There’s a lot of hype in the Valley around virtual reality. Microsoft, Phillips, Samsung and Google are all entering the game currently dominated by Facebook and their $2 billion purchase of Oculus Rift — the VR system with the most hype, despite the fact that it hasn’t shipped yet.
I’ve tried the Oculus, and can testify that it’s a really cool experience.
It wasn’t quite enough to knock me on my face (like this gentleman here), but certainly came close to achieving what VR enthusiasts call “presence”. This is the feeling that you’re not sitting in a chair in your living room, but are actually riding a roller coaster, shooting zombies, or flying through space.
Experiencing the Oculus made me wonder… what does our society look like when VR becomes more popular, more real? What happens if more of life is lived online, in virtual reality, rather than off?
I think we’re already starting to see this. People already choose to spend hours gaming and building virtual lives: just look at the success of online empires like Second Life, World of Warcraft and the Sims.
In a way, I think these people could be considered early adopters: the first to invest nearly as much time in their virtual lives as their real ones. Once a technology — VR — comes along that provides a more realistic experience, will more people start spending more time online?
I think the answer is yes.
Besides more obvious use cases (games, porn and entertainment), I think it’s highly probable that VR explodes and becomes a mainstream technology a la the internet. Where the internet enabled the low-cost and rapid dissemination of information, VR is the first technology that could enable widespread experiences. Want to try your hand at surgery? There’s an app for that (oh, and doctors are already using such tools). Or, maybe you want to travel the world — now do so from your sofa.
VR could also allow people to choose how they present themselves in this virtual world. After all, changing our biological bodies is hard work. Losing weight, improving your skin, adding muscle… none of it is super easy.
If instead, everyone had complete autonomy over what they looked like (via their virtual avatar), would physical appearance even matter?
VR could potentially also solve some other areas of consistent unhappiness — time spent doing chores like laundry, cleaning, etc. Theoretically, you could remove all of these problems as more of life occurred in the digital world. The fact that homes get dirty and objects degrade and break is a function of physics: remove those in a digital world, and you could have virtual homes, environments and worlds that never get dirty, where lightbulbs never go out.
This is the crux of why I think VR could be a transformative technology. Without much effort, life in the digital sphere could easily outstrip the average American’s standard of living. Nicer things that don’t get dirty. Complete control over your appearance. The ability to customize your virtual world in a way that makes you happy. All of these seemingly would improve one’s quality of life. Status games (bigger virtual houses, crazier avatars, etc.) will inevitably crop up in any kind of virtual world, but a life lived in VR is one that’d remove a lot of potential stressors.
If this is true, it has all kinds of implications. Most cities today are functions of legacy transit efficiencies (being on waterways). Water transport is cheap and enables trade, people flock to areas with more trade going on due to economic opportunity, and a city blooms. The city spreads and organizes to promote things people do. Our subways, sidewalks, and buildings all exist to promote physical human interactions: commerce, eating, going out, raising a family, seeing friends. How do cities change if people start living primarily online, in a virtual world?
Well, what becomes important in a world where the physical matters less? Suddenly, trees and parks become unimportant. Things like electricity costs and fast internet would be far more important, which would likely mean moving to areas like Texas, where electricity is cheap and there are plenty of server farms. Heck, maybe would things actually look like the pods in the Matrix, where individuals spend most of their time in a pod that meets their basic biological needs and keeps them plugged in to a virtual world.
Is this a “good thing”?
For whatever reason, thinking of a future like the one I mention above feelsweird. I don’t like it.
I can’t say why. After all, imagine things play out exactly like this: what is my experience like in such a world?
Since everyone would be doing the same thing, I wouldn’t feel weird for living most of my life in virtual reality. To me, the trees in VR seem real. I can hear their leaves rustle in the breeze, see them in the same way I see trees today, and feel the bark on the trees (with my haptic gloves!). I can talk and play with friends. In short, my experiences are the same as in the real world. To my biological brain, life in VR is just as real as life in the physical world. Does that make it a bad thing?
I don’t know. But I think within 25 years, we’re all going to find out.
Thanks to Josh, Dilan, Eliot and Mattan for discussions on this topic. Also, if this idea interests you, check out Ready Player One — one of the best books I’ve read this year.