Thursday, June 15, 2017

Virtual Reality? Really?

My Rift with Oculus

Several months ago, the New York Times sent me a strange cardboard contraption with plastic lenses that looked like an awkward pair of goggles, part of the Times’ venture into virtual reality.  The thing rattled around the back seat of my car awhile before I tossed it in the recycle. I hadn’t even bothered to figure out how it was supposed to work. I simply couldn’t feature that a mash-up of cardboard and plastic would somehow transport me to another reality, let alone do much for the one I appeared to be in.

The contraption sent by the New York Times 
could have just as well come from Mars
That's because virtual reality (VR) is, for one thing, a contradiction in terms, a phrase as dubious as the phenomenon it’s meant to describe – albeit probably still very useful when it comes to selling computer games and cybersex toys (more about those later).

There’s just reality, you see – that’s it.

What varies is not reality, but the way our lying eyes, ears, and other senses, with an assist from high-tech gadgetry, fool our poor brains into a kind of meretricious processing of light, sound, and sometimes haptic (touch) and proprioceptive (movement and position) sensory input in order to create an elaborate illusion.  VR is nothing more than trompe l’oeil gone high-tech with a vengeance.

But as you gaze glassy-eyed about the tiny IMAX 3D strapped to your face, the state of things around you, things as they actually are, remains precisely the same. At our level of quantum emergence, everyday physical reality is remarkably stable – if you drop a brick, for example, it never falls up – and its behavior surprisingly knowable. Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves,
verified only recently, more than a century ago.

Observed one pundit, “the cloth-made Google 
Daydream View looks and feels like something you 
would find at an expensive clothing accessory store…” 
Maybe in a virtual sense.  Still, even Dacron 
polyester would be an improvement on cardboard.
Yet, perhaps on account of the way our brains process information, we constantly reinterpret reality, making it feel as though it were somehow inconstant and changeable. It’s not just in a court of law you may find yourself lying like an eyewitness. Virtual reality, in effect, has you doing much the same thing – deftly bamboozling your hapless little grey cells.

To be sure, we’re all prone to creating personal sanctuaries, private amusement parks of the mind – VR being just the latest way of going about it – but the real challenge, I think, is to hew as close to objective reality as you reasonably can. And for that, you might want to avoid heavy doses of VR-derived “telepresence” (complete cyber immersion and interactivity) and the narcosis that’s apt to come with it.

Not that “digital environmental simulation” (DES) – let’s set aside the misleading virtual reality trope for a moment – is all bad. Today, there’s a host of promising applications, real or potential, in medicine, law, education, the arts, marketing, media, and more. Besides, the fact that DES abets escapism isn’t all bad, either; escapism in moderation can make for good entertainment.

Still, DES has significant pitfalls, including it own kind of sickness. Wearing one of those head-mounted displays (HMD) for even brief periods can cause Simulator Sickness (“SimSickness”), so-called – "a sense of general discomfort, headache, stomach awareness, nausea, vomiting, pallor, sweating, fatigue, drowsiness, disorientation, and apathy.” Makers of VR paraphernalia, e.g., Oculus, HTC, will tell you its just a matter of getting your sea legs, like getting used to the pitching deck of a sailboat, and that the symptoms will pass. But before spending $500 or more on a HMD and other gear, you might want to make sure. As with motion sickness, some folks are more susceptible to Simulator Sickness than others.

Don’t count on VR improving your social connectedness any time soon, either. “For all of the overwrought promises about the futuristic technology connecting people, it's a pretty isolating experience,” says tech reporter Heather Kelly. “The hardware shuts out any view or sound of people physically near you, not many people own headsets yet, and interactions inside virtual settings are still limited.”

But even with improved connectedness, you have to wonder if people will end up segregating themselves in VR metaverses or tribes the way they do on Facebook, say.

Some have suggested that exposing VR gamers to violent situations, especially ones that incite them to violence, could result in risky desensitization and sociopathic behavior. This has already been observed, for example, amongst online gamers.

