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

Share
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

Cover Supervisor

£45 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Chester: Job Opportunities for Cover Sup...

EBD Teacher in Shropshire

Negotiable: Randstad Education Chester: EBD Teacher - ShropshireWe are current...

Teaching Assistant (complex needs)

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We are currently looking for teachi...

Business Analyst/ Project Manager - Financial Services

£60000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client in the Financial...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: Take a moment to imagine you're Ed Miliband...

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
 

Letters: No vote poses difficult questions – so why rush?

Independent Voices
Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits