In recent years Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality are reaching far beyond the world of sci-fi films, stepping into our homes and everyday lives more than we might realise.
With the release of the eagerly awaited (well at least for some!) film Ready Player One at the end of March, I decided to delve into the world of Virtual Reality (VR) and have discovered that the concept of living, submersed, in a digital world may not be as far off as we might think.
Ready Player One began as a book, originally released in 2011, by the author Ernest Cline. It’s been a favourite of mine ever since I picked it up; it explores a dystopian world in which humanity is living on the edge of survival in a desolate world, with a virtual world their only escape.
We are introduced to the young Wade Watts, the main character of the story. Wade is one of many of the new generation living their life in the Virtual Reality world ‘the OASIS’ because the external existence of the real world has failed them. In a world where famine, poverty and unsafe environments surround them, they have few options but to search for more in the virtual world.
OASIS is a kind of fictional MMORPG (a “massively multiplayer online role-playing game”). Participants started to seek sanctuary in what soon developed into a whole new universe online, where OASIS currency was more valuable than that of the real world. By 2045, everything became integrated into the OASIS world as a result. Instead of heading into the dangers outside, Wade and his peers would jump online to attend school within the OASIS, whilst their parents similarly logged in to go to work – all without physically leaving the relative safety of their homes.
Back to 2018, and the real world, and there has been a lot of scepticism and negativity surrounding this virtual doorway to another world. VR has, to date, not been portrayed in a positive light in the movies and media - think back to The Matrix and the future painted for humanity who never even knew they were in a falsified universe. However, there are many positive applications for VR technology. Whilst VR attempts to fully immerse us into the artificial world, it doesn’t have to isolate people as some might think.
For some, VR creates a unique opportunity to connect through communication networks and ‘meet up’ with others far away, or provides access to information and learning experiences through other methods than just literature. There are a number of very real uses for this; it could provide residents of remote villages across the globe access to education without travelling miles each day on foot to go to school. The technology could allow people with restricted mobility to explore parts of the world that may be inaccessible to them -perhaps with others who share their challenges. Or how about in the Health industry, in which VR could create life-life hands on training simulations in complex medical procedures – for instance brain surgery, and support rehabilitation of the mind in controlled environments for patients who have suffered from a stroke or brain damage.
The digital world that Wade and his classmates knew better than the one they actually lived in is adapted from interactions we are already starting to see today. After school, Wade would often ‘meet up’ with his friends though chatrooms where they would gather by friend-invitation only - not all that dissimilar to social media platforms such as Facebook we interact with today. VR contains the potential to unite people and create a new type of online community on another level to what we know now.
In some instances, it is easy to see the allure of diving into a VR world which can be preferable to the true reality of our situation – with VR you can be anywhere and anything in a place you can truly control. Our minds - supplemented with the sensations of the outside world - could seek out these customised lives, with VR providing an escape from the harsh realities of life where things are ‘all too much’, or not as attractive as the one you can design yourself.
VR often carries the same preconceptions that video gaming has encountered over the years; the concept that spending all day lost in a digital world is antisocial, corrupting and encourages violence (particularly if they’re keen players of the first-person shooter style games).
I can see how these negative connotations come about – I find it hard enough trying to interact with my other half whilst he’s engrossed in his latest Xbox game, muting his surroundings (and me!) through his headphones whilst chatting to his friends who don’t even live on the Island. I dread to think what will happen when he finally gets his hands on a VR headset and I lose the ability to capture his attention through frantic waving by the TV screen!
Gamers see their consoles as a way of disconnecting from the stresses we all experience in everyday life, and an opportunity to seek distraction from the realities of these burdens. For decades, huge, sophisticated virtual communities have been brought together under the same interests from across the globe, facilitated through fantasy realms by the likes of World of Warcraft – a game most of us have now heard of, and which still hosts an active five million subscribers who thrive on the interaction they receive through this platform.
VR in the form of gaming is intended to connect people, not separate them. The same could be seen in the necessity of Wade Watts and the rest of his peers – they are drawn to the call of the OASIS not just through the interactions that are required to be completed within, such as going to school, but also because his life in the desolate world can no longer provide the human connection and social interaction that we all crave.
If I bring you back to the tangible Earth, where stepping into 2018 the word ‘plastic’ is becoming taboo and the planet around us is showing more and more signs of deterioration, the world is finally opening its eyes to the harm we have been inflicting on the planet – a long-called for change of course is vital if we want to avoid a desolate future of the dystopian world depicted in the life of Wade Watts.
However being an optimist, if we do manage to avoid the bleak outlook portrayed in Ready Player One, will we still crave an alternative reality? Could we really replace reality with our own alternative world? We are already seeing a growth in ‘digital detoxes’ and many of us are trying to pry ourselves away from our addictive habits of checking Facebook one hundred plus times a day to bring ourselves back to the ‘now’… Surely there is no wholesome substitute for the real world? Who knows… see you online later?