Will VR and AR Break Reality?
I had originally planned for this to be a single post exploring some of the new and exciting technologies that are going to have the biggest impact on our lives in the next decade. I discovered as I read up on these subjects, that there was so much to cover that this would work best as a series of posts. I will explore, in this and subsequent posts, some of these trends in the world of tech, our relationship to them, and how we can leverage the new opportunities that they will present to ensure that these new technologies will serve and not enslave us. These technologies will dominate our lives and, as such, we must be informed enough to play an active role in how they are established. The alternative is that our lives will be governed by technologies we do not understand that are controlled by people whose interests may not always align with those of the rest of us.
I will start with virtual reality because the upcoming Matrix movie has piqued public interest in the potential of the technology. When we first met Morpheus and the gang just over 20 years ago, the idea of constructing a full-blown virtual reality seemed, to most people, like the stuff of science fiction, not a near-future inevitability. Now, having gone through the pandemic being sold on the wonders of virtual spaces only to discover how inadequate they are in their present form, most people are desperate for more. Popular movies like Ready Player One have shown us what this might look like, and there are many brilliant minds out there working hard to bring these technologies to our homes, soon.
Many of us have spent the last 20 or so months interacting with the rest of the world mostly through glass screens. This has given us a chance to see, on one hand, the potential of virtual spaces, but, on the other hand, how limited they still are. Virtual reality (VR), which typically uses a headset to place the user inside a computer-generated reality, and augmented reality (AR), which layers digital images on top of the real world, have been tipped to be what finally allows us to overcome those limitations.
VR and AR, often referred to under the umbrella term XR (extended reality), will be useful in various settings that will benefit both consumers and businesses alike. In both cases, XR technologies can offer cheaper solutions to existing problems as well as level the playing field for small businesses and large corporations. For example, one goal of virtual reality is to create convincingly real, fully immersive virtual spaces. This would allow famous institutions, e.g. the Louvre Museum, to reach an audience that may not afford to physically travel to their locations by offering guided, virtual tours to tourists around the globe. Ideally, such experiences would be indistinguishable from physically being in the museum. Such capabilities would be equally available to smaller, independent art exhibitionists, allowing more people to showcase their art even if they cannot afford to rent a physical space in which to do so. In similar ways, the healthcare, engineering, and real estate sectors, among others, will also be able to leverage XR technologies for wider reach and greater profitability. Through virtualized retail, clothing shops will be able to offer online fitting, prospective homeowners will be able to attend open houses remotely, and buyers will be able to visualize how a piece of furniture will fit inside their homes. Companies like Boeing and Walmart have already begun to implement XR technologies for workforce training. This has allowed them to significantly lower their training costs through the use of immersive simulations. This can also be extended to military personnel to simulate scenarios that are too difficult or dangerous to recreate in the physical world.
There will be just as many, if not more, great applications for individual consumers. Equipped with an XR-capable device, we’ll all be able to play far more immersive games, attend live events, and explore virtual environments and spaces. This means not only being able to travel to overseas museums and galleries but also being able to visit exotic destinations and attend sports and entertainment events held anywhere on the planet. The gaming industry, especially, will be revolutionized by full-body sensory suits with haptic feedback good enough to allow players to truly embody their in-game avatars. This may be why many market analysts predict that gaming will be one of the leading drivers of XR adoption. XR technologies will also be able to transport us both physically and temporally[i], allowing us to experience not just different places but also different eras[ii]. Beyond that, there will also be therapeutic uses for XR technology such as those that will allow people with phobias or those who are suffering from PTSD to face (and, hopefully, overcome) their fears. And, all of this will probably be kinder on our wallets.
If Facebook’s recent rebrand to Meta is anything to go by, this future may be coming to us sooner than we think. While the move must have been, at least in part, motivated by the desire to ditch the negative baggage that the old name has collected due to scandals in recent years, it is also an attempt by the company to position itself as renegades of the budding, new metaverse. Given that this newly christened Meta owns Oculus which is one of the biggest VR companies in the world, it shows genuine confidence in the future of XR technologies. This may be because recent increases in R&D expenditure on XR have led to significant improvements in the available hardware. Despite being less than 10 years old, Oculus has made great strides, particularly since its acquisition by Facebook in 2014. The result, then, is great hardware at competitive prices. While earlier VR headsets had to be plugged into a PC or console to work, newer devices such as the Oculus Quest 2 work independently. And, at $299 for the baseline model, these devices offer great value for money[iii]. Therefore, with the advent of 5G, smaller and increasingly powerful chipsets, and our increased reliance on virtual spaces since the COVID pandemic began, the world seems perfectly primed for XR. Alongside Oculus, companies like Alphabet, HTC, Microsoft, Samsung, etc. will also be vying for XR supremacy as the hardware improves. It seems, then, that the onus is on those in software development to offer consumers a way to make full use of the available hardware.
