This essay has nothing to do with anything I’ve been writing about lately, including the problem of homeless people and what to do about it, but I wanted to get this down on paper – well, down in pixels. Now, my guess is that people who are better read than I already have come to understand what I will say here, but it’s new to me and maybe to some who read this.
I’ve been thinking about virtual reality. My immediate focus developed out of a conversation with our daughter, who is 31 and who lives in Boston. She told us the other day that her boyfriend has a new virtual reality headset.
Our daughter described playing ping pong on the headset. You can play ping pong against your friend in another city. With the headset in place, you experience being in a room on one side of a ping pong table. On the other side of table is a video game figure whose movements mimic the actual movements of your friend. Your friend sees a similar room and table, and the character your friend sees is a video game figure animated by your movements. As you swing your hand and imaginary paddle, you strike the animated ping pong ball and send it back to your opponent. Our daughter reports that the whole thing feels, in some ways, like actually playing ping pong. There is audio, of course, so you and your friend can talk and laugh while you play, as well as hear the ball strike the paddle and bounce on the table.
We talked about the extent to which virtual reality like the ping pong game will replace normal, face-to-face interaction – after all, the time you spend playing ping pong with your friend in another city is time that you don’t spend face-to-face, whether it’s playing ping pong in your basement, sitting in a restaurant, or going to a local high school basketball game. The more I listened, the more convinced I became that there probably is much more virtual reality in our futures than I imagined. Why? Because the distance between actual reality and virtual reality is shrinking; virtual reality is becoming more and more like actual reality.
Before I discuss what one vision of virtual in the future may look like, let’s look back and recognize that human beings have been pursuing virtual reality since the earliest days of civilization. In primitive times, the only reality in which social interaction took place was face-to-face. If I wanted to buy something from you, or if I wanted to talk politics, I had to do it face-to-face. You could be a few hundred yards away, perhaps, and we could shout back and forth, but that was the limit. Beyond that, I had no way to interact socially with you if you weren’t with me. If you were in another village, I had to walk there to talk with you.
Eventually, human beings figured out that they could send messengers to carry communications back and forth. A trusted messenger, an emissary, may even have had some discretion to speak on behalf of the master, not simply transmit the message. In that way, you and I could communicate, crudely, even though we weren’t in the same physical space. It was the first virtual reality.
The invention of writing was revolutionary. Writing allowed me to communicate with you in detail, wherever in the world you may have been, and allowed you to respond in detail to me. Writing was an enormous advance. It was the first big step toward true virtual reality – it allowed me to be present with another person, even though I was not physically present. It wasn’t real-time virtual reality, but it was a start. (Think about the time you spend reading; whether you’re reading fiction, non-fiction, the news, or the funny papers, reading transports you from actual reality to a virtual reality.)
Writing was so significant that it served civilization for several millennia with only minor developments, like the invention of punctuation. It drove all kinds of social intercourse: commerce, politics and diplomacy, learning, even romance. It wasn’t until the 19th century that virtual reality took its next big leaps. That’s when electricity was first understood and harnessed, and when human beings figured out how to make conductive metal wire. Along came the telegraph and voila! – we had distant writing in real time. I could write and seconds later you, somewhere else, could read what I‘d written, and you could respond in seconds, too. For the first time in the history of humankind we could communicate directly, in more or less real time, with another human being who was not physically present. It was the first true virtual reality.
Since then, we’ve been enhancing virtual reality. The telephone meant we could talk, not just write. Radio allowed us to talk without wires. It also allowed us to be present for theatrical shows, sporting events, inaugurations and coronations. Television added visual content – not only could we hear the excitement of the crowd and description of the broadcaster, now we could see the play on the field AND hear the reaction of the crowd. Many people now prefer the virtual reality of the game on television rather than being in the stadium.
When the digital age sprang upon us, existing virtual reality techniques became personal and portable. Now we Facetime, allowing us both to hear and to see our calling partner, and it feels, sort of, like actually being together. We Zoom, allowing multiple people to see and hear each other simultaneously. It’s crude, but in some way we’re really together.
