Here’s the problem with Virtual Reality

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As VR is becoming commonplace in our lives, experts tell EDGAR there may be real side effects.

Virtual Reality is not actually new, with basic systems having come out in the 1950s, but even up until recently it was little more than a gimmick, looking more like the video for Dire Straits Money For Nothing than anything resembling reality. This year, however, has seen the quality of VR become realistic enough to be used as a key component in entertainment.

We recently saw the launch in Dubai of the Ghostbusters Experience at The Walk on JBR, where people put on headsets and walked around while virtually shooting ghosts with a proton accelerator. Likewise, in some countries the recent film Kong: Skull Island had the arrival by helicopter scene near the beginning of the movie re-shot in VR and presented as part of the promotional activities for the film. Rather than just watching the helicopter fly – as you would at the cinema – audiences were virtually sitting inside it and watching other choppers being attacked by a giant, angry gorilla.

Whether entire films will be released as a VR experience will largely depend on demand, but it’s clear that Hollywood is testing the waters. While 3D was a mixed bag and usually only served as a reason to charge more for tickets, VR is a whole new experience. If video games can achieve this, with multiple outcomes and storylines, then it’s not going to be hugely difficult for cinema to do likewise.

It’s becoming part of our media as well. Last year there was a 360-degree VR video from Syria, enabling viewers to see the devastation caused by the war while a voiceover explained what had happened. Far from being a holiday in someone else’s misery, it put people into a place that many in the world have become blasé about. VR news reports that can place viewers in a warzone are being used by charities to highlight issues, but are likely to become more commonplace as narrative devices once there’s been enough uptake of headsets. And if one man can drive that, it’s Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.

“One day, we believe this kind of immersive, augmented reality will become a part of daily life for billions of people,” wrote Zuckerberg in March 2014, having just announced the $2 billion acquisition of Oculus VR.

Facebook sees VR as the next big platform and more than just a device for games and entertainment. “After games, we’re going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences,” Zuckerberg said. “Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face – just by putting on goggles in your home.”

While this is new to most of us, one team of experts has been testing the effects of VR for years, because until recently, to achieve VR with some semblance of reality, you needed a very expensive lab like the one at Stanford University, where pioneering work is being done at their virtual human interaction laboratory.

EDGAR spoke to the head of Stanford’s research Professor Jeremy Bailenson who has been studying how virtual experiences lead to changes in perceptions of self and others.

“Repeatedly our studies show the VR can have a significant effect on behaviour,” he says. “We have conducted several research studies that have shown that VR can increase empathy and pro-social behaviour. In a study we found that having someone become a superhero made them more helpful in a real life situation following the study. These results show that an immersive experience, where you actually feel as though you are in the body of someone else, or feel as if you’ve taken on a new ability, can especially impact your thoughts and behaviours in the real world.”

Tests also revealed that even with fairly modest graphical realism and imperfect limb tracking, participants can still feel as though they have become the avatar they are embodying.

“There are a vast number of ways in which VR will enhance our lives,” believes Bailenson. “Through VR we can encourage empathy, pro-social behaviour, and environmental behaviour; we can provide advanced training for medical professionals, soldiers, sports players, and employees; we can increase the potential for learning in the classroom and enhance social communication – the positive possibilities are endless.”

But of course, as with any medium, there will be all kinds of content developed, including that of a less positive nature. After all, there are more video games now that involve shooting people than helping them. The more realistic the games get, the more the kills on screen resonate and have a feel of authenticity. So are we reaching a point where the lines between reality and virtual reality become increasingly blurred?

“Our research has shown that people tend to treat well-developed immersive experiences as if they were real,” Bailenson continues. “So, if you think of an intense experience you’ve had in your life that has changed the way you think or behave, and if you believe that VR can feel real, then you can start to understand how VR experiences can change the way you think or behave.”

Back in the late 1980s the popular British sci-fi sitcom Red Dwarf ran an episode called Better Than Life, centered around a game where players wore headsets and went into a hyper-realistic VR world where they could live out their desires, but slowly wasted away in the real world as they chose to stay there rather than face their mundane real existence. Far fetched? Perhaps, but one senior member of Intel – who asked to remain anonymous – tells EDGAR this is not an unrealistic scenario. “Just like people getting hooked on drugs to escape reality, so I can see people spending far too long immersed in VR experiences, and these things are only going to get more realistic,” our source tells us.

Despite concerns, one things is certain: VR is set to be commonplace. “It won’t necessarily replace traditional media as we see it now, but rather augment our media experience,” says Bailenson. “People will be able to communicate and share stories in a more immersive way. I’m confident that VR is here to stay and in the next several years it will likely be part of our daily lives.”

For Edgar magazine – June 2017

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