Virtual Reality: Suspension of Belief
VIRTUAL REALITY: SUSPENSION OF BELIEF?
You’re watching a movie starring Hugh Jackman as a special forces officer. He is walking alone through a desert. The officer sits on a rock, lays down his rifle, and drinks from his canteen. Then he stares at you. After two seconds, you realize that he’s actually looking slightly above you and to your left. You turn your head to look in that direction, and you see several armed men approaching from a distant ridge.
Your experience of the movie will differ slightly from the experience of everyone else who sees it. You are not staring at a flat screen. You are immersed in the action, and what you see and hear at any given moment is determined by what direction you’re facing, and by whether you’re sitting or standing. The movie is not just in front of you; it’s all around you.
Do you think you know virtual reality? You may have played a few VR video games. According to Chris Dixon, an executive at Andreesen Horowitz, an investment capital firm specializing in information technology, though, you probably have little inkling of its full potential. All of the entertainment and information media you’re accustomed to could not prepare you fully for VR.
The field has changed dramatically in the last two years. Virtual reality first appeared in the late nineties, but it failed to find much of a market because the technology was too primitive; processors, screens, and accelerometers could not simulate direct experience convincingly. The field has since matured enormously. After the smart phone boom fueled the necessary technical advances, VR could finally realize its potential.
With books and conventional movies, we find it necessary to “suspend disbelief” in order to follow the plots. Our brains interpret words or images as 3-D reality. We never quite forget, though, that we are sitting comfortably in our easy chairs, staring at lines on paper or images on a screen. It requires effort to pull our minds away from our mundane surroundings, and writers and filmmakers have to be skillful to draw us into their works. As immersive as current virtual reality displays are, this pattern is reversed. VR floods our senses with so much stimulation, our minds instinctively react to it as they do to real experience. We have to remind ourselves that our apparent environments are not real.
Virtual reality, Dixon says, is not an improvement on existing entertainment media; it is an entirely new medium. It will require its own unique language and “grammar”. Just as the first movie makers often stumbled, not sure what could be done with motion pictures, and just as it took decades for reliable screenwriting, cinematography, and editing protocols to become standardized, so it will take years-even decades- for virtual reality to settle on its own conventions. VR pioneers will not make movies; they will make experiences, which will obligate them to keep track of many factors that conventional filmmakers have never had to think about. VR content providers will need years of exploration to get comfortable and adept with the new medium.
So far, virtual reality has been used chiefly for gaming, but as the technology improves, uses for it will multiply. One obvious VR function will be career training. Since VR simulators can closely replicate direct experience, they can not only communicate intellectual concepts, they can develop and refine practical skills. Practice in the simulators will promote muscle memory for surgery, piloting aircraft, auto repair, playing musical instruments, martial arts, swinging golf clubs, or throwing footballs.
Virtual reality could become a valuable enhancement of social life, or an addictive substitute for it. Family members, though separated by hundreds of miles, could share meals around a virtual table. Advanced VR teleconferencing will make in-person business meetings unnecessary. Singles could explore romance with virtual dates, in apparently real environments, before they risk meeting in person. The VR software could produce occasional surprises: rude waiters, bad weather, or minor crises, so each partner could gauge how the other deals with adversity. Of course, some people are likely to use the technology to avoid social interaction altogether. One obvious function for VR will be pornography, with beautifully rendered digital lovers synced with haptic sensors to simulate touch. Some people may come to prefer virtual lovers to real ones.
Virtual reality has huge potential to enhance our lives or to ruin them. One thing is almost certain, though- virtually certain, if you’ll pardon the pun. VR will change our attitudes, and our approach to reality, in important ways.
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