Will people dream of electric sheep?

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Throughout history, there have been many visionaries who have successfully glimpsed into the future and heralded some insight that overlooked in their time, seeing a situation that would eventually transpire to be true. For example, H.G Wells, who lived from 1886 to 1946 and was the author of well-known science-fiction works The Time Machine and The War of The Worlds (to name but a few), visualised inventions and concepts that would manifest themselves into reality; the atomic bomb, global warming and universal expansion were concepts to which he alluded. Many science fiction authors hung on the verge of cutting edge discourse, refusing to blindly embrace each and every new concept of the future that came about, as they found new ways for our flawed human nature to intervene in each seemingly ‘revolutionary’ creation.

That’s not to say that every new technology conceived by mankind is set to usher in a plethora of horrors or create sociological discord. It’s fair to say that science has generally brought forth benefits to all involved. In our own little sphere of discourse, VR has been researched and explored. One notable example was The corporeal body in virtual reality, which considers the psychology of VR technology and how this related to self-embodiment in a virtual world. Of course, the previously mentioned headsets have made many appearances on campus, especially in promotional events from the Computing and Communications department, such as last June’s digital skills event, which saw high school students from around the North West experience the building of a Minecraft version of campus! But to return to previous conjecture, there seems to be a conscious desire to stay aware of technologies just over the horizon; one, which caught this writer’s attention, was the concept of virtual reality.

At the moment, immersive reality, where users can interact with and feel as if they are part of a virtual realm is predominantly kept to the entertainment industry; the HTC Vive, Occulus Rift and the Sony Morpheus are all headsets predominantly designed for the entertainment industry. However, ignoring the limitations of the present – the current expense of technology, the lack of bandwidth for seamless wireless broadcasts and the currently unavoidable fact that users are consciously aware of the fact they are looking at a fake world – virtual reality represents a huge leap, and could change many different technologies.

Media, for example, could be infinitely augmented by virtual reality. Being able to immerse yourself into a fantasy or science fiction world could really heighten the effect of realism, but what about being ‘in’ the world itself? What about films that enable the viewer to be able to look around at particular parts of a scene? Would it be a liberating experience, or would it detract from the image of the director? Television could be an ideal medium to begin this experimental creative foray into the unknown! Nature documentaries that take viewers to the poles, then, in a flash, to the Amazonian rainforests; crime thrillers could place viewers in the shoes of the detective or incorporate them as a bystander. In terms of entertainment, there are many opportunities that could be explored. The way people consume news journalism could be changed as people ‘find’ themselves at a protest, or at the site of a bombing, or a meeting between leaders. What issues this may raise however would be that of realism; already, marketing provides images of people and places that are so realistic they cannot be discerned from their real counterparts. Would hyper-realism enable false imagery to be generated? Could the close intimacy between a viewer and virtual reality enable these falsities to go unchecked?

However, thinking outside of the media sphere, the uses of this technology could be even more diverse. Training could be used to simulate the stress of a situation, without subjecting users to the side effects of real practice. Doctors for example, could experience the stress of surgery in order to overcome it before operating under their own steam. Or what about being able to view places in the comfort of your home; imagine walking through a computer-generated image of your dream home, or being able to get a taste of an exotic tourist destination. VR could open up a new arena of marketing for hospitality services around the world. It’s one thing seeing a sunny beach on a website, but it’s quite another to see it from a first-person perspective!

Most of my previous examples have suggested generally favourable boons to ‘virtual reality’. However, we have a tendency to take a utopian view of new technology and it cannot be understated that a consideration of the misuses of technology would allow researchers and professionals to adequately prepare. Hyperrealism could promote an addiction to a new form of ‘reality’; it could end up serving the adult industry, which already faces issues of gender misrepresentation (to put it very lightly). Potentially, vulnerable individuals could be emotionally manipulated by realistic and intimate imagery. Could it promote a society where people are morbidly addicted to images of the world that aren’t physically possible? It could become a populist entertainment tool; it would certainly give new meaning to the term ‘bread and circuses’.

But perhaps I’m too quick to judge. Maybe we’ll only see the true breadth of VR technology once it has been properly explored and expanded by pioneers; maybe it’ll be a double-edged sword. Nuclear power and nuclear bombs, space flight and ballistic missile technology, onion routing for privacy or for hiding criminal activity… perhaps it’s part of our human nature to find binaries in technologies.

Maybe it’ll do more good than harm, but only the future can tell; maybe the dystopic visions of the future are coined to prevent them from happening in the first place. Or perhaps they are glimpses of what is yet to come. Of course, only time will tell.

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