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Virtual vs. reality

VR technology will have many benefits but also foster many illusions


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The Star Trek universe, set in the 23rd and 24th centuries, imagines a “holodeck” aboard the Starship Enterprise where crewmen can retreat for training and R&R. The white-striped room simulates any actual or imaginary landscape with “hard light” holograms and subatomic manipulations of matter. Even in the fictional world its use can be problematic. In Star Trek: The Next Generation, Lt. Reginald Barclay’s holodeck addiction called for intervention from crewmembers more than once.

In the real world, “the holodeck is something we’ve been fixated on here for a number of years,” says Phil Rogers of Advanced Micro Devices, a semiconductor company based in California. “Ten years ago it felt like a dream. Now, it feels within reach.” In fact, a kind of personalized holodeck is already here.

If you ever wanted to climb Mount Everest, encounter a live shark, drive the Indy 500, or walk on the moon, you don’t have to worry about expensive equipment or rigorous training. All you need is a headset, a tracking system to measure your movements, and hand controllers to steer you into the surround-sound, 3-D experience of your choice. (See “All in your head,” May 14.)

Virtual reality (VR) vision has been around for years—in fact, that View-Master you got for Christmas 40 years ago delivered a pretty good 3-D image. But VR responsiveness was waiting on the sensor, display, and intricate computing technology to catch up. According to devout gamers who have used the new Oculus Rift and HTC Vive VR systems, the technology has caught up in a big way. Besides a fully responsive visual display, which can track your eye and head movements and show what you would actually see, some systems can even track your body movements as you battle space aliens or fantasy orcs. Make contact with sword or laser gun; enemy explodes with a scream and a spatter of electronic blood. “It’s unbelievably cool!” says the typical gaming enthusiast.

Moral relativism is a kind of virtual reality, which has taken hold because we no longer perceive the need for long-standing conventions.

Advocates for VR admit that the main application will be games, at first. I disagree: The main application will be games always, with virtual porn a close second or even first. Other uses are, admittedly, very cool: Take a 360-degree camera with you on your vacation to the Andes, and with the right equipment friends and relatives can share the experience with you. Attend a virtually live concert or Broadway musical production for a fraction of the ticket cost. Flight and driving simulators will not merely be the next best thing, but the thing for low-cost training. And how about experimental surgeries without risk to actual patients? The educational possibilities are endless.

But still (mostly?): gaming and porn and escape to an imaginary society, like Lt. Barclay. We all admit that every new technology has its costs and benefits. What’s harder to see is that every new technology erases perceived limits and fosters illusions.

When God “came down” to observe the Babel tower-builders, he remarked that “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” (Genesis 11:6b). Not that they could build a tower to reach heaven—what mankind “proposes” is not always literally possible. But the capacity to sketch visions in our heads is a God-given power, with frightening applications when destructive dreamers make their dreams come true.

Moral relativism is a kind of virtual reality, which has taken hold because we no longer perceive the need for long-standing conventions: We don’t need to be married for economic security or to have children for cultural vindication. We can try on “identities” and take them off pretty much at will. Society doesn’t push back as it once did. We’ve been escaping inside our own heads for years; virtual reality is a physical symbol of what virtual morality has proposed.

It will end somewhere, because this world will end. The new heavens and new earth will unveil a “real” reality that outshines all our virtual dreams. In the meantime, you have the ultimate tracking system in your brain and unmatched sensors in your skin; and the actual world around you unfolds wonders everywhere you take the time to really look.

Email jcheaney@wng.org


Janie B. Cheaney Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD's annual Children's Book of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.

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