How can we use virtual and augmented reality to change how we perceive things?
In all likelihood, you will have come across the now famous internet phenomena concerning the black and blue dress, which for many people, appeared to be white and gold. Since then, various other clips have emerged ranging from pictures to soundbites, in which what is perceived as objective reality varies drastically from person to person.
Augmented reality may well heighten these perceptual differences even further. Not only will it change the way we see the world, it will allow us to interact with information and combined knowledge in ways which were previously unimaginable. We will be able to read each other’s pulses to determine if someone is lying to us. If you are trying to buy a product, why not analyse the brain activity or pupil dilation of the person selling to you to determine how truthful they are being when answering your questions.
It isn’t unrealistic that the step beyond AR goggles might involve something akin to todays contact lenses, or implants directly into the brain. With many massive companies investing in the technology, this escalation is going to mean that development should occur rapidly. The question is less “will AR change how we perceive the world?” and more “how quickly will it do it?” In the animal kingdom, we see this differing perceptual ability more vividly. Many different animals, from snakes to fish, can see or sense things that other animals cannot, which gives them an advantage. When some humans have the same sorts of abilities, when one person can see threats that another cannot, thanks to technology, then there will certainly be ethical questions which need answering.
What is objectively real may not be what everyone sees, and what everyone sees can differ wildly. Augmented reality has the potential to open humanity up to the possibility of an even great and deeper level of perception than we ever thought possible, and it doesn’t seem to unrealistic to suppose that this could occur in the near future.
How museums and VR can be a match made in heaven.
Technology has, for a long time, been used to give context to the exhibits in museums, whether it be a video or sound bite. Virtual and augmented reality could be the next generation of that, especially in a time when many cultural institutions are looking to stay on-trend, technologically speaking. And the technology is becoming cheaper. In a time not too long ago, the idea of even having a few headsets would have been prohibitively expensive. Now however, with prices going down, we shouldn’t be surprised to see more and more places making the investment.
Guests will be invited to explore the exhibits, both physical and digital, in a whole new way. VR changes how we interact with data, so it is not surprise that this is how museums will likely implement it. But in a bid to ensure future relevancy there are other options as well. Some experiments have involved using VR to return broken artefacts to their former glory. With a headset, guests could not only enjoy what is currently in the museum, but damaged pieces which previously would have been unavailable for enjoyment. Or alternatively, one option is to flesh out skeletons of long-gone civilisations using augmented reality headsets, giving users a more in depth and less abstract experience of what ancient life may have been like.
Holographic tours with figures of historical importance, past and present, are another distinct probability. Producers of mixed reality capture technology expected it to be taken up mainly by the entertainment sector, rathe than cultural institutions. But it makes sense, if you are exploring ancient history, to have a guide from ancient history giving the tour. Mixed reality gives a museum the ability to extend the exhibit beyond the physical limitations of the building it is housed in, in a far richer and more immersive way than simply by showing a video.
Now this isn’t to say that museums can forgo physical exhibits entirely. Mixed reality works as a way of giving context to those physical objects context and enhancing the immersion of the experience. But it will never be able to replace the thrill of looking at a real object or artwork which has survived the passage of time. Nothing is as effective a window to the past. Augmented and virtual reality must work in tandem with tradition, rather than against it.
Can VR become a political tool?
Most entertainment mediums often find themselves implemented in ways the creators did not foresee. Social media is almost always used during political campaigns to spread different messages. This may not have been what they were designed for, but it is what they are particularly good at.
Now virtual reality has many different potential applications, but up until now, they have remained fairly apolitical. But this may not necessarily remain so. The beauty of VR is that it allows you to live another life. You get to experience something that doesn’t exist in the real world, or you get to do something that doesn’t correspond to how you live day to day.
This ability would allow users to not only live fantasy lives, but real ones too. Developing empathy for someone else by living a day in their shoes would be one of the best ways to compel someone to think what you want them to think. Now, the political uses become clear. Convincing people to change their minds is difficult, but by giving them a way to see through someone else’s eyes, it becomes easier. Wherever one finds themselves on the political spectrum, being able to convince others that your way is the right way is a vital tool for any campaign.
The problem is that VR is famous for allowing us to immerse ourselves in worlds that aren’t real. So this means that people one other side of the political spectrum could concoct a fantasy world for users to immerse themselves in. This way, they would be able to convince us that their version of things is the truth, when in fact it may not be.
