Virtual Reality: A Gimmick or Cultural Change?

09/14/2015 - 06:19

Edwin Henry

Virtual reality is right around the digital corner. It is not like the technology has never been seen before, but it is finally growing up and on its way to disrupt the marketplace.

Facebook’s Oculus Rift, Sony’s Project Morpheus, and Valve’s HTC Vive are all set to release at the end of 2015 or early 2016 for consumer purchase.

The Oculus Rift is offered as a development kit currently and is strictly for early adopters or very enthusiastic people. These less expensive and more high tech VR headsets make the previous expensive, gaudy, and complicated VR devices seem quite archaic.


One might think that only Tron fans or gamers would be interested in VR, but there are many possibilities for the future of this tech. From uses in helping combat PTSD, psychology, mental health treatment, art, etc., researchers are finding new ways to revolutionize traditional methods by creating stable and controlled environments.

Some of the research that has been done with VR demonstrates how it can be used to help people with mental anguish by either relieving it or helping to understand those feelings. A game called “Deep” helps calm anxiety in sufferers by placing the user in an underwater environment that reacts to the wearer’s breathing. Whereas "Mindscape" puts you directly into the visual and auditory hallucinations associated with what schizophrenics likely experience.

Another use lets a person experience how someone else views the world by digitally trading the user's bodies. Both wearers are dressed down and wearing VR headsets linked to a camera on the others body to project what they would be seeing. They try and match their movements simultaneously to create an illusion of controlling the other person's body.

We now know the brain has a lot more neuroplasticity to it and continually changes throughout our lives. How will novel and unexpected virtual experiences help shape those kinds of connections? Will it introduce or aggravate mental health issues that cannot be foreseen quite yet?

New technology always helps create shortcuts that can either hinder or accelerate growth. A good example is the proliferation of the internet and the ability to call most all human knowledge within a couple of seconds. Marc Aronson of Rutgers University comments this can be good for helping to cultivate deeper analysis and critical thinking of topics while also being dangerous in the sense it can cause a pervasive laziness to take root:

“We no longer need to store information in our own memory, or query an acquaintance if we need it, we can turn to the Internet to find or recover it. But that means we must encourage our students to use that newly freed brain power to create ever deeper, richer, and more rewarding investigations. We must master our changing brains.”

VR company, NeuroDigital Technologies, is working to create a sensory glove that would allow the user to experience tactile feedback through texture. This could be used for patients that are undergoing rehabilitation (dependent upon the severity of their injury). Francisco Antonio stated, “Imagine someone with brain damage who has no memory of what they ate five minutes ago, but can remember when they were five years old and playing with their dog.”

Additional research regarding rehabilitation for patients with spinal cord injuries that utilized VR showed positive improvement since the patients were less likely to over exert themselves and had more motivation.

Factoring body transportation issues could allow people to telecommute in ways they never could’ve dreamed of. From taking over control of a robot or human body equipped with cameras, one could get a closer look at things, relate, or participate with other people.

A writer at Wired started telecommuting at the office from the other side of the US. She relays her experience of being a robot and how she got attached to it and became truly upset when it broke down.

This concept can be used to transport people all around the world across the virtual spectrum to physical locations. Google’s VR system Jump is made from a combination of sixteen GoPros linked together and a specialty rig giving 360° of action.

Users can easily use their smartphone or virtual reality headset to instantly drop in at a location and look all around with depth and clarity that a picture cannot rival.

How will virtual reality be incorporated into our culture? Only time will tell, but 2016 seems likely to be the breakout year.

Gimmicky trends like motion controllers, Wii, PS4 Move, Kinect, etc. haven’t done very much because not many good games have been developed for them. Without any supporters or blockbuster games, they are quickly fading away.

Arguably, motion controllers were stopgaps. They attempted to emulate the sense of control that a virtual reality interface would fully encapsulate and did a decent job at it. However, those technologies did their best to distance themselves from an association with virtual reality which is not held in very high regard. As the tech continues to progress, forecasts are predicting an estimated 14 million devices will be sold in 2016 that could close the gap.

People have been ‘escaping’ into other worlds, imaginations, and dreams for thousands of years utilizing books, movies, video games, their own minds, etc. Future VR technology can only help that impulse by enabling one to truly escape into a fully immersive reality.

The immense possibilities of virtual reality are only limited by human imagination.