Virtual Reality, Real Virtualism
The concept has been around since the first philosophical exploration of ‘sensory existence’. It is hard to deny that the nature of our existence on this plane is dependent on limited senses. It’s also hard to pinpoint when the concept evolved to the point of including technology. But the first written account of what we’ve come to understand as V.R. was a short story called Pygmalion’s Spectacles by Stanley G. Weinbaum.
The spectacles of the title could easily be mistaken for a Rift or PSVR. Except that their stated technology was largely chemical in nature, rather than electronic. The wearer experienced sight, smell and sound of a fictional place, while his hands and feet felt chair and carpet. He found himself increasingly engrossed in the story, limited in scope but exceedingly realistic. It would seem the development of V.R. IRL is making the same kind of stops as in fiction.
A more modern, and probably the most famous exploration, is the Matrix series. Indeed if we really are all experiencing an artificial environment, how would we know? The technology to fully immerse the mind in a virtual environment is the ultimate goal of V.R. development. Rather than creating the stimulus one would experience, and putting it in through the regular methods.
When I say ‘modern’, I include such things as the 1995 Virtual Boy, which operated on the same concept as today, but with inferior technology. The idea of using near-field optics and mapped 3D environments relies of course on your standard inputs, eyes and ears. As such, the environment has to be built and rendered extremely well.
Nintendo built the Virtual Boy system with standard 1995 technology. It could only display red light, and was known to be nauseating and hard on the neck. This implementation was ambitious for the time, but ultimately the goggles themselves were not the problem. The real problem was processing and software limitations. The main processor in the VB is a RISC chip, 32 bit, not very powerful.
Newer portable solutions using smartphones, which put the VB to absolute shame, still rely on the same principles. As such, despite the significant increase in power and quality, they still can’t quite create a full experience.
The better, landlocked V.R. platforms, using high-end processing equipment, do manage a greatly improved experience. But since they still must both have and create a fully 3D environment, the immersion comes at a very high cost. Ultimately the great limitation of current V.R. is the fact that the calculation and environment must be done before your brain can see it.
Next Generation of Virtual Reality
As previously stated, the ultimate goal of V.R. development is to enable full immersion in an artificial space. While this will take a great deal of processing power to coordinate, the rendering and end-user experience will have to be done in the brain. The human brain already has the capacity to generate such experiences, you do it every night. To sleep, perchance to dream…
The trick will be in creating and maintaining a connection to the brain. Once your brain has access to the data of the intended experience, your own imagination will become the computer. Any number of methodologies have been theorised in fiction and in pure technological research. I’ll explain these with 3 pop-culture references.
The aforementioned Matrix used a direct electrical connection to the brain. While this may be the most physically stable option, altering the brain to accept it would be difficult and extremely risky.
The signal exchange system of the Sword Art Online and Accel World universe is less invasive. But, as explored in-universe, it carries its’ own risk. While the kind of sudden overload serving as a motivational plot point in SAO would never happen IRL, long term use would be very harsh on the nerves.
As seen in Inception, a surface-mount electrical connection could be used, but a pair of pads would likely not carry enough information. Fortunately, the human nervous system is capable of re-mapping itself, so as long as there are enough connections, direct interface is feasible.
Problems are Good
I’ve spent 679 words thus far explaining and complaining about the problems V.R. faces. But you’re here to read about why these are a good thing. To put it simply, the fact that current technology isn’t good enough means that we’ll never settle for it. All advancement though history has been the result of increasing wants and needs.
We’ve consistently invented new ways to do things, making the old ways obsolete by default. It’s a sort of collective education. But into the modern age, this trend has dipped away from needs. We don’t technically need V.R. like we need solar power and clean farming. We don’t need a new iPhone every six months like we need the electric car. And we don’t need the ever-increasing amount of mindless entertainment like we need quality content.
But as we continue to develop V.R., reaching ever closer to the goal, our demand for quality will increase. Nobody wants to invest in an intense experience with no substance. You go on a roller-coaster and it’s a few minutes of high adrenaline, then you go do something else. But the V.R. experience could potentially go on for hours. And despite what the market analysts tell us, nobody will spend an entire game worth of time in a world less interesting than real life. No matter how addictive they make the games, most people will not want them.
Perhaps it’s a problem that so much of entertainment is escapism, but frankly if the people in charge wanted to make life more interesting, they could. At least now, we can create our own escapes, and the ability to generate content will only spread with the advance of V.R. I believe the trend will shift rapidly from escapism to purposefulness, because people who want that will create it.