Recent Breakthroughs In Virtual Reality Go Beyond Simply Playing Video Games

CREDIT: THINKPROGRESS/DYLAN PETROHILOS
CREDIT: THINKPROGRESS/DYLAN PETROHILOS

Virtual reality is having a major moment.

Since Facebook bought Oculus VR for $2 billion in 2014, the technology and its precursor 360-degree video seem to be everywhere.

Facebook unleashed 360-video in News Feed this week, where users can move their device or mouse to personally control the camera shot while watching videos from select media outlets such as VICE and the Discovery Channel. In early September, the Pokemon Company announced the 2016 release of Pokemon Go. The beloved 1990s gaming and TV franchise reboot promises players the ability to find, catch, trade, and battle virtual Pokemon from their smartphones. Google also joined in with Cardboard, a budget friendly headset for smartphone owners looking to get a more immersive experience with 360-video.

But while enthusiasts embrace the technology’s advances, they are also thinking about what may go wrong, and the complications that could arise as VR becomes more mainstream.

Heightening Emotions And Understanding

“I’m excited to see it’s kind of making it’s way back up into the awareness of the general public,” said Maria Schultheis, a psychologist and professor at Drexel University who uses VR to work with stroke patients that have traumatic brain injuries. “Virtual reality simulations offer the opportunity to put the person in any given experience and all the given components that come with that — physical responses, emotional responses, and behavioral responses.”

A lot of tech only engages one aspect of an experience, such as with robotics and motor ability. But with virtual reality simulation, “you can not only experience the motor or physical, you can have an emotional response and a cognitive response” based on the scenario and controlling for stimuli, Schultheis said.

For her patients and their families, VR heightens understanding. Stroke patients with brain injury often have visual impairments and part of their line of sight is missing, resulting in clumsiness and injury.

“They don’t see the world completely, [patients] can bump into walls, walk awkwardly,” Schultheis said. “How do you show this to a family member? Present a visual world with the visual field cut,” to demonstrate what it’s like to walk in front of others with the impairment and the embarrassment that comes with it.

VR also aids people battling substance abuse, helping them maintain sobriety by safely putting them in a virtual environment where they are tempted, and lead them to discover their triggers, Schultheis said. Simulation can also prevent people from texting and driving just by having them experience a crash caused by distraction.

Being In The News

That sense of understanding also translates to news. Virtual reality has the potential to change journalism, much like the internet did, fundamentally altering how stories are told and how readers experience them.

“The more difficult and complicated the subject, the more we seem to want to close the news app and open up Candy Crush,” said Daniel Pacheco, a journalism professor at Syracuse University who specializes in VR storytelling. “VR can counteract this tendency because of its ability make you feel physically present somewhere and to comprehend information by exploring it in an almost physical way. It’s hard to tune out or forget something you experienced as if you were there.”

Great storytelling is evocative and with VR can transport the viewer into another, time, place, and mindset complete with a range of emotions. Take Waves of Grace, a documentary on Liberia’s Ebola crisis and how one woman used her immunity to help children orphaned by the disease’s spread in 2014. The documentary’s co-creator Chris Milk used 360-video to capture the protagonist’s, Decontee Davis, surroundings — sights and sounds that put the viewer in the midst of an epidemic.

“You relate differently to every other story you read about pandemic disease. Why? Because after that you feel like you were there, as if you stood inside an Ebola clinic while a dying victim was being treated and comforted. It can almost feel like one of your own memories,” Pacheco said. “This ability to transport people’s consciousness somewhere else is so powerful that I have no doubt it will change the way people relate to issues in the news.”

Then Things Get A Little Weird

Ahead of this week’s Oculus Connect conference in San Francisco where game developers will announce their latest virtual reality efforts, Sony debuted games for PlayStation VR to appeal to gamers looking for gore and others looking for something a little more socially grounded. Wired magazine’s Chris Kohler tried them out and found the Japanese romantic simulation game Summer Lesson, where a male teacher gives a private lesson to an attractive pupil, to be just as unnerving as a gruesome horror game.

