WILL VIRTUAL REALITY EAT YOUR BRAIN (or save humanity)?


The 1949 Nobel Prize was awarded to the father of the lobotomy, a crude procedure in which the prefontal cortex is scraped off in order to reduce the symptoms of mental illness.

We humans have always tried to change our brains, often in brutal ways. Even in Neolithic times we searched for solutions to brain disorders. As far back as 5000 BC we treated mental illness by drilling holes into our skulls. Modern doctors prescribe handfuls of pills to treat cognitive dysfunction.

Our brains interpret reality via complex neural processes. Science does not fully understand how these processes work, but we do know this: what our brains think is real, is real. Our brains are also easily manipulated into a false interpretation of reality (like optical illusions, or when a limb “falls asleep”).

What happens when we soak our brains in virtual reality?

As the technology and resulting realism continue to improve, our brains will be even more convinced that we are actually in another environment. This sense of spatial immersion is known as presence- and it gets better and better as developers creatively forge ahead with exponential technology.

Virtual Reality: Where Anything Can Happen

Anything is possible in virtual reality. Want to explore 4,000 feet under the sea in a submarine? Check out Deep Echo from Oculus. Do you wonder what the world looks like from outer space? Experience Titans of Space. Perhaps you have always wanted to speed in a getaway car? See London Heist: The Getaway.

Our bodies release chemicals in response to stimuli. Even if the stimulus is virtual, the chemicals released are real. If we are chased by a robot made of pixels, our sympathetic nervous system shoots adrenaline throughout our bodies the same way it would if we were chased by a real robot (stay tuned to the field of artificial intelligence for more on that). If our bodies and our brains react to virtual stress the same way as “real” stress, then our virtual experiences hold great potential for shaping us as much as our real environments do.

The long-term health effects of virtual reality are not known-- how could they be? VR has been quietly bubbling in the world of gaming (and military and science), but our culture is still a couple of years away from mass adoption. The technology has been exponentially improving and there has not been enough time to measure long-term effects.

How Our Brains Know VR is Fake… For Now

At this current point in time, plenty of reasons exist which let our brains know that virtual reality is just that-- virtual.

There’s the vergence-accomodation conflict (the problem of near focus, or the clumsy virtual comparison to how our eyes in reality smoothly adjust to objects moving towards/away). There’s the issue of accurate peripheral motion: peripheral movement is essential to immersion, as well as highly integral to the way our brain processes spatial orientation. Our peripheral vision is incredibly sensitive; it is also controlled by different neural pathways than our central vision. Capturing authentic peripheral motion in VR is an important contribution to the feeling of presence, and difficult to do.

Imminent advances in technology will solve these issues. Already the secretive company Magic Leap has reportedly (suggested by their patents in light field technology) been working on an alternative to pixels on a screen: thousands of tiny mirrors that will reflect light (ergo, images) directly into our eyes. As near-eye stereoscopic 3D systems might have the capacity to cause neurological changes, this progress could be enormous.

Another huge issue is motion sickness rising from the mismatch between the virtual images we see and the real movement we feel. The perfect ratio of images to movement is 1:1, which means that you would travel 1 real mile for every 1 virtual mile traveled by your avatar. Clearly this is not practical for real world spatial limitations, but there are several solutions.

Down the Rabbit Hole of Total Immersion…

Help comes from the fundamental design of the virtual experience as well as the use of narrative devices such as keeping avatars in a seated position (such as in the cockpit of an airplane or in the driver’s seat of a car). Another way to solve the 1:1 motion issue is with technology that also contributes balance stimulus to the brain for added realism: omnidirectional treadmills, human-sized hamster balls, and redirected walking (perhaps the most promising).

What other devices will we think of to further convince our brains that virtual reality is real?

