The implications of virtual reality technology
Imagine putting on a headset and being instantly transported to a different place, or even a different time. Regardless of where you actually are, you could travel to any location of your choice, and even bring along friends, without getting up from your couch at home. It sounds like the plot of a science fiction movie, but really, it may become reality — a sort of reality — sooner than one might think.
On March 25, Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook Inc., announced in a post on the Facebook site that the company had bought Oculus VR, a virtual reality technology company, for $2 billion. Zuckerberg did not outline specifics of what this acquisition will mean, but he did write the following: “After games, we’re going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences.” He then went on to mention ideas such as going to a sporting event, studying in a classroom and consulting with a doctor — all by simply putting on a pair of goggles.
However, while it sounds fairly simple at first, virtual reality is actually pretty complex. Kerric Harvey, tenured associate professor and associate director of the Center for Innovative Media at George Washington University, shed some light on the concept. “When we talk about VR [virtual reality], the first image that comes to mind is the full-blown, immersive experience that was the stuff of science fiction and futuristic films only 15 or 20 years ago, in which people put on a headset and they actually respond physically as well as emotionally and mentally, and cognitively, to what we now call virtual environments — artificial environments,” Harvey said.
She explained that any virtual reality system has three classic parts — a headset, a host of mathematical formulas and a host of computer response programs. According to Harvey, these parts work together to “change what the viewer sees, if that’s what the viewer feels, in response to commands the viewer gives it.”
With products like Oculus VR’s gaming headset, Oculus Rift, it’s clear that virtual reality technology seems to be moving in the direction of entertainment. However, Harvey explained that it is most often found in a different realm. “VR right now, where you find it most, is in military and specialty applications,” she said. “The military jumped on VR very early, both as a training technique and for its potential tactical use in the field.”
Aside from military use, VR technology is also being utilized in other interesting ways. Dale Olsen, founder, president and CEO of SIMmersion Immersive Simulations, has been working with virtual simulation technology for years. In 1997, he developed “PeopleSIM,” which simulates real people in order to train or educate individuals in social and conversational skills.
“The goal of PeopleSIM technology is to be able to simulate realistic conversations, especially ones that are critically important or particularly difficult,” Olsen said. “We know that conversational skills are extremely difficult to train — you can’t train people to play the violin with a PowerPoint or a lecture, and you can’t teach them how to conduct a conversation,” Olsen added. “It’s a skill, and it requires practice.”
The PeopleSIM technology can be used to train people in all sorts of different situations. It is currently being utilized with military personnel, healthcare professionals and law enforcement employees to name a few. However, PeopleSIM is also used for more typical, everyday situations like job interviews or even social interactions. Notably, the technology has been used with autistic individuals.
People with autism have trouble with basic social skills, but, as Olsen noted, they can be trained in these skills. Essentially, PeopleSIM can be used to teach people — including autistic individuals — essential skills that will not only help them perform professional tasks better, but also have a positive impact on society as a whole.
“Whether it’s saving lives of somebody who’s suicidal; whether it’s getting somebody in a military or war situation to fess up to what’s really going on and being persuasive in doing that; whether it’s negotiating for lives or a labor contract; or whether it’s getting a confession out of somebody who would go out and kill and rape — those are all based on social skills,” Olsen said. “And so when it really comes down to making society better, training these skills is very, very important.”
While SIMmersion focuses on positive, beneficial uses for virtual reality technology, other VR developers don’t quite seem to be following suit. “I am of the opinion that there is a lot of virtual reality technology that is there for technology’s sake and has no real educational or training value,” Olsen said.
Oculus, of course, would seem to be a prime example of VR technology that has no apparent educational value. It is entertainment for entertainment’s sake. So it’s a pretty big deal that Facebook, one of the most powerful social media corporations in existence, has acquired it. Could it change society and “real life” as we know it?
“You know, people like to say, ‘Oh, we’re at a crossroads,’ and they say that way too often — they’ll often say we’re at a crossroads when we’re really just crossing the street,” Harvey said. “But we actually kind of are at a crossroads here.”