For most people, the all-important question is how we’ll all be able to monetize this technology. We have all seen, first hand, the gains made by those who were quick to embrace new opportunities in digital and social media marketing, online content creation, web development, etc. Opportunities in the metaverse will be equally, if not more, abundant. For starters, there will be a whole new class of content to be created. Content creators will be able to use 360-degree cameras, which are already available, to create content that is far more immersive than what we have today. As with the art exhibitionists mentioned earlier, bands and artists that can’t quite fill up stadiums yet will be able to sell tickets to virtual concerts hosted in virtual worlds with unlimited front-row seats. Fortnite users have already experienced a somewhat primitive form of this through Ariana Grande’s Rift Tour concert or when Travis Scott debuted his new track, Astronomical, on the platform. As these virtual worlds grow, demand for skilled graphic designers will increase to fully flesh out and bring these experiences to life. Given that our lives will be lived increasingly in virtual spaces, virtual possessions will likely be more valuable than those in the physical world. This means that retailers both small and large will sell more virtual goods and, for smaller businesses, they may find themselves freed from certain limitations that they would face in the real world, such as from the cost of renting out physical stores to buying materials to mass manufacture products. And, aided by certain features of Blockchain[iv] technology and NFTs (non-fungible tokens), creators will be able to not only earn from initial product sales but also all subsequent resells. The biggest opportunities, however, may lie in the gaming industry. Forecasts already predict that the gaming industry will dominate the XR space, and while the thought of developing one’s own VR game may sound daunting, it’s worth looking into for those who are interested and/or have the necessary skillset. There will also be opportunities for b/vloggers, equipped with a VR headset, to share their experiences with the technology, reviewing and promoting new apps and games while being paid to do so as many already do today with mobile applications. These are just some of the opportunities that will come along. There are many more that I have not mentioned, as well as others that we may not even know about yet[v]. And, given that this technology is still in the early days of mass adoption, we have the opportunity to be at the forefront of its expansion.
Even with all these potential benefits, the emergence of mainstream VR has sparked much vigorous debate beyond the world of tech. It’s important to note, especially, that despite most depictions of XR technologies in fiction acting as cautionary tales, we are still forging ahead no doubt with the conviction that we can do better. The question, then, is whether these unflattering depictions point to potential pitfalls that we must avoid, or if the weaknesses highlighted are inherent to the technology itself. Whatever the case, there’s little evidence to suggest that those at the forefront of developing these technologies will pump the brakes to explore these questions. We have, after all, been obsessed with the otherworldly since the dawn of mankind. Whether it’s through stories of the afterlife, shamans exploring dream worlds, or, today, looking up at the sky and envisioning a future in the cosmos, we seem to be always on the hunt for some way of escaping our present reality in the search for something better.
With the power bestowed upon us to create these new worlds in which millions or even billions will inhabit, we must stop and ask ourselves how far we ought to go. We already inhabit somewhat virtual worlds through social media, and XR technology will take us into uncharted territory where we’ll be limited only by our collective imagination. The HBO show, Westworld, though not necessarily focused on virtual reality, explores these questions via a theme park that is virtual in that it offers an escape into a sculpted, consequence-free reality. Without going into too much detail about the show (it’s worth a watch), the theme park is a recreation of the Wild West inhabited by robots where human guests can go around fulfilling their darkest fantasies, most of which would be illegal in the real world. Similarly, some have suggested that virtual spaces can serve as an outlet for those who wish to engage in activities that our society finds taboo. Beyond being able to create free, virtual environments, the so-called metaverse will offer unparalleled avenues for self-creation. Forget being able to apply filters to our Instagram pictures — in the metaverse, our avatars can be whatever we want them to be. Therefore, those that do not like their physical appearance in the real world can solve that by turning their avatar into the ideal vision of themselves, something that portrays the way that they wish to be seen. Yet, in both these cases, what pleasure we experience in these virtual worlds evaporates as soon as we’re inevitably thrust back into the unsatisfactory real world. In some sense, then, this pleasure is not real, and we must turn to the question of whether or not we must give value to what is.
