Saturday, June 25, 2016

Why Is Virtual Reality Something We Should Be Worried About?

This past week I picked up a book of essays that have been bound together under the title, What Should We Be Worried About?

The book is filed in a section of the library dealing with futurism, artificial intelligence and similar themes. Futurism is a theme that has interested me on and off as far back a Toffler's 1970 classic Future Shock. In fact, that period of history was awhirl with books on Armageddon and the end of the world. Population Bomb, The Late Great Planet Earth and the findings of the Club of Rome were just a few of the high profile titles.

This book is a bi-product of The Reality Club that John Brockman formed in 1981, which evolved into a new face called The Edge. It's a place where intellectuals and scholars can explore ideas. In 2014 the idea they explored was this one: What should we be worried about?

With nearly 500 pages of short essays, many by people familiar to the broader public, there's plenty of material to chew on. It would be a great book for late night college bull sessions (if kids still do that sort of thing) or for philosophy club discussions. What's this world coming to? Inquiring minds want to know.

Earlier today I pulled a page from the January/February edition of Popular Science because it contained an article and infographic titled Virtual Reality Gets Real. The graphic provides a timeline of key VR milestones from the past (1992's Sensorama Simulator) to the future where people could develop bonds with virtual humans. In 2002 VR was already being used to help people with PTSD.

This book from the Edge has an essay by Milhaly Csikszentnihalyi that begins with his pointing out that it doesn't take much imagination to think of many things to be worried about tomorrow. Ultimately he selected The Triumph of the Virtual as his theme. His big fear here is that children will grow up to be adults without the ability to differentiate between reality and imagination. What will be the effect on democractic societies?

Of course the case can be made that television has been a medium for distracting rather than informing the masses, for manipulating rather than mobilizing us for good. The dark side of VR is more potent than just an occasion for pornographic sideshow circus fairylands.

Another essay in this book discusses the darker aspects of technology as it related to the formation of children's minds and perceptions.

On the positive side of the ledger I've read that VR has been used as a distraction for burn victims to help them through pain and personal horrors. Like most emerging technologies there will be positive, interesting and unforeseen negative aspects. (DeBono's PIN Method.)

VR has been getting extensive publicity this year since the CES Show in Vegas and especially in light of the purchase of Oculus VR by Facebook. One result was that I headed over to Best Buy recently to see what those VR Goggles looked like. What I saw looked undramatic at best, especially compared to the GoPro videos that produce such visually stunning images, especially when mixed with imagination. (I love the GoPro vid taken from the shoulder of a bald eagle in flight.

My guess is that there's a fairly massive hunger being created for the possibilities of VR. What will happen in this field will be anyone's guess, and we're sure to find out. That is, unless some of the other fears outlined in this book come to pass. What is it that keeps you up at night?

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