The hidden depth of Virtual Reality
I just finished reading Ernest Cline’s terrific Ready Player One, a novel that imagines a near-future world in which the majority of people spend the majority of time in a parallel Virtual Reality (VR) universe, while the real world slowly sinks into decay and chaos. This is the classic dystopian view of VR: advanced computing that offers experiences so much richer and more fulfilling than actual reality that people choose to spend all of their time there, huddled away in game-playing isolation from real relationships and real actions.
While I loved the book (which is much more thrilling and optimisitic than my description makes it sound!), I disagree with its projection of how VR will affect our lives. Yes, there will definitely be immersive game-playing aplenty, along the lines of Star Trek’s Holodeck, but the more I look into VR, the more examples I find of how it’s going to change or inspire us, both mentally and physically, in addition to simply entertaining us.
The most obvious example of how VR will have an impact on us mentally is in the area of training. Yes, it’s pretty clear that the combination of VR headsets and perhaps glove-type sensors on the hands will allow surgeons to practice difficult operations and pilots and emergency technicians to practice responding to crisis situations in advance. But less obvious is the training of our emotions, in addition to the training of our actions.
I recently attended the eye-opening Gigaom Change conference of new technologies, listening to a speaker who representeda US Army dept. that has already been working with VR for several years. She said that although they had originally employed VR to explore new ways of training soldiers for combat, they ended up discovering that it has unexpected power in the development of empathy, particularly in the sticky area of race relations. “If you send someone walking down the street in a VR environment as someone from another race or gender – say, a white man becomes a black woman – and they can experience directly how other people treat them in their new persona, you would not believe how quickly that breaks down barriers and reduces prejudice,” she said. Wow. Virtual Reality really is the means by which we can walk a mile in someone else’s moccasins.
VR helping paraplegics get back on their feet
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Speaking of walking, this leads me to the area in which VR can actually change us physically. Doctors at Duke University in North Carolina have been asking paralyzed patients to imagine moving their paralyzed limbs, while showing them VR of the limb actually moving. After a year of this treatment, to their great surprise, they’ve found that several of the patients have actually begun to regain movement in the paralyzed parts of their body. It seems that showing the eyes what the patient is trying to accomplish has helped the body rebuild its motor systems – absolute magic. What else will VR’s powerful visualization allow us to learn or do? I’m certain this is just the beginning of a whole new way to train our brains, emotions, and bodies for breathtaking new capabilities.
VR will probably be delivered mostly over fixed lines, while its cousin Augmented Reality will likely live mostly in the mobile world. Why? Because VR requires a large display field and incredibly low latency (so the visual field moves as you turn your head and you don’t throw up…) and that just happens to be exactly the broad design spec for 5G. Nice.
So, the next time you think of 5G, don’t think of abstract things like capacity and spectrum, think about a world in which we all understand each other a bit better, and where even paralysis can someday be overcome. Now that’s worth working towards.
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