Virtual reality isn't just a gaming gimmick, it could improve empathy levels and even reduce racial bias

This technology is about to change the way you perceive the world – and yourself

Related Topics

"In the future," wrote Jaron Lanier in his 2010 book You are not a gadget, "I fully expect children to turn into molecules and triangles in order to learn about themselves... I fully expect morphing to become as important a dating skill as kissing."

The self-styled philosopher of the digital world was referring to a discovery he had made as a researcher at the forefront of virtual reality in the 1980s – finding that he and his team using virtual reality headsets could easily be induced to inhabit a variety of bizarrely shaped bodies, such as a six-legged lobster.

As Cyrus Nemati noted in a piece published by the Independent last week, the laws of physics don’t need to apply when you’re moving about within a virtual environment. You can launch yourself into the sky, Superman style; you can explore distant space without an oxygen tank; you can ride an ant, "preferably while wearing a loincloth and carrying an axe". With hardware like the Kickstarter-crashing Oculus Rift on the verge of reaching mainstream audiences, it shouldn’t be long before you, too, will find yourself exploring worlds you have always dreamed of visiting, and immersed in others you could never have imagined imagining.

The development and democratization of virtual reality (or VR) is, frankly, a weird prospect. Its possibilities go far beyond simply making gaming more immersive, or allowing flight commanders and surgeons to practice their jobs without the danger of accidentally killing their clients.

When you put on a pair of VR goggles and begin to move around the virtual landscape, your brain is very quickly fooled into believing that the world you can see is the real world. You’ll know, consciously, that it’s just a virtual environment, but your responses and perception of the place in which you find yourself are entirely swallowed up in the illusion that VR researchers call ‘ presence’. If you find yourself creeping along a precarious, but virtual, clifftop path, Indiana Jones-style, you will actually feel the churning pump of vertigo in your stomach.

The Oculus Rift offers the wearer a breath-taking experience The Oculus Rift offers the wearer a breath-taking experience

Strangely, 'presence' isn’t reliant on complete realism in the virtual world – aspects you’d think would be vital, such as high-definition graphics, seem to be superfluous. There’s a great example of this on the blog of Mel Slater, a VR researcher based at UCL. In an experiment into the ‘bystander effect’, Slater and his colleagues found that people would intervene to stop a fight between two virtual characters as though they were real. When asked what aspects of the virtual environment might have caused the illusion to fall away, none of the experimental subjects seemed to have noticed that their virtual companions were able to speak without moving their mouths.

Perhaps the most peculiar aspect of VR, though, becomes apparent when you start to mess around with the avatars of virtual reality users themselves, as Jaron Lanier did with his lobster-legs observation. Again, Mel Slater’s blog provides an illuminating example of body-swapping in action: in an experiment conducted as part of the TRAVERSE project exploring the effects of virtual reality, Slater and his team found that embodying an avatar of a different race can come to significantly reduce racial bias. A solution to racism? Without some kind of dystopian citizenship programme, probably not. But it should open our eyes to some of the social potential for VR (both good and bad) that could be coded into the media people currently use on a frequent basis.

At the very least, this summons an array of questions about the way we perceive reality. How can it be so easy to forget that mouths need to move to produce intelligible sounds? Are we so engrossed by our own existence that we can happily cohabit a world populated with pixelated pals?

There’s a lot of ‘try it and see’ here – what people should realise, though, is that virtual reality isn’t just a tool to replicate aspects of the universe that we already understand. It’s a way we can excite and explore undiscovered aspects of our consciousness, first hand, and from our own homes. The growth of the internet and the diversity of its uses has created multiple new paths for culture and society to follow – from open source culture to interactive artwork. To these, virtual reality, and its close cousin ‘ mixed reality’, add not only a new medium, but open up a new sense with which to explore it: our “ gut feeling” of presence.


Jack Orlik is a writer and digital researcher who has recently completed UCL's M.Sc in Digital Anthropology.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Breakdown Engineers

£28000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Breakdown Engineer...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £60,000

£25000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Care Workers Required - The London Borough of Bromley

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This homecare agency is based in Beckenh...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Polish minister Rafal Trazaskowski (second from right)  

Poland is open to dialogue but EU benefits restrictions are illegal and unfair

Rafal Trzaskowski
The report will embarrass the Home Secretary, Theresa May  

Surprise, surprise: tens of thousands of illegal immigrants have 'dropped off' the Home Office’s radar

Nigel Farage
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas