The PC brought the digital world to our homes, the advent of the internet made a wealth of information accessible, while the mobile made it portable and promoted connectivity.  The next wave of transformation comes in the form of Virtual Reality or, as it is fondly and lazily known, VR.

VR: A quick introduction

Virtual Reality, undoubtedly, makes it easier to traverse the world without moving from our spot. We can be on the hills of the Himalayas or walking beside lions in sub-Saharan Africa; we can visit our parents at home while working in a completely different continent; we can scour the southernmost tip of the world without fear and without training; we can be at a stadium, high-fiving a fan next to us, without leaving our couch; we can float in space without becoming astronauts.

Most importantly, virtual reality brings us closer. It takes us into the world of another, helps us open up to them, and helps form intimate bonds despite the lack of physical connection.

Of media and empathy

Many industries, particularly the news and media, have utilized VR to give people a sense of the devastation and emotional distress during natural and man-made disasters in other parts of the world. BBC UK, additionally, has created a few VR experiences in the form of stories to help people experience the life of a migrant and the mind of a rebel. This encourages empathy in people. For most of us, a disaster happening half the world away is a mere distraction. VR puts us front and centre in the lives of another person. Interaction becomes easier because the suddenness of familiarity is balanced by the knowledge that this is happening “online”. People feel safer talking to a new person. They also tend to let their guard down and become more open.

“…empathy doesn’t go quite far enough and VR’s true magic is the ability to induce intimacy between people.” Peter Rubin, author –  Future Presence: How Virtual Reality Is Changing Human Connection, Intimacy and the Limits of Ordinary Life.

While we are essentially not present physically, our mannerisms are replicated in the VR world in real time. Hence, interactions become more real. The line between VR and reality is also slightly blurred by our brain and it is possible to completely immerse oneself in this digitized reality.

Of safety and health

As VR brings impact of disasters closer home, it also has potential to ease the process of help. VR simulations are already used in training armies for all possible scenarios. If extended to more people, it can create an easily-accessible and educated group of first responders, aware of how to interact with people in need of aid.

In addition, seeking therapy becomes easier. In times of distress, particularly depression, people do want to ask for help, but appointments are difficult to make. In other cases, they cannot bring themselves to move and act. Access to therapists on a VR platform would help the patient as well as the therapist, who will be able to see the patient’s reactions and hear their words as though in the physical world. Alternatively, they would be able to reach out to others like them or just other friends via VR. While there is nothing like a warm hug to calm the nerves for most, a conversation and just “going out” to meet people can do wonders. Virtual reality encourages that without forcing the person to muster enough energy, something that might take days to happen without help.

Making education accessible

Schools too would benefit. Student exchange programmes would become more accessible as students experience classrooms abroad without leaving their homes. This enables those unable to fund travel or those with linguistic barriers to get the same opportunities as their more financially privileged counterparts. In the physical world, a foreign exchange student without knowledge of the host country language will not be able to understand the course material or fully appreciate the culture. With virtual reality, courses and conversations can be translated in real time, breaking linguistic barriers. Underprivileged students and families are also able to travel the world without paying for airline tickets, visa, and more.

A closer world

Virtual reality gives us the opportunity to befriend the 7 billion+ people out there faster and more intimately, without compromising security and without having to travel. This takes the stories of billions of people to each other, creating a world that is closer, more understanding and, perhaps in the future, more trusting.

Virtual reality doesn’t just help one connect with others. It has great potential to help us understand ourselves. The better we know ourselves, the better we understand the world. Isolating ourselves in a crowd to get some space or just introspect becomes easy with VR. Acting different scenarios out and experimenting with all our dreams becomes possible and helps us understand what we really want, without putting our future in jeopardy. Virtual reality, interestingly, has massive potential to record and store our actions, acting as a means of storing our memories (Black Mirror, anyone?). Interestingly enough, it is, as of now, the closest we have come to a symbiotic blend of technology and people.

 

The obstacles and the hope

The VR industry does, of course, have a few hurdles to overcome, the most hindering being the size of the wearable technology and the cost of a device. However, cost of hardware is predicted to fall and that will, in all probability, encourage more people to adopt this exciting platform. Additionally, there will always be detractors of anything new, but if the past is any indication, technology only brings the world closer. And VR will be no exception.

Advancement in technology has always worked towards the benefit of the human race. All we have to do is remember not to abuse it. So, embrace VR for it is definitely a step in the right direction, but don’t forget your immediate surroundings while exploring the environs miles and, maybe, even light years away.