Before we move into the future, think about the continuum we have been on. Over the course of the millenia, and particularly over the course of the the last twenty decades, we have been spending more and more of our time living in the virtual world, rather than the real world. There was a time when I could have shared these thoughts only by being in the same space with you, but no more. Now, you read my thoughts wherever you and I may be. More and more your life is like that, between computer time, television, Zoom calls with family, friends, and colleagues, on-line chess or bridge games. Your awareness is focused on things not present in your actual, physical life. In a sense, the advance of civilization has been accompanied by collective movement away from actual reality into virtual reality.
Why have we been leaving reality behind? Why does it appear that we prefer virtual reality? Because we like it. It’s powerful; it allows us to do things that are impossible if we live our lives limited to what is physically present.
All right. Let’s take a look at what’s coming. In a sense, it’s trivial, but it helps me understand the dramatic ways in which our lives could be changing.
We bought a new car a few months ago. It has front, back and side cameras, and it has sophisticated software that can create images by combining aspects of what those cameras are seeing. So, when we pull into the garage, the video display shows the image of the car from above, as though the image was created by a camera on the ceiling of our garage. I can see the walls and what’s hanging on them. I can see objects. I can see what looks like the roof of the car as it enters the garage, but that of course is a computer generated image – the car can’t take an actual photograph of itself. The point is that, without too much difficulty, the technology can create images of the space that I’m in.
Similarly, my virtual reality headset can, or soon will be able to, create a visual image of the room that I’m in, so that with my headset on, I will see pretty much the same thing as with it off. My headset can, or soon will be able to, use that image as a background, just like Zoom allows me to pick backgrounds. We already are familiar with how we can see and hear our friends in real time on Facetime. Now, put the two together. It means that I can sit in my living room and you can sit in yours, and with virtual reality head gear I will be able to see you sitting with me in my living room. As I turn my head, I will see other parts of my living room, and when I look back, you will still be sitting there. For the first time in human history, we will be able to have the experience of being present together without actually being there. Granted, I can’t touch you or smell you (sorry, I had to cover all the senses), but with those exceptions, we will be together in the same room.
Stop to imagine this for a minute. Look around the room where you are sitting right now. Imagine putting on your virtual reality headset, and through it you see the same image of your room – that is, it looks the same with the headset on as with it off. Now imagine that across the room in that chair or sofa, the headset displays the real-life active image of your friend sitting there, having this conversation with you. Think of your friend on a zoom call, but instead of seeing them in their office, you see them sitting across the room from you. They’re superimposed on a real-time image of your reality. Of course, they aren’t there; they’re sitting in their home, talking to you. (That last sentence may not have been necessary, but faced with the opportunity to use “there,” “they’re,” and “their” in the same sentence, I had to go for it.)
And, it’s even better than that, because we get to choose where we perceive ourselves to be. We both can see ourselves sitting and talking in my living room. Or we can see ourselves in your living room. Or, if we prefer, I can perceive you in my living room, and you can perceive me in your living room. Or, eventually, we will be able to choose to have the whole conversation happen on a bench in Central Park, or on a ski lift in Vail, or on the beach in Hawaii. It sounds unbelievable, but think about it – you already know how to change your background on Zoom to give the appearance that you are someplace you are not, and the technology that inserts you in that scene already is pretty good. Video game programmers and virtual reality engineers can do the same thing with moving images.
We have some good friends with whom we’ve socialized for 40 years. Until a few years ago, we got together for dinner three or four times a year. Some have now moved away, and that plus COVID-19 has stopped our regular get togethers. We talk among ourselves in ones and twos, and we have occasional Zoom calls, but it’s not nearly the same. We’ve largely lost a special social relationship that we had, a relationship that is unlikely to be replaced in our lives with anything its equal.
Before long, virtual reality will allow us to maintain relationships like that. We’re only a few microchips and programming hours away from being able to sit in our living room with our good friends present, virtually. I will be able to see each of them sitting with me, talking and making actual eye contact. And each of them will see me and our other friends sitting in my living room – or theirs – while the whole real-time conversation takes place. It can be pretty much the same as everyone being present physically.
