Technology is approaching reality. What I mean by this is that soon, our physical world may be indistinguishable from one created through virtual reality technology. We already have the hardware and software to put a user inside a world of pixels and computer-generated graphics; it’s simply a matter of improving the image to a point where the images become too real. It is an incredible feat that we have already accomplished science-fiction-like world building, but has technology gone too far?
Already we have utilized virtual reality for professional and intellectual pursuits. People are finding that they can do their jobs remotely, or have access to parts of the world they never would have been able to see before with the help of technology. The entire realm of Digital Humanities focuses on the intersection between technology and humanistic pursuits. Even the video game industry is pushing toward more immersive games that take place on the inside of a headset. It seems as if everyone is benefiting, improving and adapting to this new world of bits and bytes.
The Bridge is a mixed reality headset in which the user can see the real world around them with virtual components added on top of it. In addition it has an immersive virtual reality component, where like traditional virtual reality headsets, allow the user to experience a fully digitized world. It uses positional tracking to sense physical objects and combine virtual components on top of them. So essentially it’s Pokemon-Go like technology seen through your eyes rather than on a small screen. But if “seeing is believing”, can’t experiencing this type of mixed and immersive-reality world start to convince a person that the pixels and graphics are real? We may not be at this level of advancement now, but I believe it definitely a possibility in the future. Thinking about this type of technology has really had me wondering what the psychological effects of virtual and mixed reality are on a human brain. Can we have physiological reactions to a virtual world, experienced through a headset placed on our eyes?
In an episode of the TV show “Black Mirror” I watched recently (Season 3, Episode 2), a man was a test subject for a new fictional gaming technology that implanted a small chip in his head and allowed him to experience the world as is, but with a twist. The developers were able to utilize software to design video game-like scenarios that played out inside of his head. For example in one scene, he played “whack-a-mole” on an empty table, but the image of the mole he saw was seemingly real. It got to a point where the game developers were able to create nightmarish scenarios that although the man knew everything was in his head, he started to believe that what he saw was real. These feats of virtual reality are entirely possible very soon, but I wonder what the repercussions on society will be.
What if we start to abuse the technology? What if we use it in a way that does more harm than good? Creating digital torture could become entirely possible. Imagine virtual wars inside headsets such as the Bridge in which the user returns to reality with severe PTSD as a result of a fake set of gunshot wounds that seemed so real at the time. Will this disconnect between real and virtual worlds create a psychological gap as well. What if people start to live digitally rather than physically? All of this is entirely possible. Although technology is both fascinating and beneficial, I think it is important that we consider the dark side as well.
Despite this dark take on the virtual world, I believe that the technology could also create positive psychological reactions if used in a regulated and controlled environment. For example, allowing sick patients to escape the white hospital walls by mentally transporting them to another country. Or perhaps allowing homesick students to “see” their family back home. Or in regards to Digital Humanities: allowing humans to document history and art in an accessible and immersive way. The possibilities are unfathomable at this point, but it will certainly be interesting to see what direction society travels when it comes to this volatile method of creation.