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Seeing Double: Virtual Reality’s Challenge to the Self

Columns | March 6, 2017

Duke Dumont’s 2014 music video for “I Got You” has gotten me through many wintery nights in Tisch. The video depicts a protagonist waiting for a package while sipping a cup of tea by a window on a rainy afternoon. When the package finally arrives, he runs downstairs, returns to his starkly furnished living room, and immediately puts on the incredibly cumbersome helmet and gloves—an early VR headset. From the comfort of his chaise lounge, he is transported into a world of pure island hedonism—boats, pools, guns, motorcycles, and scantily clad companions. At the termination of the song, he removes the headset, and returns to reality. This is the exact image of VR that the industry would celebrate—look how happy he is! However, I fear that the image of VR as a ticket to an afternoon “vacation” from reality is oversimplified and deserves further questioning.

VR, like Twitter, Reddit, and most other platforms with low regulation on user ethics, falls under the category of “two-way technology;” it can be used to unify and empower while simultaneously pedaling divisive language or stoking extremism. Two philosophers from Germany’s Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, Michael Madary and Thomas Metzinger, see VR as having the capacity for “deep influence.” Unlike other forms of media, “VR can create a situation in which the user’s entire environment is determined by the creators of the virtual world. This introduces opportunities for new and especially powerful forms of both mental and behavioral manipulation, especially when commercial, political, religious, or governmental interests are behind the creation and maintenance of the virtual worlds.” This sobering prediction may have made an impression on Capitol Hill, as the government hosted the first hearing on the potential regulatory structures surrounding the new technology in November. The Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee agreed that a heavy handed regulatory response would not be appropriate and would likely stifle the technology’s potential, but a watchful eye would be critical.

Should our government be able to limit the stretch of the human fantasy? What if the fantasies remain in the privacy of your own living room? Will these new worlds, and the actions people are allowed to take within them, predispose their users to engage in harmful acts offline? These questions run into stiff barriers surrounding censorship and the role of government. Our society takes an incredibly libertarian approach to regulating adults’ media consumption but puts strict limits on minors purchasing violent video games or surfing certain corners of the web. As these worlds become more vivid, and with the deterioration of the argument that “adults know better” or are more self-aware and thus less impacted by their media, it is clear that existing regulations will experience growing pains.

The challenge with marking the direction of such a technology is difficult, because in these early stages, the storylines and content are rolled out meticulously to showcase the positive impacts the technology can have. It is only when considering the costs to produce and share your own storyline on an auxiliary platform that problems begin to arise. Currently, consumers are happy to fly over Paris with EagleFlight, sit courtside with Spike Lee at Madison Square Garden through the help of Voke VR, or paint the air with Google’s newest VR application, TiltBrush. The hardware is still stumbling over some fairly critical barriers: high prices, user dizziness, and democratization. The third barrier is where we should focus our attention.

If the goal of these designers is to expand the possibilities of this new mode of communication, they are certainly focused on making it easier for amateurs to get involved. Wired Magazine’s Clive Thompson argues, “that is where the real money is, as there are more of them, and they have the time to test the technology and come up with new ideas.” DIY Virtual Reality will be a joyous playground for designers and engineers alike. But, if there is not a proper grand vision within the industry, I imagine 3D worlds developing that imitate the bowels of Reddit, hives for bullying and public shaming. This possible technology seems to have already arrived in its infancy through Utah based startup, The Void. By blending high-end VR with real-world elements, they are turning VR into a destination activity for friends and communities. Its “hyper reality” experiences hinge on a VR environment where the terrain and features inside the goggles correspond with the IRL layout of an enclosed arena where groups can gather much like Xbox Live or a virtual GroupMe.

Let’s evaluate more broadly the potential impacts on our selfhood of such a technology. Madary and Metzinger write, “VR technology will eventually change not only our general image of humanity but also our understanding of deeply entrenched notions, such as ‘conscious experience,’ ‘selfhood,’ ‘authenticity,’ or ‘realness.'” What happens when we experience illusions of our own embodiment? It is this reality that demands a collective mission statement from the industry to assure these matters are taken into account at the ground level. The intention seems to be present through the Global VR Association (GVRA), an industry-wide organization that brings together top hardware and software providers from Oculus to PlayStation and a dozen other players to, “promote responsible development and adoption of VR globally with best practices, dialogue across stakeholders, and research.” This team effort will be critical as the early adopters for this technology en masse appear to be schools, hospitals, and the military.

How might VR impact education? At the University of Southern California VR Demo Day earlier this year, one team’s project, Recall, was designed to help people memorize information more quickly by associating terms or information with locations. Here’s how it works: users upload documents to Recall and pieces of information from those documents are then scattered throughout colorful, virtual reality “rooms.” Users then move through these rooms to engage with the information in an unexpected way. In other words, it’s an interactive study tool that triggers the associative memory tool that teachers always encourage students to use.

On a much larger scale, Google recently announced that it is expanding its VR Expeditions Pioneer Program, which brings virtual reality field trips to classrooms using Google’s cheap, smart phone-based VR viewer, Cardboard. The goal is to expose students to places they wouldn’t be able to see otherwise. Students in classrooms across the United States and parts of Europe will soon be able to go on field trips to Buckingham Palace, Machu Picchu and the Great Barrier Reef, but they’ll be doing it through virtual reality. Once students put on the VR headsets, they’re immersed in a 3D version of the Met Museum in New York or any number of selected locations. They can look around, and the teacher can share information about things they’re seeing. Google built a Great Wall of China experience for a fifth grade math class, to give the students a more tactile lesson about multiplication.

While Mark Zuckerberg and Venture Capital luminaries alike are in total support of this technology’s widespread rollout, regulators and theorists have demanded a slower pace. Human beings, whether we like it or not, are incredibly susceptible to being influenced by our environments and the media we consume. The only difference now is that we are no longer talking about movies, television, and video games, but truly alternate realities that will challenge our sense of self and interpersonal interactions. This two-way technology is making positive impacts in the classroom and beyond, opening up entirely new ways of interactive learning. At the same time, as the designing stage of the technology opens its way to the public, we as a society will have to face the reality that bad behavior on VR is not like Twitter or Reddit—it truly feels real.