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Do We Have To Be Careful With The Power Of Virtual Reality?

VR is exciting, but let’s be wary of the disconnect from reality

19Apr

Samsung, Google, Facebook, HTC and LG are all among the technology giants developing cutting edge virtual reality technology. Developers are queuing up to create software, too, and it feels as though no one wants to be left out of the imminent VR boom. Set to be the next major change in the way we consume entertainment, the current price bracket pushes it far from the mainstream at present but, as with smartphones, it is only a matter of time before the cost drops to an affordable low.

VR’s applications lie primarily, and unsurprisingly, in the world of gaming. It’s a personal experience; the various headsets let in very little light and next to no noise, even if you had company you wouldn’t notice. Movies have been surprisingly popular, too - the second most downloaded app for Google Cardboard is Vrse, primarily designed to deliver VR movies - but outside of these it is difficult to see many applications of the hardware.

It does, then, seem plausible that VR will remain very much on the fringe, never to quite break the mass market. For one, you’ll need a $950+ gaming PC on top of the price of the headset - anywhere from between $600 to $850 for the top-end models. So, for now, the hype surrounding VR is unlikely to be matched by any ubiquity. Interest is spiking, but affordability and space requirements will be big hurdles.

When Samsung unveiled its Galaxy S7 and Gear 360 camera in January, the most provocative image of the day featured neither. The event provided a VR headset for every attendee, and the interest was so great that one of the world’s most famous businessmen was able to stroll through the crowd unnoticed. Mark Zuckerberg was pictured walking through the plugged-in masses, creating an unintentionally creepy and potentially prophetic demonstration of the darker side of a virtual world. The Facebook CEO made it to the stage with those attending completely unaware. And it’s this lack of perception that made the image so troubling. This sort of hyper-escapism may be appealing to many, but it brings with it a shift in the consumer-corporation relationship that has huge, potentially extremely harmful, ramifications for society.

It is an extension of the smartphone, and of the internet more generally. To disconnect so completely from reality is to allow those greatly affecting the real world more freedom; Zuckerberg can stroll through with an eerie grin, whilst those present are distracted in a virtual world. Comparisons to the Matrix are more comical than they are helpful, but the inability to define the discomfort is what makes the issue so fascinating. Distraction is pacifying, engagement with current affairs is dwindling, and turnout at US elections is only slowly recovering from a 70 year low.

Corporations have long attempted to alter consumer's perceptions through advertising, but VR enables them to do it even more effectively. The image of Zuckerberg wandering through the crowd serves as a perfect symbol of corporations exploiting public inertia to act as they please, towering above the blind and seat-bound masses as he does whatever he wants safe in the knowledge that nobody can touch him, yet also struck by the bizarreness of the monster he's helped to create.

Others have taken issue with the way VR blurs between fantasy and reality. How should society react if VR is manipulated for dark, illegal fantasy rather than relatively harmless video games? ‘The Nether’, a new play opened in Washington, D.C this month, explores the immersive, unreal future. Playwright Jennifer Haley raises the moral and legal concerns created when the software is manipulated to create a world in which molestation and murder of children goes unpunished. The influence of video games on an individual’s perception of reality remains debatable but, as the video game environment becomes ever-indistinguishable from that reality, the conversation will only intensify.

It remains to be seen if VR can truly become a mainstream form of entertainment - it does have some very influential proponents - but if it does, it is difficult to envisage it avoiding controversy. This is not to say we should be rejecting or suspicious of VR; the products themselves are incredibly cool, and most would jump at the chance to try one. But, in a world in which the unreal and intangible exists very much alongside the reality, we should be wary to not allow the former to take precedence. 

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