Is reality a figment of our imagination?
The emerging technology of virtual reality evokes questions that date back to Ancient Greece. It has been a long tradition to try and interpret the true nature of reality. These questions began as philosophical in nature and evolved to encapsulate our understandings of the world through various disciplines; through epistemology, physics, neuroscience and future technology.
Still, we aren’t quite sure yet. From our understanding of the brain, we know that we interpret the world through our senses such as our eyes and ears. The key word being interpret – these senses send signals to the brain about perceived information, which may not be the reality. An example of this is people that are color blind – their eyes send different signals to the brain compared to everyone else.
These signals combine in our brain to give us a sense of the world around us. They also contribute to what is known as qualia – individual instances of subjective experiences or consciousness. But the world isn’t completely subjective – there are laws of physics afterall. It’s a question that perhaps only a super intelligence can solve – how much of what we experience is subjective as opposed to objective?
It may be possible to draw a link between our longing for virtual reality and our biological imperatives. We’ve evolved in a way that makes us have an instinctive need to improve our lot in life. Historically, this could manifest in the form of hoarding food in a scarce environment or dreaming about ascending the ranks of society. In other words, the desire for a life – or reality – that is different and better to our own is something that most people and cultures can relate to. This could be one of the reasons why tales of the afterlife make such a compelling message – particularly to the poor who are usually the most religious.
Aside from social aspirations, there is also a part of our genetic makeup that allows us to regularly experience alternative realities – our dreams. We often forget what we dream about unless we make a conscious effort, and our dreams for the most part are an incoherent mess. But many people have experienced what is called lucid dreaming in which they are able to consciously interact with their dream as if it were real. Alternatively, we can experience a form of augmented reality through sleep paralysis – with people often reporting seeing shadowy figures on their bed or in their room.
Attempts at entering an alternative reality have been with us for a long time. For instance, tribal rituals that involve elements of intoxication, music and drugs are used to invoke a trance like state. The intention being to connect with one’s ancestors in the ancestral realm or becoming the incarnation of a deity. Similar techniques, for different intentions, are used among the young in the modern day. Psychedelics are popular in certain music scenes which are supposedly meant to help the user see the true nature of reality. In their perspective at that given time, what is real is completely different to us.
Although we have tried to access different realities, what makes virtual reality special is that it is engineered through technology. It is a reality that we can create in the digital form – one which is subject to our conscious needs. It is game changing because like flat screen computers, virtual reality can act as a universal simulator. The same way we can program computers to do many different tasks is the same way we can create an endless amount of virtual experiences. We are on the verge of creating a digital sandbox that attempts to replicate and go beyond our reality.
One of the first, and at the time highly innovative attempt at ‘virtual reality’ came in the form of stereoscopes – which represent the design inspiration of modern VR headsets. Essentially, a stereoscope is two lenses which link and distort the perception of a photograph to give the illusion of depth. The effect is such that it feels like you can look around the image – giving a primitive effect of a virtual experience. This invention was later resurrected and popularized by the popular View-Master brand.
Although stereoscopes aren’t digital, they would eventually synthesize with the computer revolution of the 20th century to give birth to attempts at true digital VR. With imaginations ignited by science fiction novels such as Neuromancer, venture backed attempts by companies such as VPL Research and Nintendo began, with the aim to create digital VR in the 80s and 90s.
But this wasn’t the revolution that was promised. Instead, the Virtual Boy by Nintendo was a failure. It was a technology that was birthed before it’s time, with a few reasons for it’s flop including:
In the time between the 90’s and 2010s, the hype and promise of VR faded. People desperately wanted it, but with the notable failures it was seen as nothing more than a sci-fi gimmick. Still, there remained communities of individuals connected by the internet who were still working to keep the dream alive. Despite the failure, the desire for an alternative reality remained strong – perhaps it is indeed part of our makeup.
Holding on persistently to this dream paid off when in 2012 Palmer Luckey launched the kickstarter which would give rise to the now popular Oculus Rift VR headsets. A tinkerer who was obsessed with VR, Luckey had continued to collect and build VR devices from a young age. His timing was perfect. With the convergence of crowdfunding, social media and some genius innovations, he successfully commercialized the Oculus Rift headsets which have since been acquired by Facebook.
But what’s changed? Is virtual reality really posed to take off this time or is it just an upgraded gimmick?
Here’s a few reasons why this time might be different:
Virtual reality is important because it relates to one of our oldest desires to experience the world from a different perspective. As a universal simulator of reality, it represents not just a creative sandbox but also a curiosity catalyst too – the desire to know what it is like to see and experience something that is different to our own. And it doesn’t have to be another human – it could be an inanimate object, a bird flying through the sky or even a bacteria cell in our body.
Virtual and augmented reality offers us a new way to interact with information. In the past, we have had text, video, audio and interactive ways to learn about new things. With VR, we open up the realm of experiencing information in completely new ways. When learning about the Solar System or historical events, we can be transported to that particular environment and be immersed in the information in a way that stimulates all our senses. We will be able to dive deep into our own bodies and see our internal workings up close, as well as conduct virtual experiments on Mars.
Not all VR experiences need to serve a purpose other than to entertain. In a world where many people aren’t fulfilled by their work, VR can serve as a sophisticated form of escapism. Combined with the social element, people may find that their lives in VR worlds are much more fulfilling compared to the real one. There is also the case for more simple experiences such as simulations of nature which can lower stress and anxiety.
Virtual reality has been described as the ultimate empathy machine in its ability to allow you to see and experience the life of someone else. This was demonstrated with an experience that showed the life of a child in the Syrian civil war. Empathy is something that we are all capable of, but it’s easy to forget about the plight of other people whom we can’t necessarily relate to. We can identify with the suffering of our friend who lost his job, but someone dying of starvation almost sounds like fiction to us. VR can act as a tool that can help bridge this chasm – generating greater positive action.
There are billions of people on this planet, the vast majority of whom you will never meet. But in this vast number, there are likely many people who you could connect well with – whether that be for business or personal purposes. Virtual reality provides the opportunity to be with your people wherever they are in the world. We already see this change happening with the internet, the rise of remote working and online tribes. But what will happen when these people can form much more intimate bonds with each other? These new social networks have the potential to change how we think about our society, cultures, and place in the world.
Sascha Grumbach is an entrepreneur with comprehensive practical experience as a business consultant and project manager in innovation- and disruption projects.