I’m one of those individuals that are easily distracted by over-generalized and ill-thought out comments on the Internet. I firmly believe in the saying by Maurice Switzer, (or was it Lisa Simpson?):
It is better to remain silent at the risk of being thought a fool, than to talk and remove all doubt of it.
Yet, my social feed, as curated an echo chamber as it is, is full of foolish thoughts. Some are simply click-bait, (and sometimes I indeed click), others are individuals who feel they’re actually offering wisdom to the world in some way, (yes, I see the irony).
This week a comment appeared on one of these feeds, and I bit. The individual wrote that the lack of “human connection” in virtual reality, was undoubtedly going to be the cause of its failure. You are, of course, missing this, but I’m raising my eyebrows quizzically, even though I’m quoting the individual.
Plenty of other people had fed back into the post already, with around a 50% split between agreement and disagreement. Some seemed to agree and disagree in a single sentence, which both impresses and stupefies me. My problem with his statement was threefold, so I tried to tackle this by asking questions and providing two short examples of where I felt his theory failed.
Firstly, what are the conditions of failure and success when it comes to virtual reality? What is the achievement that will immediately point to virtual reality “making it”? After all, we could say virtual reality failed in the 1990s but, like a stereoscopic 60 frames-per-second phoenix from the flames, it returned when the technology became more feasible, and individuals began to bravely gamble on it again. So, did it fail? Is it successful simply by existing and finding utilization?
Let’s take any somewhat dated invention as an example of how unquantifiable success and failure can be in digital technology. The telephone is my go-to in this case.
If you were born when virtual reality was failing the first time, the telephone is a device that used to be in most homes and businesses, (and even on the streets in metal booths!). It was connected via a cable to the outside world. These cables would all connect to exchanges, allowing communication via the device across long-distances, as long as you could remember the telephone number (or telephone ID) of the other individual you were trying to contact.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because this device eventually evolved into the mobile telephone, or mobile phone, (or simply mobile), that you can now carry around anywhere. The original telephone had no screen, camera, or apps, or even a web browser. It was quite rudimentary and had a singular function: the ability to vocally speak to someone else; the one function you have on your mobile and are probably neglecting in place of messaging, poking, or pinging.
The mobile phone is actually a mobile computer. The phone part is obsolete; an artifact left over from the original telephone’s metamorphosis into a handheld personal digital assistant, (hey, we should call it a PDA, why has no one thought of that!?).
So, who uses a telephone these days? Sure, some people do. Some people have those old landlines, but why? Surely the telephone has failed, as VR will undoubtedly? The problem is, good technology leaves a legacy. Metamorphosis and evolution are apt, albeit inaccurate terms to use for how digital technology adapts to the moving landscape of capability and society. Did the telephone fail? No, it became obsolete, after pushing us forward to its replacement. Would a mobile phone exist without it? I doubt it. The Internet, in theory, wouldn’t exist with out it.
So, to my two relatively small examples of why VR is making those “human connections” and is thus not failing, and is unlikely to.
VR as a Success
One such case is an award winning VR company I work with called Better Day, who’ve been developing a health rehabilitation solution with Samsung for the elderly. Lack of mobility causes early mortality to increase so by providing an engaging experience for the infirm, whilst they work to recover, (by virtual rowing, walking, etc., with distant / remote peers who can engage in conversation), these individuals have a much greater chance of recovery, becoming more social and more mobile.
The next, and much older example is the military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or phantom limb syndrome, who use VR for therapy. They’ve been using this for years; when it was even less mature as a technology. It works incredibly well to mend lives of individuals and families. VR is being used as an irreplaceable health treatment for conditions that are undoubtedly ruining lives.
These are just two examples of its relevancy today that indicate success. Ignore the gimmicky examples you see daily for now, and think outside of the world you inhabit, to where VR can be applied as a long-term solution to issues that are unlikely to disappear over the next decade.
Past Futures of VR
Sure, in 10 years it may have become something else entirely. Augmented or mixed reality could have developed to be more immersive and replace VR as we know it, or electrical signals could incept the same immersive qualities without the need for cumbersome hardware, but will that be the failure of VR or simply its metamorphosis moment?