In the mid 1990’s, neuroscientist Vilyanur S Ramachandran conducted a series of experiments on patients with phantom limbs. One of such patients felt as if his phantom fingernails were digging into his clenched fist, an agonising sensation that had no apparent cure. Ramachandran placed a mirror between the patient’s arms and asked him to open and close both his hands (his healthy one, and his phantom one) simultaneously whilst looking at the reflection of the healthy limb. The patient’s brain, fooled by the trick, released the phantom limb’s clenched fist almost immediately.
Though I don’t know enough about the brain to even attempt to understand the importance of such a discovery in the field of neuroscience, one thing is evident: tricking the brain can be easier than we think.
It’s a statement that seems to become truer with every new, incremental advancement in the field of Virtual Reality. Initially pitched to (and quickly adopted by) gamers, VR is making itself known to a host of different and very diverse domains: surgeons are learning to operate on virtual patients, clinicians are treating phobias with headsets, athletes are training better and quicker in simulated worlds. You can get better at public speaking, overcome your fears before a job interview, be prepared for when the next tsunami hits and, of course, go shopping.
Yet for every piece of VR promise, there seems to be a never-ending list of hurdles to overcome, aspects that are stopping most virtual reality explorations from becoming truly realised, comprehensive and, most of all, convincing experiences.
For one, there’s the physicality of it: you can move to a moderate degree, but unless you’re willing to strap yourself to a cumbersome, expensive and awkward circular treadmill, that’s about it. Then there’s touch: haptic feedback is a very rudimentary attempt to bridge this gap, but it doesn’t come close to the nuances of our somatosensory system. Smelling, a sense that seems to have proven too difficult to emulate in any other media, is also absent from most conversations around VR.
So, if VR’s intent is to trick our brains, how far can it go before revealing itself as prisoner to its own limitations?
If you go to Zero Latency, in North Melbourne, you might find yourself at odds with what’s on display: a huge, empty warehouse, nothing but black walls and concrete floors, framed by a network of cameras. In the middle, a group of people, each strapped to a VR headset and armed with a two-handed gun, walk around in apparent disarray. They talk to each other, and yell, and laugh, and unless you’re experiencing what they are, act in a manner that seems to make no sense. For outsiders, it likely reads as an episode from Black Mirror.
Places like Zero Latency continue to trend around the world, spaces where people have the opportunity to step into a different reality. Whether you’re in it for the thrills or the exploration, for shooting at robots or walking on walls, they offer experiences unlike any other. These establishments are working towards what is arguably the very first significant step since the re-birth of VR: free-roaming worlds.
It isn’t until you feel like you’re about to fall down a 20-story building, or your sense of balance goes off-charts when walking upside down, that you truly realise the potential that VR has in the way we can perceive, create and modify the reality around us.
With more tinkerers willing to invest in the technology, and more people being welcomed to make use of it, it’s not hard to imagine the shape of (some of the) things to come.
The Kindle of reality
In 2007, after a decade of other companies’ failed attempts at making e-books “a thing”, Amazon launched their Kindle e-reader to tepid reviews and skeptical appraisals. Today, ten years later, many consider paper books a romantic notion, much like vinyl records. Kindles didn’t kill the book the same way video didn’t kill cinema: they just offered people a different vehicle to access and consume the same content.
A similar parallel can be established between virtual reality and actual reality. In its current form, the technology can photo-replicate simple locations, giving us the opportunity to explore certain places that would otherwise require us to travel halfway around the world to reach. Imagine visiting the Louvre without having to deal with long flights and jet lag, price tags and nosy tourists: all you have to do is drive to your local VR shop and strap on a headset for a few hours. In essence, VR could do just as good a job as going to the real place, if not better. And so, inaudibly, the question sets in: is this virtual reality any less real to our brains?
It’s a fascinating premise, one that will most likely divide opinion: if you could live in a lucid dream, would you choose that instead of reality? For the outsiders, the unsleeping audience, it’s a no-brainer: that’s not reality per sebut a weird simulation that your brain likes to create when you’re unaware. But for those inside of it, for the dreamers, it’s as real as it gets, only better: you can fly, and any one thing can be multiple things at once, and it’s all so bright and vivid and brimming with feelings. Your brain considers that to be as real as this, your own physical reality.
Will there ever be such a tipping point for VR? Will it ever be able to replace, or rather, mimic, reality in a way our brains cannot distinguish? The short term answer, the one that our current technological limitations dictate, is rather simple: no. All of those things we still haven’t figured out about VR are expensive and difficult to solve, and might never be fully cracked. And yet, if Moore’s Law is anything to go by, we might get there after all, and quicker than we imagine. Solutions to the “simple” problems are on their way: better screens, wider depths of view, lower latency rates, smaller, less cumbersome headsets, wireless technology. And then there’s the rest: graphics are improving by the minute, we’re getting better at synthesising smells, we’re exploring ways in which we can touch what’s not really there, AI is becoming more conversational and quickly learning how to sound like us.
When (if) these reach moderate success and make their way into our headsets, what will then be the difference between walking through a realmarket in Bali, and going to a warehouse somewhere in your own town where you can strap a headset on and have a near-identical experience, one where your senses can be stimulated in the right ways? Because when what you see looks like the real thing, and the conversations you can have with AI beings are indistinguishable from those with friends, and the smells imbue your surroundings, then that reality, that complex combination of astounding technical prowess and our brains’ disposition to be tricked, will be just as real as anything else. And then, maybe, some kinds of physical reality might become a romantic notion, much like paper books are after Kindle.
Augusto Jacquier, Studio Lead & VR Enthusiast
This article was originally published on Isobar Australia’s blog.
Text credits to Augusto Jacquier, Senior Designer – Studio Lead, Isobar Melbourne.