Forget reality: In virtual reality, you can be whomever and wherever you want. VR makes the unreal real, using computer software and hardware that responds to our body’s movements to immerse us in a convincing alternate existence.
There’s plenty of space to roam. VR places can be huge. In Second Life, an early pioneer of virtual worlds, you can attend university, own a blimp, have blue fur — whatever. It includes more than 600 square miles of otherworld existence. The worlds of Minecraft, another digital sandbox, could cover Earth eight times over.
The possibilities are endless. VR movies offer new vehicles for narrative structure. VR classrooms may reach students who don’t thrive behind a desk. Soon, we may have virtual meetings, conferences, classes and parties. According to tech entrepreneur Philip Rosedale, who founded Second Life, “We have an insatiable appetite for communicating with each other. VR is the next medium in that regard.”
Right now, the visual fidelity of these worlds remains somewhat blocky and lacks personal details: In most VR worlds, you can’t see where other people are looking, or what they’re doing with their hands. But while VR is famous for overpromising and underdelivering, Rosedale sees progress being made on these fronts — think eye-tracking sensors, or gloves that communicate gestures. Within a few years, personal VR meetups could be startlingly personal.
The future is exciting, but uncertain. VR environments — including headsets — can trigger motion sickness. And critics warn that we’re becoming increasingly isolated and risk addiction or physical harm. Champions say VR brings us together. The only certainty is that as this tech experiment evolves around us, we’re all lab rats in the least natural environment imaginable — one entirely invented by humankind.