Virtual Reality Myths

What are the boundaries of the VR phenomenon? If the current hype is to be believed VR will signal a new era in virtually everything (pun intended). We need to put our expectations and aspirations into perspective. The hype of technological advance is ably discussed in The Digital Sublime (Mosco, 2004) where he points out that every innovation since the invention of the telegraph has been heralded with the same three predictions; the end of geography, the end of history and the end of politics. None of these things have actually come to pass, or certainly not to the extent mooted by the pundits of the day. In fact, VR is in its second life cycle having failed to fully deliver on its promises the first time in the 90’s. We have to remember that VR, in a way, is nothing new. Back in the 1960’s the first Head Mounted Display was made albeit predictably for military purposes.  The devices for stereoscopic vision the basis of which are still used today in Oculus, Vive, et al. were invented back in the 1800’s. It doesn’t require too much hard research to trace the path of VR well into the 1990’s when the bubble finally burst. The lack of a technology that could be made affordable to everyone and also the fact that the internet backbone of high speed transmission simply was not generally available is probably part of what killed it.

Consultancies such as Delloite are predicting a billion-dollar industry in 2016 for VR. Forbes magazine wrote earlier this year of predictions in excess of $100 billion by 2020. Of course none of these can really be either proved or justified at this juncture. This is almost a rerun of the dotcom frenzy which Mosco describes in his book wherein companies were simply falling all over themselves to invest in anything that had dot com after its name. On the plus side, Oculus Rift and HTC are now shipping their products and as a result of these getting into the hands of consumers there is a big upsurge in games and other VR software. A number of social media type platforms are arising, notably http://altvr.com/ consisting of forums and chat rooms which can be visited with or without the requisite VR equipment. In January Wearable wrote that Google Cardboard had shipped 5 million units and that would presumably not be counting the lookalikes. At the time of writing there had been something in excess of 25 million downloads of apps for Cardboard. Many industries and areas are taking up the use of VR as I recently discussed here and of course the porn industry is one of the big take ups of the new technology as I also discussed here. So the initial figures and showings in many relevant areas perhaps show promise in terms of uptake and usage. But still what of the myths?

I think one can put it another way in that there appears to be a constant evangelism about new technology which promotes each thing as the new saviour of the world. Mosco has written extensively on this and history rather than being ended has borne out what he says. The real point is that we go on to discover in the end that technology isn’t the world saviour and that we still have to go to work and earn money, go to the shops and buy groceries among other things. Albeit that these things can be achieved via the internet there is still a physical necessity for it to occur. Virtual reality does not remove the necessities of life. In fact, what seems to be happening in the modern idiom is that we feed our soul with derived material and we live in a world of information overload where a person wearing a Chewbacca mask can achieve world notoriety within minutes of uploading their video to the internet. All of us are striving to leap above the surface of the digital ocean long enough to be recognised just like the Manta rays in their ritualistic dances of courtship. Most of us do not find that way to hit the stratosphere at all, let alone remain there. The increase in content subsumes all with it and the recycling of content simply fills cyberspace with what is essentially so much flotsam just like the plastic ocean we have created on our planet. Our discarded memories, our collective consciousness is paraded endlessly in front of the masses in an unceasing flow of detritus. The real myth is that we are doing anything meaningful and one could argue that we have either created a monster garbage can or, in another view, a cornucopia of wonderment. Then others may simply see it as the continuance of a banal existence now generated in digital form. Virtual Reality extends this into the third dimension where an entire new cornucopia or garbage can will be created depending upon which way you see it. Perhaps I am being too harsh or cynical and I’ve got an HTC Vive myself which I think is pretty awesome. But what we need is some perspective and I think we have to be pragmatic that is all. VR is not the new saviour of the planet, only we can do that.

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Mosco, V. (2004). The digital sublime: myth, power and cyberspace. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.