VR is powerful, and its ability to create stories is perhaps unparalleled. When used to create obviously fictional scenarios, it is undoubtedly effective. But when the lines between fact and fiction become blurred, the potential application for VR becomes a little more troublesome.
How to make VR more social
For virtual reality to be appealing, it must be genuinely immersive. In fact, heightening the user’s immersion is one of the areas of the technology which is most invested in. All external light must be blocked out, any distracting sounds nullified, and the whole experience tailored to make the user forget that the world outside the headset exists at all.
The potential problem here is that generally, the more immersed you are, the less social the experience can become. Putting on a headset blocks out the real world, making it difficult to communicate with people on the outside, and impossible for them to communicate with you. This means that having a good VR experience is less social that playing a traditional video game, where you can at least talk to people in the room with you. Until we can interconnect people into a shared VR experience, at which point it becomes a singularly unique social experience.
But all that could be about change. Some modern establishments are dramatically re-thinking the traditional application of the VR experience, in an attempt to make it more social. Taking a cue from retro gaming bars full of arcade machines, some places, by connecting VR devices to a TV screen, allow customers to enjoy watching their friends move around in virtual reality. Being able to cater to spectators means that others can share in the experience as well as the user, where previously this was impossible.
Now of course that doesn’t change the feeling of immersion for the user. They still can’t really interact with their friends whilst actually wearing the VR headset. But once they take it off, they can talk to their friends about the experience safe in the knowledge that it was shared. Instead of having to describe what happened, everyone saw it with you.
Putting expensive, cutting edge technology in a room with people who may well have had a few drinks before using it might not seem like a bright idea, but the bars that have implemented it have put extra safety measures into practice. Chest straps and harnesses are used to stop wires getting tangled, or users straying too far.
Are we Sims or like Neo in the Matrix?
The concept of a simulation has been around for a long time. Using computers, we have been able to predict how certain series of events may play out, using simulations, which has the benefit of being pretty much risk free in the real world, at worst, they waste a bit of power.
But with the international success of the movie The Matrix, and of course the amazing ‘Ready Player One’ a new idea, that we ourselves could be living inside a computer simulation, has been thrust forward, with some very high profile exponents – according to Elon Musk
“The strongest argument for us probably being in a simulation I think is the following,”Musk said. “40 years ago we had Pong. Two rectangles and a dot. That’s where we were.”
“Now 40 years later we have photorealistic, 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously and it’s getting better every year. And soon we’ll have virtual reality, we’ll have augmented reality.”
“If you assume any rate of improvement at all, then the games will become indistinguishable from reality, just indistinguishable.”
When you consider the developments in VR and AR, is it impossible to believe that one day both VR and AR – combined with haptics – will become indistinguishable from reality? If so, then statistically it is likely that this has in fact already happened, and we are indeed living within it.
Whether Musk is right or not, we would probably never know, what is more interesting, we believe, is what sort of simulation is the most likely?
There are a two main different prospects, both of which have been championed by different thinkers. The two kinds of simulation we will be talking about are the kind proposed in Nick Bostrom’s now famous Simulation Argument (2003), which is available online, and the Neural Simulations proposed by Barry Dainton in his piece “On Singularities and Simulations.”(2012)
Bostrom proposes something he calls an “ancestor simulation” which involves our descendants using their super powerful computers to simulate consciousness within a machine. From there, they would simulate humanity’s history, complete with their ancestors, all of who would be fully conscious beings, but would exist in a computer like in The Sims video game, rather than a brain.
The other kind of simulation is more like what we see in the movie The Matrix, where we are plugged into something that makes us think we are living a certain life, with certain memories. Our own consciousness would be saved on a back-up, ready to be re-installed at a moment’s notice. Put simply, it is a controlled hallucination, where we think we are someone else, and have all their memories instead of our own.
Both of these ideas have their positives and negatives. To create an ancestor simulation requires that we be able to create consciousness in a machine. Philosophy of the mind has a huge body of literature, but what is clear is that people disagree as to whether consciousness can exist outside a human brain or not. A neural simulation doesn’t have this problem. But, it is a lot harder to successfully manipulate consciousness to the sufficient degree that one might think. But if Musk is right, then despite it being featured in a blockbuster movie, we think it is the most likely.
For more information about this, and in order to make up your own mind about which option is more likely, we thoroughly recommend you seek out the work of the two philosophers we have discussed.