Those good buddies from college can be true lifelong friends. You will be able to go out for drinks with them every month, wherever they may live. You will be able to sit with them in your family room, watching your alma mater crush your rival, or vice versa. You will be able to enjoy their company in the same way you did in college, minus that annoying guy from down the hall.
Profound changes are underway. If social intercourse can change in this dramatic way, commercial, political, and diplomatic intercourse will change, too. I can have front row seats at a Springsteen concert. Working from home and attending meetings will have much of the same feel as sitting together in a conference room because, well, that’s what we will see – a dozen people sitting in a room interacting with each other. Remote learning can take place in virtual classrooms, where the teacher and students perceive themselves together in the same space. You and I can go out to dinner without either of us leaving our homes – you make peanut and jelly, I make grilled cheese, and we eat together, across the table from one another, overlooking St. Mark’s Square.
You may be skeptical, thinking that a virtual life is no substitute for personal, physical, face-to-face experiences, but I’m here to suggest that that reaction is just you stuck in the now. People first thought the telephone was a useless contraption, but it became a vital, world-wide virtual reality tool. Pilots in the United States fly drone aircraft thousands of miles away, essentially playing a video game connected to a real flying machine. The first broadcast of a baseball game was visually unstimulating and no substitute for being in the ball park, but today we can watch a football game and have the real-time experience of standing in the huddle and looking in the eyes of the quarterback.
If you haven’t seen it, watch Ready Player One, Steven Spielberg’s 2018 science fiction film about people in 2045 (not that far away) who live much of their lives in a video game virtual reality, rather than their real world. I particularly like that the film blurs the line between what’s real and what’s virtual, as real people interact in a variety of ways, but mostly in the virtual world, not the real world. A world like that could be coming. Put on your headset in the morning and “go” to work. At noon, take out your brown-bag lunch and “go” to a restaurant with your co-workers, then “take a walk through a park” on your way back to the office. I may never do it, but there’s a good chance my children will, and a better chance my grandchildren will.
From the beginning of civilization, human beings have looked for ways to be present together without being physically present. We developed first writing, then in quick succession, telegraph, telephone, radio, television, and now actual virtual reality. We’re approaching a world where we can be with whomever we want, whenever we want, regardless of wherever we may actually be.
My children may get this already, along with millions of others in their generation, but as for me, all I can say is, “Far out!”
Hi Mark. I’ve been a SiFi reader all my life. There’s plenty of examples of virtual reality, mostly to overcome the pesky problems of physics, like the speed of light. ( Subspace transmissions on Star Trek.) I view VR as another tool like other electronic tools that have their place. But there’s no substitute for real reality. I’d rather watch an NFL game on TV, but only because the stadiums are so huge anymore. I really enjoy the Yardgoat games at Dunkin Donuts park! The fresh air, crowd responses, and the smells! The best hotdog I ever ate was at Wrigley Field. VR can’t do that! So we should enjoy VR for its benefits, but don’t let it replace the multi sensory experiences of real reality.
Thanks for reading and for your comment.
I didn’t say virtual reality was better; I suggested that it will continue to occupy increasing amounts of our time in daily life. Real maple syrup is better than pancake syrup, but the fake stuff is the overwhelming favorite in the country.
And I would suggest that you actually make my point. You choose to watch football virtually rather than in person. Why? Convenience (avoid the crowds), cost, probably some other things. The reasons are irrelevant; you’ve chosen the virtual experience. Increasingly, that’s what people are doing, and I’m suggesting that when virtual reality headsets are fully developed to deliver real-time images of people occupying the same room you’re occupying, it will be a virtual experience that many people increasingly will choose over the real thing.
You and I probably never will take a trip together to Paris, but I can imagine you and I and our wives taking a virtual ride on the elevator to the top of the Eiffel Tower, taking in the views and sharing the time together.
Let us know when you beat your daughter at visual ping-pong.