Making the world a nicer place, one Virtual Reality at a time

by Sarah Firisen

HoloPeople are awful. You only need read the daily headlines to realize how awful so many of us are to each other. Intolerance, prejudice, ignorance, sit behind so many of the evils that men (and women) do to each other. But as bad as things are, they are mostly so much better than they ever have been. You don’t need to go back far in history to realize how much more tolerant and open minded we have tended to become as a species. The further back you go, the worse it is. What has made things, relatively speaking better? Well, not surprisingly, exposure and engagement tend to breed tolerance. We fear and suspect the unknown.

The more one knows and thinks about other living things, the harder it is to privilege one's own interests over theirs. The empathy escalator may also be powered by cosmopolitanism, in which journalism, memoir, and realistic fiction make the inner lives of other people, and the precariousness of one's own lot in life, more palpable—the feeling that “there but for fortune go I.” —Michael Tomasky

And for the most part, what has brought us increasing exposure and engagement with each other has been advances in technology; from better boats, to planes, to computers and the Internet, it seems that while exposure to “the other” often aggravates fears, eventually, the ever adaptable human being learns that other people are far more similar to us than they are different. As we become exposed to people of different religions, cultures, beliefs, sexual orientation, it becomes harder and hard to see them as “the other”. There’s nothing radical or surprising about this. While there were clearly many complex issues at play, there seems to be real evidence that one of the major factors in the radical change in attitudes towards homosexuality in the US can be put down to the TV show Will and Grace, which, if nothing else, exposed gays to be much like the rest of us: self-absorbed, looking for love and acceptance and really in need of best friends who get us no matter how self-absorbed we become.

I was talking with another mother of teen girls this weekend and she lamented what technology has wrought and what it will continue to do to the social skills of our kids. I pointed out that people two hundred years ago, who had nothing else to do with their evenings other than to sit around a hearth and tell stories and sing songs, would probably have been pretty appalled at my childhood 30 odd years ago that involved sitting around a TV set with my family watching sitcoms. Wringing our hands about Snapchat, Instagram and the like is not only pointless but also probably not necessary; technology advances bring good and evil. Always have, always will. Society changes, people change, their interactions change, but we ultimately move forward. I read a great fictional account of the printing of the Gutenberg bible recently where a character bemoans the obvious lowering of standards that the printing press will bring over books written by scribes and the attendant evils.

Perhaps no technology trends bring the dreams of sci-fi writers and enthusiasts to life more than Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR). Wearing even one of the many moderately priced headsets, you could be “standing” on the edge of a skyscraper with the immersive experience so realistic that you may find yourself experiencing very real vertigo. As such, it can be easy to dismiss these technologies as geeky toys. And while they clearly do have huge applications for gaming and entertainment, the potential goes much, much further. Even as the technologies stand today, they could fundamentally change the way we interact with the world and with each other. But once you experience them, you begin to realize that at the speed the technologies are moving, it will not be long until they change everything in much the same way that the Internet changed everything.

This technology is very much in its infancy; in 5 years we’ll look back at the Microsoft HoloLens and the Oculus Rift much as we now look at flip phones, maybe even more dismissively; technological advances are moving exponentially quickly. I remember the first Internet browser (yes I’m that old). I remember using my dial-up modem to browse to the Vatican website. It was one of the early very graphical websites. I could sit in New York and look at the art of the Vatican. I remember being amazed. It’s sometimes hard to recall how revolutionary the Internet was back in the day. I worked for an investment bank back then. And this was an investment bank that was heavily involved in media and technology related companies. And when it came out that I was using a company modem and phone line to connect to the Internet I was told to stop and that the company would not be doing anything with the Internet anytime in the foreseeable future. This was around 1993/94. Just think about the money that investment bank lost by not paying just a little bit of attention to what I was doing.

I mention this because I think that Virtual and Augmented Reality is poised to be as huge (and as discounted today) as the Internet was back then. It’s very easy to see what’s available today as sitting squarely in the realm of gaming and entertainment, with particularly interesting potential for porn. But put on a headset and you begin to see the real potential. Recently, I tried on an Oculus Rift and “played” a game that was set on an asteroid somewhere in the galaxy. I have no idea what I was supposed to be doing in the game and what the objective was, but I do know that I was standing on an “asteroid” with rocks around me gradually being blown away. I have a really terrible, sometimes crippling fear of heights. At some point I found myself huddling next to a “rock” on this asteroid, it being the only thing standing between me and the black depths of the galaxy. Suddenly my rock safety got blown away and I was standing alone with nothing between me and oblivion. Suddenly, my heart was racing and I had to take off the headset. Every physical reaction I have to standing at the edge of a tall building looking down was in play. Yes, my rational self knew none of it was real. I knew I was wearing a headset and was in a virtual world, but it FELT so real.

The potential of Virtual and Augmented Reality haven’t even begun to be tapped. Just playing with the technology the way it is now is thrilling. If you have any imagination you can feel the potential. Could this technology help us take the next big step as a race towards greater empathy and tolerance? Maybe. I know that sounds like a grandiose expectation, but why not? If being exposed to people not like us eventually tends to produce greater tolerance, why do those people have to be actually physically engaging with us? Why can’t they be virtual? Or real, but not really in the same space as us?

Already, virtual reality is being used to help people work through their fears and paranoia. If I’d had the opportunity, could I have put that headset on and worked through some of the irrationality of my fear of heights? Maybe. If my fear had been about other people who aren’t like me, could an extremely realistic and positive experience of interacting with them have reduced those fears? There’s already research being done in how these technologies can help increase electronic empathy, “Immersive technology creates empathy by putting the individual at the centre of every experience, and it has broadened its reach from gaming and entertainment to news, documentaries, education and healthcare. “

Like all technology, this also could encourage violence and disengagement from actual human experience; clearly the potential to experience huge violence in a consequence free manner could encourage real world impulses and incite real world violence, but it could also be a harmless way to indulge such impulses.

One thing is clear, we have only started to scratch the surface of what this technology could do and the advances in human social interaction it could herald.