The Simulation Hypothesis by Nick Bostrom is available free online, and Barry Dainton’s On Singularities and Simulations was published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies in 2012.
Bibliography Bostrom, N, Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?, Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 53, NO. 211, pp. 243 – 255, 2003 Dainton, B, On Singularities and Simulations, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2012
What is the future of achievements in VR and Games
The words “calm down, it’s only a game,” have been heard, in all likelihood, by almost everyone over their lifetimes. It tends to come in response to a negative reaction to something in a game, from losing Monopoly to the Champions League Final.
And for those of us who play video games, this turn of phrase is even more common, and even more aggravating.
Being killed or otherwise defeated in a video game, over and over again, is at best annoying, and at worst, costly in terms of in-game currency. Perhaps you lose experience points, or virtual money used to buy items, but whatever it is, the outcome is often the same. A heartfelt, often passionate feeling of anger and sadness. But why? Because, as is rightly pointed out, often in the immediate aftermath of such an outburst, it really is just a game. So what if you lose in-game money?
You can’t spend it in real world anyway. You haven’t actually lost anything. Or so what if you die in game? You can just try again, you haven’t actually died in real life, so stop complaining. The answer is, of course, that we have failed to achieve our targets in game, and this failure is what generates these negative emotions. The odd thing is that, in some cases, the feeling is exactly the same as if we fail to do something in the real world, although often not as long lasting or as extreme.
Now this last point is key. At the moment, if you concede a 90th minute equaliser on a football game, what happens? You are annoyed, sure, maybe even genuinely upset. But no one would argue that this feeling compares to how you would feel if you were actually a footballer whose team had just conceded the same equaliser in real life. Why? Well because that’s real, whereas the video game isn’t. Why does that matter? Well because you’ve trained years for that one moment, enduring plenty, and to have victory snatched away so cruelly in real life, given this, is completely different to someone who picks up a controller and plays a game.
Currently, this is an adequate response. But the onset of Virtual Reality, in a vein similar to the new movie Ready Player One, might just lead is to re-think this. Because just as one can lose in a video game, one can also achieve. It’s really hard to complete some of the achievements in a huge RPG like Dark Souls, for example. It takes skill and dedication. And yet, when someone does manage to do it, instead of their achievement being celebrated, often it is at best it is often ignored and at worst, ridiculed. But a fully immersive Virtual Reality experience may lead us to change our tune.
The example I am going to use to illustrate the point, whilst it may seem far-fetched, is not so unlikely if the relevant philosophical literature is to be believed. Firstly, consider this. Why do we idolise and respect those who climb Mount Everest? Obviously, because it’s really hard to climb. It takes years of training, unbelievable levels of endurance, and, I would imagine, really hurts. If I were to ask you, whether me climbing Everest on a computer game compares to the real thing in terms of difficulty, the answer would be no. All I’m doing is sitting on my sofa playing on a console. Therefore, I don’t deserve the reception that a real mountain climber deserves.
But now consider this. You put on a headset that is so realistic if you didn’t know any better you’d swear you were on Everest.
Furthermore, you are wearing a full body suit that can mimic, down to a T, every sensation one might have climbing Everest. Every bite from the freezing wind, all the aches and pains that undoubtedly ravage the bodies of people who climb Everest, perfectly accurately. So to put it simply, it is just as physically demanding for you to climb Everest, in terms of pain, as it would be for someone actually climbing the mountain. Would this be regarded as comparatively impressive?
This is still a video game, one might say, your body hasn’t actually moved anywhere, so one could argue that because of that fact, no it wouldn’t be. But again we come back to the earlier question. What’s so hard about actually moving your limbs in such a way so as to climb Everest? It’s really difficult for a number of reasons. But in the near future, every stress and strain you would expose yourself to on the mountain may be simulated artificially in your brain. After all, our brains tell us when something hurts. For you, it wouldn’t matter that you hadn’t actually been there, your body would hurt just as much as if you had.
This is a specific example, but the same could apply to a virtual experience where you swim the English Channel, or complete a marathon. Now when it comes to how much credit we give someone for doing something, there are things other than physical endurance we take into account. Perhaps you are running the marathon for charity, which is admirable and worthy of praise even if you come last.
But, it seems to us that the experiences would be comparable on a physical level, and thus, effectively, playing a video game where you climb Everest would warrant congratulations in the same realm as those you would give to someone who had actually been and done it.