is already utilizing VR. As it turns out, mindfulness may actually be best achieved by observing the virtual world around us (and by taking what we’ve learned and bringing it into reality).
VR technology is on the cusp of changing the way we interact with software, entertainment, and even medical advice. Getting there may take some creative thinking, but the potentially massive implications are well worth the challenge.