Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Our Presence is Requested: VR and RL


I just started reading Stanford University’s Jeremy Bailenson’s new book, Experience on Demand: What Virtual Reality Is, How It Works, and What It Can Do. As someone with kids and a deep personal interest in how technology can help or hinder us, I was drawn to read it from a discussion between the author and Lulu Garcia-Navarro on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday last month.

What stood out to me in the interview was Dr. Bailenson’s personal reluctance to play virtual reality (VR) first-person shooter games. His reasoning is based on his professional work. He understands how the unreal can be absorbed by the body as real.

The key to accomplishing that? Psychological presence.

I’ve only begun the book, however, his early descriptions remind me of an essay I wrote in September 2017 about a shirt I own with a cute spin on a great idiom: Cake It Till You Make It. In that essay, I described how we can try putting on roles in life (cake it/fake it), and by practicing them, we can truly become them (make it). Shy people can become more outspoken. Aggressive people can become more reflective and responsive. It simply takes belief in the role and lots of repetition.

Perhaps it’s only temporary, but these changes can become our reality with application and belief.

In Dr. Bailenson’s VR world, the hardware and software work to offer the brain and body such life-like information, our systems actually take them in as truth. Whereas I wrote of people choosing to don a mask & script to alter themselves and how they respond to their environment, Dr. Bailenson is saying the outside world, VR, can clothe you in a way that you take on whatever role the program has determined for you. And you will truly believe, on all levels of your brain, its legitimacy.

To the human brain, VR is real. It cakes it for you.

Dr. Bailenson goes on to describe current and future uses for VR. During the NPR interview, I was both excited at one suggestion that VR could allow people to “become” another sex or race and experience what that is like, and concerned that this isn’t talked about in everyday conversations. That sort of application is not common knowledge, but we all have at least some exposure to first-person shooting games, VR or not.

If I decide I want to cake something helpful, that can be very positive. However, I can just as easily cake something negative that hurts me or others. The same goes for VR.

VR has a leg up on everyday people’s abilities to “cake till you make it”. VR can reach way more minds than the average person, through marketing and corporate influence, if we allow it. This power should make us consider its usage. What if we ask ourselves:

What reality do I want to live in?
What reality do I want my children to live in?
What reality will allow for Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness for all?

Sure, games of beating enemies and achieving an objective using weapons, craft, trickery and force have an entertainment value. You’ll definitely learn some things. But what is it doing to our natures? To our other facets like empathy, equality or love? Aren’t there other ways to use our abilities and different directions to grow? Aren’t there other ways to spend the limited days we have before us?

If we could design reality, what kind of world would we really like to exist in? Couldn’t we at least try to get there? VR could help. Going back to my shirt- simply dreaming and then doing would, too. As Dr. Bailenson said to Ms. Garcia-Navarro, “Save it (VR) for things that are impossible to do in the real world.”. We should use ALL the tools available to us.

In reality, making the fantastic- but currently impossible- possible, seems right where we would want to be.

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