By Thomas Schmitt
For a long time, virtual reality (VR) has been the new frontier of the video game industry. The field’s ultimate goal is to drive gamer experience to a point at which the line between perception and reality fades, along with the distinction between simulated character and self. A point at which virtual reality becomes reality.
While VR owes much of its development to the video game industry, it has long outgrown the field, spreading to areas such as technology, military, and medicine. Software developers are no longer just programming for video games, but are now developing products and services for a wide range of military and civilian applications. No longer constrained to underground computer labs, VR has also become affordable enough to be found in household gadgets. Though it is a relatively young field, VR has experienced staggering rates of progression and continues to show much promise. But it is often while riding the surge of technological development that we are most susceptible to neglecting its dangers. Now is a time to be excited about VR. But it is also a time to question how the technology will be used, and reflect on its possible effects – for better or worse.
Virtual therapy, real effects. How VR will conquer your worst fears
Psychotherapy is one of the many new fields that VR has begun to penetrate. Widely considered the most efficient method to treat fear, exposure therapy has made its way to the offices of thousands of therapists across the globe. Adapted to how brains function, VR is used to trigger the same pathways activated when someone is confronted with their fear. Patients afflicted with psychological disorders can confront their fears and phobias in a safe and controlled environment, sheltered from the real consequences they would otherwise suffer. Through VR, these disorders can be targeted with repeated treatments that gradually and systematically de-sensitize psychological triggers. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is one example where this technology is already being applied. With detailed parameters that control background noise, visual effects and other details, the intensity can be adjusted to the preferences of each patient, allowing veterans to confront and overcome their trauma-induced nightmares.
If you can heal, you can traumatize
If this technology can restore people’s mental health, could it not also operate in the opposite direction? VR can be used to heal people, but it could potentially also traumatize. One can imagine one of many possible scenarios that include military interrogation techniques, propaganda, civil control and even the far-fetched possibility of re-programming people’s very minds. The very nature of VR has serious implications associated with the introduction of powerful forms of mental and behavioural control. This power can be yielded by political, commercial or religious interests with a wide and worrying range of possible end goals. While the veterans discussed above are treated for PTSD, fresh recruits can be desensitized to violence. VR allows them to explore enemy territory, familiarize themselves with their surroundings and also introduce them to warfare. The simulated ‘enemy combatants’ they fire at through their goggles can then be more easily replaced with real flesh and blood. VR poses threats in the civilian realm as well. Today’s advanced communications have brought together people from across the globe, allowing instantaneous video calls and transmission of media and data. But one side effect has also been individuals increasingly feeling isolated and alone, more attached to their electronic devices than the reality in which they live. VR can amplify this tendency, drawing users deeper into a world of simulations and further away from reality. While VR can help us overcome fears, we also have reasons to fear it.
VR – Society’s biggest threat of the 21st century?
How can one gauge what the ultimate impact of this technology on society will be? We do not want to impede the development of a technology that has the potential to make a positive impact, but how can we ensure that the same technology will not be abused? How can we protect individuals from manipulation and prevent them from sinking into socially isolated virtual realities? The answers to these questions are not entirely clear. But they are certainly the questions we need to be asking ourselves today. Experiments and tests should not be packaged into products and devices until their long-term effects have been fully understood. Blindly following the arrow of progress can be dangerous. VR is still in its infancy, but over time, it will likely extend into deeper aspects of our lives. Like any technology, it is a double-edged sword. How we choose to use it is a decision that we will have to make wisely. We will need to walk a fine line between using VR to heal psychologies, overcome fears and achieve our dreams, or breaking psychologies, instilling fears and turning those fears into nightmares.
By Thomas Schmitt