(image: Foundry Art Centre)
“There is no reality except the one contained within us.” – Hermann Hesse
One of my favorite genres is the kind of science fiction that explores the world of virtual realities. You know, movies and books that make you constantly question “Is this happening for real or just in his mind, but are the consequences for real?” Simulated and virtual realities have been discussed throughout literature, movies, and TV since the early sixties and we are getting closer to living in those actualities every day.
Both virtual and simulated realities raise tons of questions that have been fanatically debated over the years. If you die in one world, do you die in the other? Can you form real relationships in a virtual world? What happens to your physical body and mind if you remain in one or the other?
And what if a device existed that had the potential to create an environment that is indistinguishable from real-life?
(image: IEEE Spectrum)
One such device, Oculus Rift is the first successful (VR) device that provides “compelling content, a full ecosystem, and a fully-integrated hardware/software tech stack designed specifically for virtual reality. It’s a system designed by a team of extremely passionate gamers, developers, and engineers to reimagine what gaming can be.”
In a post on Wired last year, Oculus Rift technology is described:
“By combining stereoscopic 3-D, 360-degree visuals, and a wide field of view—along with a supersize dose of engineering and software magic—it hacks your visual cortex. As far as your brain is concerned, there’s no difference between experiencing something on the Rift and experiencing it in the real world.”
So how far does this mind hacking actual go? Valve engineer, Michael Abash, said:
“This is the first time that we’ve succeeded in stimulating parts of the human visual system directly. I don’t get vertigo when I watch a video of the Grand Canyon on TV, but I do when I stand on a ledge in VR.”
Involvement in this level of virtual reality gaming may truly trick your eye, sending messages to the rest of your body to respond and react as if it were the real world.
Just imagine being immersed for a few hours in a VR Call of Duty game. You’re probably tired from the adrenaline rush that your eyes are telling your body to produce. You may feel anger or anxiety during the constant shift of sensations from finding cover, to running and fighting, to seeing and hearing explosions, etc. All these very real feelings are chemical reactions triggered from a very not-real environment. Of course, the same may occur while watching your TV holding a controller for hours. But when two of your major senses are cut off from real-life, how long before your mind stops making the distinction between the two?
(image: wall papers wide)
In 1998, neuroscientists Matthew Botvinick and Jonathan Cohen performed an experiment to prove that the brain will accept visual stimuli and produce a matching physical sensation. The experiment showed subjects a rubber hand being stroked with a paintbrush, while applying the same strokes to each person’s own hand, hidden from sight. And each of the subjects all experienced the feeling that the dummy hand was their own.
Mel Slater, author and computer scientist at the University of Barcelona, took these tests one step further. He provided head mounted devices for the subjects which displayed a virtual body when they looked down, instead of seeing their own. He then measured the sensitivity to minor temperature changes using the same rubber hand illusion. Based on the results, he was able to conclude the virtual body and the real body becomes merged into a single perception. He explains:
“It seems the brain, under certain conditions, quite easily accepts the idea that [a virtual body] is your body. The virtual body and real body become one.”
As more gamers turn off the TV and immerse themselves into the Oculus Gear, I wonder where this new VR world will lead and what possible negative physical attributes would occur. For example, after hours of watching yourself running around a treacherous terrain, would you physically start to feel tired and sore? Comparatively, physical needs could then have the potential to be suppressed. Would you feel hunger pangs as strongly or at all if your mind was occupied in a world where food doesn’t exist?
(image: “Reality” by Eran Folio)
Oculus may provide gamers a more intense gaming experience with an equally intense escape from the monotony of daily life. With extended periods of use, at what point does that escape become verity?
How do you think this new technology could affect the way we game, and view reality?
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