Virtual unreality: Is the digital world replacing the physical world?

I will never forget my first experience with virtual reality. It was back in the late 1990s, at one of the big trade shows in Las Vegas. During that general period of time, virtual reality was being hyped as a revolutionary new technology that would allow the user to enter a computer-generated world. No longer would we have to interact with computers through two dimensional screens. Virtual reality would make it possible for us to actually enter the digital world.

As I donned the VR headset and the various body position sensors, I was anxiously anticipating what the experience would be like. I could not wait to step into the digital world.

Let’s just say that the experience did not live up to the hype. The computers that we had 20 years ago just did not have today’s processing power, so the visuals were laggy, and the graphics weren’t even as good as the old 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System.

About a week or two after I returned home, I happened to see a newspaper headline that said that some sort of religious group wanted to ban virtual reality. Curious as to how on earth virtual reality could create a theological problem, I just had to read the article. The essence of the article was that a fringe religious group was referring to virtual reality as electronic LSD. They not only wanted to ban the technology, they wanted to see drug enforcement raids of the labs where these technologies were being developed. You just can’t make this stuff up.

After a period of time, the virtual reality hype seemed to go away. More recently however, virtual reality is getting a second lease on life, thanks to vastly improved technology. And it isn’t just virtual reality that is gaining traction. Augmented reality has begun showing up in a number of different forms, and even the experience of using a regular two dimensional screen has become far more immersive than it once was.

In spite of improved technology, I still don’t anticipate the virtual world becoming an escape for stoners, as some feared so long ago. Even so, I do have to wonder if the digital world is slowly becoming a replacement for reality, at least in some situations.

OK, I will admit that the premise of a digital environment serving as a replacement for the real world sounds ridiculous. If anything, the sentiment might echo the plot of a bad late night sci-fi movie. Even so, the idea isn’t quite as crazy as it sounds.

Addicted to TV

Virtual unreality

Before I talk about the digital world, stop and think about some of the people that you know. Most of us probably have that one friend or family member who is just totally addicted to television. I don’t want to call anyone out, but I do know at least a couple of people like this. Their entire life outside of work revolves around what’s on TV. Their favorite topic of conversation is what happened on a show that they watched recently.

Now please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not judging anyone, nor am I condemning anyone’s lifestyle. If someone wants to spend all of their free time watching TV, that’s their business. I am merely trying to establish the point that it is possible to become addicted to an electronic medium.

Television is, of course, only one type of electronic medium. Like television, it is possible to become addicted to, or at least way too dependent on, other mediums. I myself am guilty of this one. I am way too dependent on my smartphone. Every time that I travel internationally and am unable to use my smartphone without first connecting to WiFi, I begin to realize just how dependent on the device I have become.

I think that it’s probably safe to say that most of us in the tech world have established at least some level of dependency on our devices. But at what point does the digital world begin to become a replacement for reality?

Pokémon Go

Virtual unreality

Last year’s Pokémon Go craze was probably a good start. For those who might not be familiar with the game, Pokémon Go was a smartphone app that projected Pokémon characters over top of camera images of the real world. Players would physically navigate the real world in an effort to track down elusive Pokémon creatures.

In some ways, Pokémon Go was just a game, no different from Pong, Pac Man, Grand Theft Auto, or any other game. At the same time, though, there were those who took the game way too seriously, and engaged in behavior that would never have been acceptable outside of the game. One night, for example, I was at a restaurant having dinner with my wife. A guy who was seated in the next booth actually climbed over the seat and into our booth, because there was a Pokémon on our table. At least in some capacity, at that moment in time, the digital world had replaced reality for the man.

The thing that I find interesting about this is that the man’s augmented reality experience was confined to a cellphone screen. There are much more realistic forms of augmented reality available. Microsoft HoloLens for example, can project three-dimensional holograms over the physical world. I have seen videos in which someone used a HoloLens to create a holographic television, rather than going out and buying a TV. In this particular instance, a functional digital representation actually replaced a physical object.

Travel light

The digital world can also become a replacement for reality when it comes to travel. I recently read an article in which Google indicated that they are adding a feature to Google Earth to allow users to send virtual postcards to friends and family from the places that they have virtually visited within Google Earth.

I get it. The Google Earth postcard feature is meant to be fun. Besides, not everyone has the opportunity to travel the world. Even so, I can’t help but think about something that I overheard last time I was in Paris. A Parisian woman asked a man, presumably a tourist, if he was planning on visiting the Louvre while he was in town. He responded by telling her that he didn’t have a reason to go. He went on to explain that if he wanted to see the Mona Lisa, he could always find a picture online. Again, I’m not trying to judge anyone, but I do have to admit that I was more than a little surprised by the comment.

Personally, I just don’t think that looking at a picture on the Internet can ever be a replacement for experiencing a place in person. However, 360-degree, interactive videos are becoming more common, and when combined with VR glasses creates an experience that is surprisingly lifelike.

Back to reality

I don’t expect the digital world to ever fully replace the physical world. That only happens in Hollywood creations. It’s probably normal for some people to become more immersed in a digital experience than others, but there is no way that physically reality will ever completely give way to a digital fabrication.

Photo credit: Pixabay

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