Addiction will be a problem, too. The more realistic and life-like VE experiences become, the more likely users will become addicted to them – again, something already seen in cyberspace. Author journalist Steven Kotler compares VR to “legal heroin,” saying that “when video games start producing ‘full-scale flow states’ is arguably the point that VR becomes more fun and perhaps more meaningful than actual reality.”

The Thrill of Teledildonics. But beware i-rape by a hacked
device. Or maybe an Oculus incubus! In cyberspace, you
never really know who’s pushing your buttons.
All these risks – addiction, social isolation, anti-social behavior, and the like – would presumably be greatest for VR’s avid contingent of computer gamers and cybersex junkies.

If cybersex has been a major Internet moneymaker (it has), VR cybersex is set to top it in spades. American porn company BaDoinkVR, for example, is partnering with Dutch adult technology company Kiiroo to market sex videos that combine virtual reality and “teledildonic” devices (vibrating sex toys) synced for interactive experience with adult film stars.

VR Bangers, an L.A. porn producer, is developing the “VR Bangers Hotel Experience” for clients in Las Vegas.  For $19.99, you get a VR headset preloaded with interactive 360-degree views of a steamy scenario set in a virtual mock-up of your hotel room.

“Next you will hear a knock on the door (in the virtual reality world), and the girl or guy will come into your room in order to enjoy an erotic or sex experience with the viewer,” VR Bangers CEO Daniel Abramovich explained to PC World.

“Hopefully the rentals come with a few disinfectant wipes, too,” PC World shot back.

Those wipes would be good for sure, but not nearly enough. If you ask me, VR Bangers should throw in some sterile C++ filters to guard against virtual STDs, especially the viral kind. Otherwise, hackers might horn in on your holiday and leave you irate about having been i-raped!  It’s something to think about. A few bytes of prevention here might be worth untold megabytes of cure later on.

Declension of iMan I: Homo devolutiens, ssp. Alienensis.
Some may dismiss such speciation as specious, but don’t
be so sure.
Finally, what really grabs you about VR is the whole appearances thing.  Who hasn’t been struck (nay, clobbered) by the painfully silly look? The headset with its patented vacuum stare suggesting horse blinkers for spaced-out homies or maybe a Dadaist idea of scuba gear for the blind? Worse yet, you can’t escape a nagging impression of a  schnoz disorder (rhinophyma – think geriatric W.C. Fields), or perhaps a malformation of the jaw (prognathism), and with some VR getups, an improbably protuberant occiput-cum-tail.

And that’s just for starters. Wait ‘til you get a load of these VR contenders! Several look like agitated, hallucinating schizos or acidheads on a really bad trip. Some appear to be falling-down drunk. All of them seem in major need of just getting a grip and taking a seat pronto. It’s enough to give cyborgery a bad name.

Yet – form following function – cyborgs presumably mutate, too. One day, for example, VR habitu├ęs might wake up to find their headsets fused to their faces, the result of some catastrophic phenotypic mutation. Of necessity, their children would be born by Caesarean section – the infants’ heads being too misshapen for natural birth. But no matter! The mutation spreads like wildfire. The few remaining humans of the archaic phenotype end by frantically gluing on VR gear or even resorting to plastic surgery in order to look like everyone else.

Rod Serling explored such an idea in an episode of the Twilight Zone (Eye of the Beholder, 1960).

Perhaps one day soon we’ll discover the need for a brief VR educational short, themed along similar lines – call it Why the Long Face, VRGameBoy?  It would give VR regulars a heads-up (preferably while they’re sitting down) about the potential for things to come. It would warn about the dangers of too much telepresence and encourage contact with real humans beings and the world outside.

Declension of iMan II: Homo devolutiens, ssp.
Prognathicans. Some may dismiss such speciation
as specious, but don’t be too sure.
Even if it meant settling for that much more reality TV.