Things started off fairly benign, with the student appearing and sitting down next to you, reading from a textbook. You could choose to teach English to a Japanese student in her bedroom, or Japanese to an American student at a beach house. At one point, and this happens in either scenario, the student leans in very close and asks, “Sensei, how do you read this word?” Then she places the book in front of your face, leaning into you in what can only be described as an extremely intimate manner.

My heart rate went up. The experience triggered the same alarms that would go off if a real-life stranger got so close I could feel her breath. This goes on for a few minutes, with the student perhaps leaning over you to pick something up, or leaning in to whisper something in a hushed, conspiratorial tone.

It’s important to note that this is not about gawking at a virtual woman. Everyone involved is dressed entirely appropriately. There are no bikinis, no peeks up a skirt, nothing like that. This isn’t salacious. But it is, quite plainly, erotic. It’s supposed to be. The genius of Summer Lesson is how it illustrates the sheer power of virtual reality to not only transport you but to create genuine emotional reactions to what you see.

Kohler’s experience brings up questions of moral and ethical boundaries: How closely can virtual reality — largely operating in fantasy and bending rules of physics and law — flirt with questionable or inappropriate behavior that isn’t tolerated in real life?

“With every technology that evolves, the ethics question comes up. If the experience becomes so good, when does the person blur the lines?” Schultheis asked. “From a psychological perspective, relationships — whether it’s sex or love — if you’re creating an attachment with a virtual experience, how does that affect you in the real world?”

Virtual pornography or teledildonics already exists. While VR could be used to enhance sexual experiences, it could also reinforce negative behavior such as pedophilia or rape. Thanks to the internet, anyone who is curious about pedophilia or snuff films can just turn to Google, but VR could potentially take that curiosity to the next level — trying it. But that is a constant risk, Schultheis noted, that lies with the individual, not necessarily the technology.

“Virtual reality can allow you to share experiences in a way that tech now doesn’t allow, and that’s what brings humans together — sharing experiences,” she said.

According to Schultheis, TV used to be the technological villain, where too much exposure was feared to have detrimental effects on children and their behavior, she said. And because VR involves more than watching and listening, it too could be considered a culprit.

Even now with tablets and phones, Schultheis said, there’s a potential for adults and children to prefer the virtual over the physical: “There’s a lot of research being done now on the impact of tech in children. I don’t know if we have the answers yet because we have to see what the outcome of this generation will be.”

“A more benign effect [could be] reinforcing positive behaviors or making [the experience] so positive that they develop a preference for the virtual world rather than the real world,” she continued. “In adding all of the things that they would get out in the real world [through virtual reality], you’re giving them less of a reason to go out and experience them.”

Accepting Risk With Progress

Virtual reality may be having a resurgence, but it’s trajectory will likely follow that of the disruptive media and technologies that preceded it.

“Look at what people have done with every other form of media throughout history. That’s what’s going to happen with VR,” said Albert Rizzo, researcher and director of the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies’ virtual reality program.

Like TV, comic books, and movies, virtual reality will hit “all the highest levels of achievements and base levels of interactions,” Rizzo said. “You’ll see porn, you’ll see physics visualized — we will marvel at the visualization of an atom… But you have to accept the potential that virtual reality environments could lower the thresholds for someone to act violently or sexually aggressive.”

“You could make the case that humans for the most part know the difference from play in the virtual world and the real world; know that [certain] things are permissible in the virtual world and not in the real world,” he continued. “People will build virtual environments where you can torture people. Will that manifest in the real world? I don’t think we know. It’s hard to know.”

It will take time to study how our brains react to the digital world just like with anything else. But longtime enthusiasts maintain that VR is more promising than it is daunting, and that it’s here to stay.

Rizzo pointed to the enhancement of historical documentation and education, where students can ask Holocaust survivors about their experiences: “This will be bigger than playing Call of Duty or Oculus Rift — OK, maybe not Oculus Rift,” he chuckled. “Either way, I put my money on it not being a bust.”