In 1999, the Wachowski siblings released a monument to modern film-making: The Matrix. Stylistically, the world really had never seen anything like it. However, the movie’s impact wasn’t confined to its entertainment value; the movie centered around metaphysical themes popularly attributed to Western philosophers Plato and Descartes, and reframed them in modern, digital fashion. For many, this was the first legitimate pop-culture representation of not just “virtual reality,” but the concept of full “virtual immersion.”
This isn’t to say that The Matrix was the first, or even the definitive, movie about virtual immersion. Ready Player One and Surrogate both offer their own takes on digital immersion with unique variation. However, there is almost always one constant in tales that explore the digital otherworldliness of an alternate existence, and that’s the focus on negative elements. Of course, the mechanics of a narrative inherently dictate that there must be conflict present somewhere in the yarn — but it’s worth keeping in mind that the idea of virtual immersion, as it creeps from ether to existence, will likely be a multifaceted experience with ups and downs.
The truth is that we’re going to have to become adept at navigating these experiences, because virtual immersion will likely permeate our lives sooner rather than later. That’s assuming our universe isn’t a simulation already!
What we do know for sure is that virtual reality is already here, and the world of “tele-everything” is also becoming more prevalently represented in academics and modern workforce the world over. The innovation and eventual union of these two technologies as they evolve will fundamentally change the human experience via the introduction of true virtual immersion.
“Tele” Me More: Telepresence, Telework, Telecommuting
Everything exists at a distance now. The internet of things (IoT) is slowly turning into the “internet of everything.” Our ability to communicate at a distance has become more intricate, more complex, and has contributed to the rise in popularity of virtual presence, which is a precursor to virtual immersion. As such, this new, connected world means “tele-everything” — telepresence, telework, and telecommuting.
This idea has really taken hold in the current business zeitgeist because, logistically, it makes a lot of sense. One study noted that companies that let at least 100 employees spend at least half of their work time working from home can save $1 million on various expenses each year. The idea is so popular in the working world that between 2018 and 2028, hiring managers believe that as much as 38 percent of their full-time workforce will be working from home.
When we add the idea of telepresence robots into the mix, we begin to see what virtual immersion can begin to look like, if we’re measuring one’s ability to influence the world that they’re “virtually present” in. These telepresence robots are essentially segways with iPads mounted on them — but they’re effective enough at conveying presence that some are calling them the future of education, let alone business.
At the same time, virtual reality is beginning to integrate into the mix. VR is actually beginning to catalytically change many different fields that now rely on the technology to operate. This includes architecture, real estate, hospitality, tourism, education, and even the healthcare field. VR has even been said to present opportunities to create empathy, further leading to credibility in the quest for true virtual presence.
The digitization of everything has given rise to this tele-world, where distance poses no problem and where the search for extreme convenience via communications technology not only saves money, but also offers a preview for a new existential paradigm.
Will “Virtual” Ever be as Good as “Reality”?
We’re currently at a crucial point in the evolution of virtual immersion, because we’re still in need of conviction — not over whether virtual presence and immersion is worth pursuing, but rather that it’s achievable by current standards. We have to ask ourselves, as good as “virtual” is, will it ever be as good as reality? When it comes to telepresence robots and online/distance education, that remains to be seen.
“Even in 100 percent online degree programs, there are some experiences that can’t be simulated,” write the experts at Regis. “For instance, seeking a bachelor’s degree in social work involves experiential learning elements, embedding pupils in workplace roles that give a practical look at the day-to-day requirements of social work.”
This type of virtual presence would need to combine telepresence with virtual reality, but would likely require haptic feedback and a more sensory experience than we are currently able to facilitate. A more simplistic example of this can be found looking at online shopping.
Internet shoppers still want to see, hold, and physically experience their products before they buy them, and companies are paying mind to this reality. Modern retailers are embracing the idea of a concept store, or showroom store. Peak Steel writes:
“The showroom provides a setting for consumers to feel and test out merchandise and ask experienced sales staff questions as part of their decision-making process. It’s understood that customers will then complete their purchase online (often before leaving the store) and simply have the items delivered at home. Customers can still have the option to handle returns and exchanges in store if desired.”
Obviously there’s a need for as-close-to-reality-as-possible experiences if virtual immersion will ever be taken seriously. Unfortunately, we have to entertain the possibility that an experience too close to reality might be detrimental to humanity.
Confusing What’s Real: The Future of Virtual Experiences
The next step in virtual immersion is further manipulation of the senses. Richard Trenholm, writing for CNet, describes how the “haptic glove” works at manufacturing believable illusion via sense of touch, and works as the next step in the immersive odyssey.
“The glove works by inflating and deflating more than 100 tiny blisters of air across the surface of your hand. HaptX calls them ‘tactors’ — a combination of tactile and actuator,” he writes. “The more of these little inflatable air pockets on the surface of the glove, the finer the feeling. For example, the demo allowed a virtual spider to walk across my hand, and its footsteps were as light and tickly as you’d expect. I also felt confetti and rain lightly sprinkle into my palm.”
A virtual simulation that can trick your brain into believing that what it’s feeling is essentially real is clearly not here yet, but experiences like Trenholm’s show that they’re on their way. If we look at trends in transhumanism and the integration of technology with the human body, we see that it’s possible for us to someday create direct mental feedback in a completely digital world — but obviously, that’s a long way off.
Of course, the big question that we have to pose when it comes to complete immersion and simulations akin to The Matrix that began this piece, is that if they’re possible, how can we prove we’re not already in one?
Although Elon Musk posited the possibility a couple of years ago, physicists have apparently come to the conclusion that we are not. Nevertheless, the real threat of becoming trapped inside of a simulation — whether physically or via technological addiction — persists.
We must remember that, as we move toward a reality that virtually emulates the one we are already in, there will be as many positives are there are negatives. The tales that we’ve spun concerning these alternate worlds should serve as warnings.
On the flip side, we stand to gain a lot via virtual immersion. We should tread lightly, but should also get excited for a future where we can go anywhere, do anything, and be anyone, all from the comfort of our own living rooms.
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