The Big Opportunity with Virtual Reality

Virtual reality (VR) is being touted as the next big thing and venture capital firms are falling over themselves to give money to companies experimenting with the technology. There is also growing interest in mixed reality (MR), which is an augmented version that lets you use the real world as the backdrop to navigate VR objects placed within it. The MR experience is considered more real and believable, compared to VR, as the latter happens in a world that is entirely make believe. Here is a great Wired article on VR and MR which spurred my thinking and brought about this blog.

Turns out that VR technology has been around since the 1990’s but it was cost-prohibitive to mass produce. With the proliferation of smartphones, which have brought down the cost of sensors and created super computers that fit in our pocket, VR is finally ready to come of age.

It would be fair to say that Oculus Rift marked the turning point that resulted in VR going mainstream. Oculus started in 2012 as a Kickstarter project to build a VR gaming headset and quickly became a household name. In 2014 they were bought by Facebook for $2 billion. Since that moment there has been something akin to frenzy among the top tech companies to get into VR. Microsoft recently started shipping its HoloLens to developers (Source: Verge article). Verizon’s AOL bought a 360-degree VR video company called RYOT (Source: Wall Street Journal article). HTC, Google, Sony, Samsung, Apple and a host of other companies have launched VR products or are in the process of developing them.

However, all these companies are currently thinking about VR only through a lens of gaming and commercial applications like movies, tourism and for various new ways to market their products and services. It is great for companies to invest in innovation to find better and more effective ways to sell us ‘stuff’ but I believe that focusing entirely on the commercial aspects would be missing a much greater opportunity.

Here is the line in the article that sparked my thinking:
“People remember VR experiences not as a memory of something they saw but as something that happened to them.”(Source: Wired article).

In my mind, the greatest flaw we have as human beings is the inability to see through someone else’s eyes and, therefore, to empathise with them in a truly meaningful way. It is almost as if we are conditioned to personally experience a situation before we can fully appreciate and understand it on a deeper level. This is why it is often hard for us to truly empathise with people and situations that we have never experienced.

For example, most people get involved or start donating to Alzheimer’s and cancer research only after they have lost someone close or witnessed the disease first hand. Similarly people born rich are unable to appreciate the daily hardships and obstacles faced by families that live paycheque to paycheque, and simply view them as lazy or less hardworking.

Most people cannot fathom the daily experience of people of colour and the toll racism takes on a person’s self-confidence and self-belief. It is also very hard for any of us to imagine the emotional scarring that occurs, often for life, on victims of abuse. When there are no overt physical manifestations and scars, people struggle to feel a depth of compassion that might lead to action or a change in behaviour.

Now, let’s go back to the statement from the article; “People remember VR experiences not as a memory of something they saw but as something that happened to them.”

Now, imagine if we could develop VR and MR tools that will allow Presidents to walk virtual battlefields, before making the decision to go to war. I guarantee that they would not make it as lightly as they do today. Imagine if convicted murderers could see the hell they leave behind for victim’s families. What if skeptical lawmakers could live through the eyes of refugees fleeing war-torn countries? And college freshmen were able to witness the damage they do with a drunken but forced hook-up (not the actual act of rape but the aftermath). Imagine if Donald Trump could spend a day as a Muslim woman.

Think of it as an education tool to help us make better life choices and wiser decisions by building greater empathy, not as a brainwashing tool. I believe there is a greater potential for VR, and especially MR, that goes beyond experiences designed to create entertainment, one that could truly help us become more humane, compassionate and wise.

CEO’s of companies like Facebook and Google love to talk about their altruism. They want to give back to society by solving some of the biggest problems using technology. But because their motives are driven by profit (which allows them to fund these initiatives) we tend to end up with flawed initiatives like Facebook’s Free Basics.

So instead of Mark Zuckerberg and Sergei Brin playing God by holding onto innovations and breakthroughs in VR, to develop a narrow set of products that suits their commercial purposes (which they should still do), why not also open source all the research and code and allow the world to build off it and find many more commercial, altruistic and innovative uses for this technology.

Seeing life through someone else’s eyes is unequivocally the greatest power and gift we can give mankind and who knows, it might be the one thing that can help save us from ourselves.

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