It appears that 2016 will be the year that virtual reality (VR) will start to matter in the mainstream. Both Sony PlayStationVR and the much talked about Occulus Rift headsets are planned to be unleashed on the consumer market in the first half of the year. It remains to be seen how much actual content there will be initially, but once the hardware is released we can expect it to flow more and more rapidly.
No doubt the hardware will also improve quickly too. All sorts of tricks will be added to turn what is now basically a wrap around screen in a helmet into a more total sensory experience.
The second group make comments about the impact on people and society. Strangely though the focus is always on the negative, depicting people engaging in an orgy of game playing and simulated sex while completely losing interest and motivation for real life. A trap to be sure and some will fall into it, but it’s very much a Luddite view of what may prove one of the great life improving technical advances. For people who are not seduced into losing the difference between reality and fantasy, VR may present an opportunity to forge a better life.
One interesting feature of commentary about VR is that it is almost entirely concerns itself with two areas. First, games and entertainment—we hear about the even more exciting ways we can watch or participate in even more immersive fantasies. Great stuff I’m sure, and certainly worth experiencing, but of limited importance to anyone not, at that moment, wearing a silly helmet.
John Lennon’s song imagine goes through a list of things which could be eliminated in his imaginings of a better time or place. Socialist nonsense mostly appealing to totalitarians and their useful idiots, but a handy format for looking at some impacts of VR. It’s always easier to predict the areas eliminated by change than it is to predict the new uses of technology. So we will focus on the impressive list of present day things which virtual reality might eliminate or dramatically reduce.
1. Imagine no schools
School, college, university, and training are mostly about learning rather than doing. The student aims not to produce a real world impact or product so much as to change his own mind into a form which might be productive and influential in the future.
Imagine migrating education to VR with little need to leave home at all. Over time it should be possible for every student to take classes from the best teacher in the world. The need for land, buildings, teachers and equipment could be reduced to a fraction of what is required today.
2. Imagine no offices
Offices work is paper, computer and mind work. Presently it requires huge and expensive buildings, equipment, and infrastructure.
Imagine migrating office work to VR with little need to leave home at all. Visit your tax accountant while getting a back massage. Have a chat with your boss wearing a perfectly pressed, automatic suit avatar. Meanwhile you are at the gym, on an exercise bike. All those impressive, but now obsolete, office towers in the centre of cities? That’s where your new apartment is.
3. Imagine no down time
Among the more annoying features of life at present are the inevitable gaps between value adding activities. Mobile phones and other technology have already made some progress in using up this time, but so far it is really more about eliminating boredom than doing useful things for most people.
Imagine a world where VR offers genuinely worthwhile or productive ways to use down time for work or leisure. Just set the alarm on the VR headset and it starts. Spend a few minutes polishing that report at the office, socialize, attend a class or just watch the running of the bulls as if you were really there right next to that poor guy who gets a horn through some private part of his body. It remains to be seen whether the elimination of down time is a feature or a bug of VR, but it is one change that will take place.
4. Imagine no first times
Imagine the process of learning by doing was migrated to VR in many instances. From changing a light bulb, to changing an engine, to building a house, to creating your own gigantic stone sculpture. A wide range of tasks could be done, without the risks to self and property, in VR and with the best instruction. Then do them in real life as a second, or more, timer. It would even be possible for children to learn to do such tasks before they are old enough to be capable of taking them on.
5. Imagine no commute
A large fraction of time spent on working is really just time getting to and from home and different tasks, meeting and viewings. Trips from home to work and back again are an important part of this, but only a part.
Imagine a world where a large fraction of trips involving offices, schools, retail and many other tasks are no longer needed. Many of the remaining trips would be quicker because of reduced congestion. Less danger, less cost, less noisy vehicles and a world where walking is pleasant again.
… and that’s just the beginning
It is a consistent feature of new, broadly applicable technologies that they throw up applications no one thought of. Quite likely the most important applications of VR are yet to be thought of. After all, who would have predicted that the invention of the laser would eliminate the need for price tags, or that wood pulp based writing paper would lead to a more pleasant experience in the bathroom?
Sadly some people really will use VR to live degenerate, fantasy lives. Natural selection will do its usual work in reducing such problems over time along with drug use, homosexuality, contraception, abortion, low birth rates and other false trails fostered by the modern world. So just relax and get ready for a whole new world of opportunity.
Published as a guest post on Return of Kings here