Our current use of audio as enhancement to immersion is incredibly important (where a sound originates from in headphones does wonders for the sense of presence and realism). Why don’t we take this a few steps further with odor enhancement? Think of a virtual stop to smell the roses, or the smoky scent of gunpowder as you fire your virtual AK-47? Perhaps smell packs could be refillable cartridges that snap into your headset… or, you could elect for a brain implant that will directly stimulate your olfactory system without physical odor molecules.

In addition to these solutions to VR’s past and current obstacles to deep immersion, more devices to add stimuli to truly create “real” experiences will emerge (the more stimuli, the more powerful the cognitive map). Think of joysticks that provide tangible sensory feedback.  Body vests that vibrate your body and add tactile stimuli to enhance video games are already on the market. No doubt that these are only early examples of applied haptics. <NOTE: the science of adding touch and control to computer application interactions>

Addiction: a Hijacker of the Brain

Video game addiction has been widely recognized, and is even included in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as “Internet Gaming Disorder.” 12-step programs for dependent gamers are many and easy to join online. A quick Google search of “how to get over my video game addiction” turns up almost 30 MILLION hits.

How far will these addictions go in virtual realities that are flawless reproductions of reality? If you had the choice to have a perfect life, would you? Think of Second Life, the online world where some people spend more time than in the real world-- and the real-world money that some people have made in the game (i.e. millionaire Anshe Chung). Games and experiences will undoubtedly tie virtual incentives to real-world rewards.

Increasing Virtual Realism to Increase Real Life Awesome

Yes, there are dystopian warning signs in this nascent industry—and we need to recognize them. However, there are amazing studies being done and incredible advances being made in virtual reality in pursuit of human progress and innovation.

Virtual and augmented reality in education will prove immensely valuable.  If the financial and safety threshold for class trips and travel is drastically lowered, think of the places (and time periods!) we will be able to explore. Google has launched Expeditions, a virtual field-trip system free to schools, already enabling sixth graders in Chicago to tour Italy.

In addition to virtual field trips (and travel outside of the education sector), virtual reality reinforces learning. When we experience events in virtual reality, we are immersed in that reality. When more of our senses are involved, retention increases. Like Gregg Katano of Unofficial Cardboard says, “Virtual reality is so real that it creates memories.” One feels as though the virtual event truly happened. With virtual reality as a learning tool, classrooms of the (near) future will not favor audio learners as they traditionally have done-- experiential learners will have more equal footing.

Virtual reality does not just favor the young-- it is being used as an early screening tool for older adults’ mild cognitive impairment, which is a precursor to Alzheimer’s. Veterans are undergoing exposure therapy in virtual reality as treatment of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). Burn victims are benefiting from virtual worlds for pain reduction. Phobias and anxiety are being treated with virtual reality. Mental illnesses like psychosis, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder are utilizing virtual reality as treatment methods. Amputees with phantom limb pain are trained to overcome and nullify the ghost pain, or even virtually train their brain to control a new prosthetic.

Throughout human history we have attempted to anesthetize symptoms of illness, neuroses, psychoses, and trauma with medication and surgery. Our modern Western medical system, funded by the pharmaceutical industry and ruled by the insurance industry, is at best inefficient and at worst downright dangerous. Perhaps virtual reality is a key to and a step towards a healthier and more holistic treatment system grounded in the immense power of our brains.

Just as the negative possibilities are enormous, so too are the positives. Could virtual reality help us not only reduce issues with the brain, but improve normal brains? Could we as a human race use increased mind capacity to be more mindful?

Will virtual content serve to heal, improve, and inspire? Or will some merely use it to satiate existence? Do we want to offer hope and growth, or do we want to sell virtual violence? Do we want to help amputees’ brains communicate and control new limbs, or do we want to build brain-controlled robot soldiers?

We are poised at the start of an explosion of the virtual reality industry. This is the calm before the storm. Once seen as only the territory of the hardcore gamer, the use cases of virtual reality are endless. Like Mike Abrash, the Chief Scientist of Oculus, says: “No matter which pill we pick, we’re headed down the rabbit hole together.”

Let’s make awesome virtual pills.