April 17, 2021
In 1965, an American computer scientist, Ivan Sutherland, one of the inventors of computer graphics, proposed the concept of “the ultimate display.” He thought that such a display would actually be a room where everything you see is controlled by the computer.
“With appropriate programming, such a display could literally be the Wonderland into which Alice walked,” wrote Sutherland in one of his papers.
Fifty years have passed, and now we are walking into the Wonderland he envisioned. Today, Virtual Reality—with its hi-res immersive headsets, motion detectors, and treadmills—is becoming more and more convincing. And while we geeks are excited, the more level-headed among us are scared. How much will we pay for a ticket to Wonderland?
We know from experience that escapism of any kind can be a bit pricey. If you lose control of yourself, the consequences will be disastrous. Neglected friends and families. Ruined careers. Health problems.
Does the rise of VR mean the twilight of humanity ? Who will want to live inside a real, but cramped and stuffy can called The Nebuchadnezzar if there is a better virtual reality where anyone can fly like Neo in The Matrix?
I don’t want to understate the dangers of such a disruptive technology. As J. Hector Fezandie put it in his graduation address, “With great power goes great responsibility.” The power of VR will be great, no doubt, and we must be cautious with this invention.
But the real virtual reality to come, I believe, will be nothing like the Matrix. Done right, VR won’t give us another reality to live in. It will just eliminate the boundaries of a world we know as the only real one—and extend it.
So we can forget about the narrative suggesting there is a battle between reality and virtuality waiting ahead of us. Instead, we’ll see a powerful and mutually beneficial cooperation of both realities.
Say you go on a journey to see Niagara Falls. The force of nature at its peak. The wind, spray in the air…all the kind of experiences that you’ll be remembering for many years to come. Say what you saw was a virtual copy of the real falls. Would it be less valuable if it was indistinguishable from the original? Would it be even more fascinating if you could jump off the cliff and take a dive?
Not everyone has the resources to go to Bora Bora and see its famous barrier reef or climb to Everest’s peak. VR will fix that by creating digital copies of every single part of the world that’s worth seeing. It will drastically reduce the cost of experiences and make the world more accessible for everyone.
We can go even further and create experiences that are only available to a few people (like visiting the space station) or not available to human beings at all, at least for now (like going for a spin on Mars).
At some point, we can go even further and create entirely new worlds with different physics, different inhabitants, and different rules for everyone who enters them.VR is already giving us power to better express ourselves in an entirely new medium. We are on the verge of creating a new kind of art (take a look at what a creative person can do with a book or a kettle with the help of VR).
And it’s not only about places—it’s about being in a part of the world where something exciting is happening. The biggest stadiums on the planet can hold around 100,000 people. In virtual reality, there will be no limits. Millions will be able to fit in the front row—or inside a race car. The lines between movies and games will disappear. Welcome to your personal “wonderland.”
I share the belief that we’re in a state of transition from the Information Age to the Experience Age. I like to invest in experiences—not things. And many people tend to measure their lives with the quality and quantity of experiences they get—in travel, making new friends, with exciting jobs, and at events we attend.
By making more experiences available through VR, we’ll give people a unique opportunity to live more intensively. The effect will be almost the same as if we managed to live much longer and collect more and more experiences.
And all that comes with no risks. Even though Sutherland suggested that a bullet in his vision of the ultimate screen would be fatal, it’s more likely that you won’t freeze to death while climbing virtual Everest and won’t suffocate while diving at the virtual Turret Rock.
So you’ll be able to have a career as a virtual racer without all the associated risks. I guess losing your job because of virtual reality may be out of the question, since many real jobs will be in VR anyway (which looks quite possible since our real jobs are being taken by robots). I believe that VR will help many people pursue their real happiness and break free from jobs they hate.
It’s hard to imagine all the consequences of this great liberation of experiences, but one of them is especially interesting to ponder. There is a fair chance that these different VR experiences will not only entertain millions of people but make them better humans as well.
Growing up in the Information Age, it’s easy to forget that we’re formed by experiences more than by knowledge. When we learn something, we don’t change. But when we live through something, we do.
You can argue that books and movies do the same thing. But with all due respect, none of the current available media are nearly as convincing as virtual reality will be sooner than we expect.
So the more experiences we get, the broader the picture of the world we’ll see and the more compassionate we’ll become.
Believe it or not, VR can be a healthy thing.
The first innovators are making the point that VR is good for your body, since you need to move in the virtual world somehow—it’s much healthier than sitting at your desk and looking at a screen from dawn to dusk. But I hope that at the same time, VR can be a cure for our minds as well.
You won’t be alone in the virtual world. There will be other people. And it will be very likely they might be more tolerant than in today’s reality. You can be whoever you want—especially with truly virtual people.
A real revolution happens when VR meets AI. It will give us the ability not only to create virtual worlds but also to “people” them with different virtual inhabitants. It’s not science fiction anymore. We are not that far from the point when creating a virtual Einstein becomes possible.
Would you like to chat with a genius? A gorgeous woman or man who adores you? Or maybe your late loved one? Would that be more soothing for you than just going to the cemetery?
I believe that using VR, we’ll be able to cure a lot of mental pain. Millions of people suffer from a lack of love and appreciation. VR could fix that. Psychiatrists have already started experimenting with VR therapy—and have gotten some promising results.
I understand that for many people, all these arguments mean nothing, because virtual reality isn’t real. Thus, it’s evil. Period.
Well, this maybe comes from fear of the unknown rather than a thorough contemplation. For example, one could make the point that music isn’t “real” too—in a sense, we might also call it virtual reality—but sometimes it makes us cry.
Nobody will say that Mozart’s Requiem is an evil creation.
Then, as philosopher Nick Bostrom’s “simulation hypothesis” suggests, we might already be living in a simulated virtual reality. Again, don’t brush it aside as a sci-fi thing—he is darn serious (and Elon Musk finds the simulation hypothesis pretty convincing).
Even if we don’t live in a simulation, we still tend to overestimate our current reality. What we see, what we smell, and what we hear is just one possible reflection of the thing that is called reality.
We can’t see radio waves even though they are all around us. We don’t have a dog’s sense of smell. We can’t hear sounds below 20 Hz and above 20,000 Hz frequencies. Does that mean these things aren’t real?
With VR, we’ll be able to get superhuman powers and go beyond human boundaries. See the real world as it wasn’t ever seen before.
For example, thanks to Oculus Rift, you can already get a sense of what it’s like to be a frog.
Ready (to leapfrog) Player One?