Last month London hosted the first ever Virtual Reality Show, bringing together the latest and greatest creations in VR today. Although VR has been researched and developed for the last 3 decades, it’s only now that the immersive technology is moving into the mainstream. From healthcare and education to entertainment, fashion and military, it seems like VR is increasingly impacting our lives in some way, shape or form. I went along to try out some of the innovative inventions to see where and how the technology was being applied and what the future of VR entails. Here’s my review on the most memorable of the shows’ features along with an ethical viewpoint on some of the uses and what the long-term implications of VR could be.
Military 2.0: The Bravemind System
VR is being used in the military for combat simulation and vehicular control, however the feature I tried was focused on post-war rehabilitation and treating soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The Bravemind System is designed to simulate a specific trauma with the aim of reducing PTSD symptoms through Prolonged Exposure Therapy. The experience can be personalised, from time of day, weather, certain noises or movements to match the soldiers experience as closely as possible. Despite the simulation being driven purely by graphics, I felt fully immersed in the war zone nonetheless. Immediately I was drawn to the intention of this creation due its focus on people’s mental health, however, it leads me to question the developing relationship between technology and psychology. Could VR completely replace a therapist or medicine? How much could VR be used to affect the mind and could it perhaps have some negative implications? Furthermore, who regulates this new medical use of VR? With a radical new application, comes an area of the unknown and thus an area of risk which we may not be fully prepared for. However, as long as it’s approached with caution, then who’s to say the that this new method for Exposure Therapy can not only help those with PTSD but a whole array of mental illnesses.
Alzheimer's Lab: A Walk Through Dementia
Created through a pro-bono partnership between Alzheiemrs UK, GooglePlay and Visyon, this app is designed to both spread awareness and improve understanding of the illness. The VR takes you through different scenarios as though you are the one with Dementia. You hear “your” thoughts out loud and understand the mindset of someone with the condition. The thought-provoking video elicited feelings of empathy and guilt and I could see how the experience would alter someone’s opinion and furthermore alter how they interact with someone with dementia. I was surprised that this little headset could be so provocative and dare I say… emotional? Arguably VR is a more powerful version of traditional film and media which leads me to question the intensified impact of VR on the user. Will VR creators have to be even more sensitive to the content they produce due to the heightened affects this will have in VR? I’m impressed with the impact VR can have when breaking the fourth wall, especially so when used in a medical context, however as the renowned saying goes; “With great power comes great responsibility”.
Technologically, the Microsoft HoloLens was the most impressive. The self-contained headset is a mixed reality experience of virtual and augmented aspects where physical and virtual worlds merge together. Holograms appear in the real environment around as you you interact with them through your own movements. Whilst playing around with the applications, I was able to place my own holograms around the conference centre (FYI I placed a tiger by the toilets) and I also played a game where I had to shoot aliens that were breaking through the walls around me. I was overwhelmed with how advanced the technology was- zero glitches and a seamless blend of physical and virtual. The technology was so good it was almost scary and made me wonder what the implications were of this new world Microsoft users could create and what affect this could have on the mind. What if some people struggled to distinguish between when AR ended and the real world began? Would people start acting like they did in the virtual world? Would games including shooting and violence encourage criminality? Could this lead to a string of mental health issues that we’ve never seen before? Some argue that there’s the rule “If you can’t do it in real life then you shouldn’t do it in virtual reality”. But therein lies the VR debate as others rightfully retaliate that the whole point of creating this virtual world is to break boundaries and experience things you would never do before.
So in summary, VR and AR are everywhere! There’s a buzz of excitement around the growing applications and it seems no industry is left untouched. However, with a new and booming technology comes questions for the long-term implications. I’ve raised a few of my concerns but my main one being the psychological effects of VR. How do we manage content in the virtual world in a way that doesn’t have knock-on negative effects on the real world? With big names, such as Facebook entering the AR/VR market, will people be able to pick and choose what version of the world they experience? Will it lead to people falling entirely out of touch with reality?… the real one.
Currently each of these industries self-regulate, but there may be a need for a centralised Virtual Reality body that ensures the right-doing of this technology. VR is not just entertainment, now it’s education, it’s welfare, it’s social development and so much more. There are infinitely many possible applications and the technology is only getting more advanced. Therefore, the risks involved need serious consideration as technology now has the power to impact our definition of “reality”.