By Alan Dean Foster
I have nothing against virtual reality. But I worry where it may lead.
It’s just getting started and there’s nothing to stop it. The idea that we can put on a pair of goggles and be anywhere, do anything, is too seductive to be disavowed, too tempting to be ignored. Want to be Superman for an hour? Slip on your VR goggles. Always wished to visit Bora Bora? It’s VR time (and you can even eliminate the annoying jet skis in the lagoon). Have a fear of heights but always dreamed of scaling Everest? Move your arms and legs and VR will do the rest.
Harmless entertainment, you say? I suppose it is. What concerns me are the inevitable ramifications as both the technology and its acceptance continue to mature.
I’m writing this just before Christmas. I love Christmas. The sparkling, chromatic municipal decorations as well as the lesser ones that are purely domestic. The excitement on the faces of children as their parents convoy them through the mall. Even the crowds in the stores, though there’s always a grumpy gus standing in the checkout line complaining to all who’ll listen about how long checkout is taking. I love the crispness and crackle in Prescott’s air and the turquoise-framed view of snow on the San Francisco Peaks and the change of clothing necessary to cope with the change of seasons.
And I am very much afraid that the ongoing perfection of VR might make all of that go away.
After all, if it’s sleeting and freezing outside but you still want to experience that, slip into your advance VR gear. You’ll have the same sensation of moving around in the wicked weather but your body won’t have to suffer the extremes. At least, it won’t unless you intentionally activate your VR suit (that’s in development) which will integrate with the goggles to allow you to feel cold, wind, and precipitation according to your chosen program. When you’ve had enough, you simply flip the off switch.
It’s not the off switch that worries me. It’s the on switch.
Imagine a future Christmas dinner. Uncle Mo and Aunt Cheryl don’t want to spend the money to make it to the family homestead. But they’re present if you put on your VR goggles and everything has been appropriately programmed. Little cousin Betsy has the flu, but she can be there safely via VR. So can best friends Stan and Muriel, who are living in Ouagadougou. Doesn’t it sound wonderful, being able to bring everyone together for Christmas irrespective of desire, cost, health, and distance? Just envision it.
You can have a whole family Christmas dinner … by yourself. Heck, if they were downloaded, you can even bring in your grandparents. Your deceased grandparents. And “interact” with them.
VR is liable to change society in ways we can’t begin to imagine. Why spend the time and money to go to an amusement park when you can enjoy all the rides via VR, on the comfort of your own couch? (I anticipate the forthcoming Disney release of all their park rides in VR format.) Why dream of visiting the Prado, or the Uffizi, or any of the world’s great museums, in person when you can do it via VR? Study Bernini’s sculpture, then head for the fridge for a cold one. Why struggle with driving and parking and rude fans to see an NFL game when you can do so via live VR, broadcast directly to your home goggles? No bad, overpriced seats anymore: You can even view the action in person, via on-field cameras. Teams will play before empty stadiums filled with computer generated crowds. There’s just one thing missing from all these time-saving, money-saving, travel-saving developments.
Interacting with other human beings.
Is that really necessary? Do we have to bump into other visitors at a museum in order to enjoy the exhibits? Is it important to listen to other fans yelling and howling at an NFL game in order to immerse ourselves in the action? How much of standing in line at Disneyland contributes to the enjoyment of the ride or the park “experience” when the latter includes blister-raising walking and pushy crowds?
Yes, VR is going to change our society. Whether for the better (certainly if you’re physically challenged it will be better) or the worse (how can we get to know and understand our fellow citizens if we never actually meet them?).
To paraphrase Pogo; we have met the zombies and they is us.
Alan Dean Foster is author of more than 120 books, visitor to more than 100 countries, and still frustrated by the human species. Follow him at AlanDeanFoster.Com.