The Hard Realities of Virtual Reality

According to Meta and other proponents of the uhm, metaverse, we’re going to be spending our days with headsets on in that space. We’re going to love it too. But VR headsets are the future and that’s where we’ll live. Except it isn’t and we won’t be. We will, however, be using them a lot more and in a lot of interesting ways. Just not full-time. And likely not every day. This comes down to two fundamental reasons; sociocultural and biological.

There are already some powerful use cases and benefits to VR as well as AR. Today, VR mostly features as new ways to plays games. Immersive and a lot of fun. But VR will become a a key technology in a lot of industrial, medical and other commercial applications. Doctors will be able to train on surgeries, conferences will have physical and virtual elements, engineers will be able to explore structures like bridges and buildings in 3D and test them in certain environments, urban planners and architects will explore ideas for the physical world. And many more. Augmented Reality (AR) glasses and smartphone apps will similarly be used. But not as full-time tools for life and work.

Sociocultural Issues

Over 90% of human to human communication is non-verbal. The pandemic taught us this limitation. As soon as restrictions began to lift, we didn’t cancel conferences, concerts, events or decide they should stay virtual. We ran to the real-world experiences. Sure, we want to spend less time in offices, but we also wanted to connect with our co-workers in the real-world.

All cultures around the world have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years of being physically amongst each other. Touching, hearing, seeing, smelling, experiencing, learning. Looking at each other and being amongst each other. No matter how good the VR headset and software is, it can’t replace these core human elements. It can substitute for a time, but not replace. VR will always be a simulation. Humans experience life in the physical world.

In many cultures, dance, costumes, life events and music play vital roles in how we navigate our world and relationships with each other. Digital simulations are simulacrums that are surface only, they don’t carry the weight and value of having grown up with those cultural elements. In a VR world, we can’t taste that family or community dish, or smell it or the smells, sights and sounds surrounding that event. It is sterile.

Biological Realities

Some very interesting recent scientific research has been around touch. Human touch. Actually touching one another isn’t just important for mental and emotional health, but our actual physical health too. Touch can reduce blood pressure and heart rate. Touch can reduce neural system issues, while also stimulating our oxytocin and the natural antidepressant serotonin. And let’s not forget dopamine. Touch is a very basic, ancient primal aspect of being human. It’s something we share with our fellow animals like lions, whales and even bees.

Science has shown that when there is skin-to-skin contact in the first hour of human birth, the newborn’s temperature, heart rate and breathing decreases as well as crying. In any virtual reality, touch is physically impossible. Wearing gloves or even a body suit doesn’t make up for that.

We also use our hearing, sight and sense of smell to constantly evaluate the world around us. Our limbic system evaluating fight or flight among other emotional responses.

We also seek physical world experiences to relax or challenge us. You may be on a virtual beach, but you’re still sitting on the couch, there’s no sand between your toes. You can climb a virtual Mt. Everest, but you’re still nice and cozy and warm in your living room while your dog or cat thinks you look silly making all those strange moves.

Understanding Where Virtual Reality & Augmented Reality Fits

So we’ve established that neither VR or AR can really become a daily constant for hours on end. Some folks may spend several hours a day immersed in a digital experience; gamers, those using digital twins in industrial applications, some in the medical field. So where does AR and VR fit?

Both fit especially well in a number of uses beyond just gaming as we discussed at the start. But neither work as a replacement of our physical world experiences or requirements for living and navigating our world. Like any OS (Operating System), they have their place and uses. Each with their limitations and benefits. All are place/time centric. Our interactions with technology are evolving from keyboard to screen, voice and perhaps more gestures.

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