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Sinclaire Sparkman: Living in a virtual reality

Sinclaire Sparkman • Updated Oct 28, 2016 at 12:00 PM

 “You’ve been living in a dream world, Neo. This is the world as it exists today.” –Morpheus, The Matrix (1999).

It’s here. Something long dreamed of by tech fans everywhere, immersion by the way of virtual reality.

This week I found myself trying out one of Sony’s virtual reality headsets, and it is quite the experience. I watched a short, artsy film and did not make it all the way through without bailing.

But to call this virtual reality is a bit of a stretch. Visual reality may be more accurate. I grew up with Star Trek and The Matrix, so to say strapping a headset on and putting in some earbuds creates a new reality falls a bit flat for me. It’s all audio and visual, but don’t take it lightly. There’s something quite disorienting about being cut off from the normal visual space and having things fly in your face without being able to escape by turning your head.

While VR mechanics are still in mainstream infancy, the concept itself is super compelling, perhaps because of escapism. Putting that headset on means letting go of the tethers of responsibility and “real life,” if only for a short time. The draw of this, and also the scary part, is that you can get lost behind the goggles; two of your five senses is now fully encapsulated by whatever is coming through the wires, beaming straight to your brain through your eyeballs.

It is a step up from staring at a screen, but it’s still only one step. It is actually possible to move around while playing games or watching a film on a VR headset, but you’re still only having the experience in your head. There’s no real connection being made.

A full on virtual reality would be more like the holodeck on Star Trek, where the user is actually in a room full of holographic images. Instead of sitting on the couch, controller in hand, you’re moving through a created realm of tractor beams, force fields and hard light holograms that you can smell, touch, taste, see and hear.

But what is real anyway? If it’s just our five senses being interpreted by our brain, then we could possibly be powering a generation of super androids lording over the desert of the real while we live out our lives as batteries neural-interactively strapped into feeding pods.

On that note, a woman reported earlier this week that she had been sexually harassed while playing a VR zombie game. Apparently, another user began rubbing the air where sensual places would be if not for the game being played by floating headsets. Twitter users fired back at her complaints, calling her a whiner.

This is the tension between the real and the false.

Is it sexual harassment? Absolutely. But at least she had a reality to turn back to that didn’t include the air-groping creep.

I recently watched the VR-themed episode of the 1995 sci-fi television series Sliders, in which characters “slide” around to different parallel realities by way of the Einstein-Rosen Bridge, basically a wormhole.

In this particular episode, the characters are faced with fighting off the allure of becoming forever entranced in a virtual world. As they walk around, it seems as if everyone is wearing a VR headset. 

In the parallel Sliders’ world, VR has evolved so much that you could even do manual labor while wearing the headset, seeing something entirely different but still getting the real job done.

The VR that I experienced is far from that advanced, but it’s actually not impossible to achieve that level of immersion using augmented reality coupled with visual reality. Perhaps that’s the next step. 

Percieved reality is all that it can be, perceived. While we may not be entering The Matrix anytime soon, our next step has been taken to take us out of the now and put us into the presupposed.

Be careful, VR users. May our continuing mission to explore strange new facets of reality lead us to boldly go where no consciousness has gone before. 

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