In his 1974 epic, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, philosopher Robert Nozick presented a thought experiment known as the pleasure or experience machine as an attack on the philosophy of ethical hedonism. He asked us to imagine a machine that could give us pleasure in perpetuity while forcing us to abandon reality. He argued that something other than pleasure — the real — was valuable to us and would discourage us from fully plugging in. On the other hand, The Matrix similarly grappled with this issue of the value of what is real. Unlike Nozick’s thought experiment, The Matrix asks whether we would unplug from such a pleasure machine if we discovered that we were already hooked up to one. This is where the red pill-blue pill motif whose popularity has surged in recent years comes from. In both cases, what is real is the physical world and any experienced pleasure that is not in the real world is not real pleasure. With that in mind, given the choice between being in some simulated reality designed only to bring us joy and being thrown back into the chaos of the real world, what would we choose? The proliferation of XR technologies will force us to grapple with these questions daily. Our decisions needn’t be eternal, as in the case of either plugging in or unplugging forever, yet we will find ourselves needing to choose whether to opt for real-world experiences or idyllic virtual spaces.
The discussions have not only been restricted to the philosophical aspects of XR technologies. There is a sense in which many problems that we face in the real world will persist or be exacerbated in virtual spaces and many new ones will arise. The issue of ownership of land and real estate is one such issue. There are people, today, that have already begun to buy land in virtual worlds, which means that there is the very real possibility that the majority of people will still have to rent out space from a minority of landowners as we do, now. While it’s amazing that we’ll all possibly be able to attend Drake and Cardi B concerts from anywhere around the world, this only means that the most popular acts will inevitably gobble up the lion’s share of attention. People that only have the option to attend live events and festivals in their localities now will be able, instead, to attend those of their favorite international acts. In the same way, art lovers who would have explored and supported local galleries will gravitate towards the more popular and iconic world-renowned ones. When the playing field is leveled, the mighty almost always inevitably stomp out all smaller competition, as we have seen from the rise of today’s mammoth corporations. Another sector that will suffer is tourism. Unless some plan for alternative compensation can be drafted, economies around the world that are dependent on tourism will collapse as people will be able to experience being in those places without physically visiting them. On a personal level, an increasing number of people may struggle with the pain of knowing that they could never match up to their virtual avatars. Many of these problems are human problems and will persist whether we are in virtual worlds or the real world.
As the world slowly recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, we can already see, in some places, a disinclination to step back into the public arena. Many people have been fighting to continue working from home and many students have argued that online classes are about as good as the in-person alternative. Most of this might be, of course, the result of persisting fears concerning the virus, but it’s also worth noting that virtual spaces allow us to hide from a world that seems to be getting ever more chaotic. Regardless, while there is tremendous potential for XR technology, we must be wary of buying into the marketing hype. Some will try to convince us that the so-called metaverse will offer an equivalent or superior alternative to real-world interaction and socialization. Such claims must be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism. Today, most people believe that the alienation that they feel on social platforms is not a result of the insufficiency of the technology itself (after all, it’s advertised as being the gateway to better, more wholesome, and longer-lasting connections), but a result of the people online being ‘fake’ or, in many cases, blame themselves for their inability to connect. What we see, here, is that we have put more faith in our technology than in ourselves, culminating in a full-blown unwillingness to entertain the possibility that the technology might be failing us. As we embrace XR technologies, we must try to be more open-minded, exploring the potential benefits while also remaining skeptical of the outlandish claims that their purveyors will make. There’s no denying the great potential of XR technologies. Whether or not the metaverse can offer an even halfway decent substitute for physical reality, however, is yet to be seen.
[i] Some have proposed that this may be the closest we get to true teleportation as seen in science fiction. It’s unlikely that we’ll be able to physically beam ourselves from one place to another, but by putting on a VR headset and punching in a few commands, we may get the sense of being instantly transported to somewhere else.
[ii] Limited, of course, by how accurately we can recreate the past or imagine the future.
[iii] Mark Zuckerberg has explicitly said that Oculus will continue to subsidize prices of VR gear to encourage adoption. Zuckerberg: Meta Will Continue To Subsidize Headset Cost (uploadvr.com)
[iv] Everything related to cryptocurrencies and Blockchain technology will be covered in a future post.
[v] The idea of earning money as an online content creator would have been unthinkable 20 years ago, and, in the same way, new opportunities will arise with this new technology that we can’t possibly imagine.