If you thought we were going to make our way toward immersive VR without naysayers, I’m here today to tell you that you’re unfortunately wrong.

There will always be people who are afraid of change and afraid of technology. Usually, they are hypocrites. They cry “video games are bad”, or “smartphones are ruining out society”, but they fail to acknowledge that this anti-technology approach goes against their living inside of a house, using a microwave oven, driving a car, etc.

In this same manner, you’ll find people that will believe that virtual reality is an evil thing. They’ll tell you that virtual reality ruins someone’s connection with the real world and real people, but they’ll never ask themselves whether or not that’s a bad thing.

Just this last week, the New York Times ran an article (published online and in print) about Sony’s upcoming HMZ-T1 3D head mounted display. Like any good hard-news writer, the author included an ‘opposing view’ at the end of the article. This opposing view came in the form of some snippets from Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor and author of the book Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other. I haven’t read Turkle’s book and want to make it clear that I won’t include her in the category of ‘hypocrites’ (that I mentioned above) before doing so. However, the way that her quotes have been used in the article from the Times certainly tries to peg her as an anti-technologist:

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“People used to walk with eyes to the sand and water,” she said, using the example of people strolling at the seashore. “Now everyone walks with a device. No one is looking at the sand.”

“The technology which looked so good 15 to 20 years ago,” she said, “now looks like it helps us miss out on the complexities and grittiness and ups and downs of what real life has to offer.”

There is, of course, a moral debate here, and you’ll see it pop up time and time again as virtual reality continues to become more real and more immersive. There is a camp of people who believe that the “real world” has some sort of inherent goodness or moral rightness to it, but my personal view is that there is no one way about it — it will always be what you make of it. We also can’t be sure that we’re not already living in a virtual reality simulation (interesting reading on that topic here), so trying to argue that the “real” world has inherent goodness to it is somewhat silly.

Impressively, the 1999 film, The Matrix actually touched briefly on this topic within the film. The character Cypher agrees to betray his comrades who live in the real world, and his only payment is that he be returned into the Matrix and be made to forget that he ever left it; he wants to forget about the harshness of the real world and live in a world that is more enjoyable to him.

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The entire movie begs us to ask that question: “Is it better to live in a blind truth, or a harsh reality?” This is a tough question to answer, but I think if you forgo opinions of arbitrary rightness, and look at two potential realities (one real, and one virtual), you’ll pick the better of the two, regardless of whether or not it is the virtual one.

What do you think? Feel free to drop me a line in the comments.

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  • Will

    This has less to do with VR than with technology but you could say not that the “real world” has inherent goodness on its own but in combination with us and our current behaviors and traditions. We’ve been trained to live with things that have been around and new technology that forces us to change how we act can cause problems. Maybe when cars were introduced people hated them and said it was terrible to loose the connection with horses. I guess you could really take this either way: people who grow up with VR might see its wonders more often than those faced with an enormous lifestyle change. People don’t always like change. I’ve always felt a terrible sense of doom associated with stories about future VR worlds but I don’t know that I can justify it.

    On a slightly different note, here’s an interesting argument for the idea that we’re in a simulated reality that I’ve always liked: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simulated_reality#Nick_Bostrom.