Perception: It won’t be real for years.
Reality: Researchers have been working to create digital realities for decades, producing lots of demonstrations. Recently, the engineering behind these has advanced sufficiently to encompass two related technologies, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). Each provides distinct—and commercially viable— experiences. VR creates a wholly immersive digital experience. Its sibling, AR, enables users to interact with computer-generated content and data in a physical setting. For example, VR tours will give people the full experience—the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings—of distant destinations without ever leaving home. Imagine exploring Machu Picchu from your couch. AR adds layers of information, such as cultural insights, interactive guides, and even digitally restored historical structures, to spectacularly enhance an actual visit.
Perception: Gaming and marketing are all it’s good for.
Reality: Many people view VR as gaming with ugly goggles. But the notion that consumers are increasingly willing to ignore a major fashion faux pas suggests that they see VR’s potential to transform how we interact with the world.
Innovative uses are emerging. During the Mobile World Congress in February, the show floor was packed with ideas for applying VR to numerous industries. Consumers may soon be able to use VR technology to window shop, try items on, and even shop with their friends. VR also holds promise for mental healthcare. Clinics are testing VR as a way to expose phobia sufferers to their fears and help patients with post-traumatic stress disorder cope with triggers. Plus, VR can help anxiety sufferers control panic by navigating a virtual environment with breath-operated controls.
Meanwhile, VR and AR have potential to enhance our ability to perceive the world around us. During a 2015 TED Talk, neuroscientist David Eagleman wore a vest that converts sound into distinct patterns of vibrations the wearer can feel. Similar to blind people who read Braille by touch, deaf people can learn to understand these vibrations as representations of words.
Perception: We’re on a slippery slope to mind control.
Reality: Sci-fi thrillers like Avatar and Inception aren’t soothsayers, but they do make a point. Tampering with reality shouldn’t be done lightly. Take the news, which is being redefined by VR. Imagine being immersed in a political protest or surrounded by the aftermath of a bombing instead of watching it on a screen. The ability to deliver a real-life experience is a journalist’s dream. On the other hand, individuals could easily alter digital experiences for political or economic gain.
Because VR will create artificial worlds that are indistinguishable from the real one, ethical challenges are emerging. When memories can be created from experiences that feel real but never actually happened, how do we ensure our unconscious won’t be molded for others’ purposes? Will advocacy groups be tempted to build empathy using VR’s ability to manipulate low-level brain functions? Should user consent be required for all VR experiences, with the option to back out if you feel you’re in over your head? The answers are up to us.
Dan Wellers is the Digital Futures global lead and senior analyst at SAP Insights.