Harvey explained exactly what that crossroads is: Essentially, we’ve reached the point where social media companies have become big enough to have a powerful and influential presence on the technology scene. And, as Harvey mentioned, Facebook is not alone; both Amazon and Google have increased their presence on the technology front in recent years as well.
Amazon bought Kiva Systems, a robotic fulfillment company, in March 2012. Google, on the other hand, bought Boston Dynamics, an engineering company that specializes in building extremely advanced robotics, in December 2013. “So you’ve got three giants doing inexplicable things,” Harvey said. “That points to a seismic shift — you know, earthquakes start underground, and you don’t feel them until they’ve gathered a fair bit of momentum. That, I think, is what’s happening here.”
Since we can’t yet see the outcome of Facebook buying Oculus, some may not realize just how big this news really is. “None of these companies do stuff like that, no matter the fact that they have deep pockets, none of them are going to spend that kind of money without a plan,” Harvey said. “Now I would say Facebook, in particular, will always have a plan and then leave room for serendipity to have its way.”
So if Facebook really does begin to integrate VR into its social media offerings, what would that look like, and what could it mean? Ray Gozzi, associate television-radio professor at Ithaca College, had an interesting take on it.
“The concern that many people have about social media is that it is helping people stay apart. Rather than talking face to face with someone, you’ll send them a text,” Gozzi said. “And if that’s true, then I don’t think people may necessarily want to do VR interactions, because it will seem too close. It will seem like too much work.” Gozzi also mentioned the problem of nausea with VR technology, which could certainly be a deterring factor.
But regardless of whether people initially like or dislike the VR technology, its presence alone has the potential to totally change our world. “In terms of legal things, there’s already the shifting boundaries between the original real world version of a phenomenon and the virtual version of it,” Harvey said. She cited the example of divorce law — would a virtual reality affair still constitute infidelity? If virtual reality development continues in its current direction, and becomes more widespread and eventually more normative, the laws and moral code of our society may need rewriting.
“Think of the propaganda implications of being able to experience a message, an ideological message, as opposed to just hearing it,” Harvey said. “What happens when instead of arguing pro-life versus pro-choice, a pro-life group makes available what it feels like to be an aborted fetus? Which you could do with VR.”
It’s downright frightening to think of these possibilities, and even scarier to think that the technology to accomplish them already exists. Not only does it exist, but it’s becoming more widely available and more advanced with each passing day.
“The digital environment is becoming all-encompassing and different people are trying to construct this in different ways. And nobody really knows how it’s going to turn out,” Gozzi said. Some VR companies, like Olsen’s SIMmersion, seem to be using the technology with the intent of bettering both individuals’ lives and society’s well-being. However, other developers, like Oculus, are using it to entertain the masses, to create new ways for us to experience life that, so far, don’t seem to have any benefits aside from the fun factor. Instead, they have the potential to create many, many problems.
“And so, this just comes back to my general feeling that we haven’t figured out yet how to live in this world,” Gozzi said. “We’ve got this fancy, technologically-enhanced world and we don’t quite understand what’s good for us and what isn’t good for us.”
“It’s going to redraw the boundaries between social media and real life, primarily by erasing them,” Harvey said. “I don’t know if those few glittering, gleaming breakthroughs are going to be worth the cost of what it does in the everyday realm. It’s going to be huge, and I don’t think anybody has any idea how uncontrollable it’s going to be once it gets started.”
If one thing is certain, virtual reality technology is not going away. On the contrary, it’s becoming more cutting-edge and innovative every day, and it’s impossible to predict just how pervasive and powerful it could become. With a corporate giant like Facebook getting involved, virtual reality technology has the undeniable potential to change the world as we know it — only time will tell if it’s for better or worse.
Kathryn Paquet is a junior TVR major who is so ready to go virtual surfing. Email her at kpaquet1[at]ithaca.edu