Virtual Reality Offers Immortality and Possible Addiction
|Jim Blascovich (left) and Jeremy Bailenson (right), authors of|
Although the concept of virtual reality has lost much of its novelty over the past 15 years, its integration into the mainstream has begun changing human relations in subtle and important ways that have nothing to do with gaming. Scientists Jim Blascovich and Jeremy Bailenson continued to monitor the field of virtual reality long after many of their peers dismissed it as a passing fad, and believe that recent developments have radically redefined even basic concepts like mortality and identity.
Blascovich, the director of the Research Center for Virtual Environments at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Bailenson, the founding director of the Virtual Human Interactions Lab at Stanford University, believe that virtual reality worlds could function as a futuristic drug, an invasive form of advertising and even a path to immortality.
They detail those findings in their new book, Infinite Reality (William Morrow, 2011) and recently sat down with InnovationNewsDaily for an exclusive Q&A.
InnovationNewsDaily: How did you become interested in virtual reality?
Blascovich: I was walking past the lab one day, and saw someone in a weird getup, and she was doing virtual reality. I asked a colleague if I could try it, and I couldn't believe how immersive it was. As the years passed, Jeremy came on board, and we realized the implications of this went way beyond just a tool to do psychological experiments.
Bailenson: For me, it was a bit different. I was inspired by the novel "Neuromancer" by William Gibson. In that book, he really pushes the idea of the infinite plasticity of the digital identity. It pushes the limit of what it means to be a human being.
InnovationNewsDaily: So far, virtual reality has only been used to enhance activities that humans have engaged in for millennia, such as communication or gaming. Does virtual reality enable anything completely new?
Bailenson: Yes, for the first time, humans are able to replace their identity in a way we've never been able to do so before. You've been able to mask your identity maybe make yourself anonymous but now I can change my gender, my species and carry out interactions in a new body.
Also, there's symbolic immortality that's occurring in these virtual worlds that's never happened before. There are these mannerisms that you're leaving behind that will allow people to assemble a virtual version of you long after you're dead. It already happened to Orville Redenbacher. With the technology out there today, like a Microsoft Kinect that records exactly how you smile or move, that's recording tons of this data. Right now you have photos of your grandparents; maybe you have some videos of your parents. But for your grandkids, they will have these incredible 3-D models of you.
Instead of looking at what your family did, you will be able to step into a virtual reality world, experience their lives from the first person.
Blascovich: Another thing that's completely different is the digital footprint. No one has been able to track human behavior with the resolution and accuracy we have been able to do in the last few years. Human location, emotion, preferences, personality all those things we can glean from how they move in a virtual world.
InnovationNewsDaily: You focus a lot on identity creation, but through sites like Facebook, it seems that many users approach the Internet as a place to express their true self more transparently, not less. Are the people constructing virtual reality avatars different from the people posting their intimate details and embarrassing pictures online?
Bailenson: I would not assume they are separate people. A lot of "Second Lifers," a lot of "World of Warcraft" players also have accurate Facebook pages. The games are an expression of entertainment and play, and the Facebook pages are an extension of us. Sometimes, people are experimenting with new identities and have no desire to interact with the person behind the avatar in physical space. The other interesting thing is why are some people pushing so much of themselves on others by oversharing online?
Blascovich: The social networking we're seeing today is slightly different from the people who are playing these massive online games or using "Second Life." There has been no outrage expressed by people in these games that they can't upload photos. They are the same people doing different things in different spaces.
InnovationNewsDaily: In the book, you also mention a downside to virtual reality, and even compare it to a drug in terms of its addictive potential. Why is virtual reality so much more addictive than other digital media?
Bailenson: When you gamble online, you've got to work to imagine yourself in a casino. When you use Internet pornography, you've got to do a little work to imagine it's a real woman. When it's immersive, it will look and feel and taste like a real woman. When you're gambling, and there's blinking lights, and people are bringing you drinks, the addiction possibilities are orders of magnitude different. Think about imagining your favorite fantasy scenario, the most amazing scene you can put yourself in, you can have the perfectly optimized situation. It fools the perceptual system into thinking it's real.
InnovationNewsDaily: What's the most interesting question that your research has raised, but not answered?
Blascovich: For me, it's religious. Something like 90 percent of the people in the world profess to believe that the physical world is actually some kind of virtual world for a reality that will come later. The real life is an afterlife. Without being profane, religion is kind of based on a virtual reality concept. The icons we find in churches, the symbols just because they're not made out of hard materials doesn't mean they aren't any less real. Will communion work virtually? I won't presume to answer the question for the pope, but there's a debate there.
Bailenson: Communion is already a symbol; it's a symbol of the body of Christ. So in a sense, it's already kind of virtual. So the question isn't whether or not you allow them to set a virtual one, but a digital one.