Glasses with the power to change the world

Who would have thought that a self-confessed technophobe would venture to Europe, to the Cannes International Festival of Creativity, and return home to Sydney an evangelist to all things ‘virtual reality’?

I’m a little embarrassed to say that I’d never put on a pair of Oculus Rift glasses until June this year. Which means I’d never experienced the power, the awe, the sheer mind-blowing amazingness of virtual reality. And I have to say that having done so has shifted my entire perspective around this so-called ‘new medium being invented in our lifetime’.

There’s no question that this new frontier blurs reality with fiction in a way where they become so entwined it’s almost impossible to distinguish between the two. The unreal becomes the real, even if just for the length of a short film. So as a closet psychologist, that poses some interesting questions around the impact of virtual reality on the human condition.

Because while it’s kind of wonderful to hit a button from the comfort of your favourite sofa that promises “Sunshine in the park”, and seconds later to find yourself hearing birds chirping above, bathed in summer light as you chill under a protective tree, is there a downside? A tipping point where the VR experience, minus the annoying mosquitos the layers of obligatory sunscreen, actually becomes a better, more desirable perhaps a complete replacement for the real thing?

As the mother of two young children who are already pretty addicted to anything audio-visual, I wonder if there’s a point at which I might completely lose my little pets to their virtual reality glasses. When does the unreal entirely surpass the real? Think of Sam Worthington in Avator going through the motions of chowing down his dinner purely to stave off starvation, in order to get back into his transformative ‘box’ and return to his much more intoxicating fantasy life.

Because let’s be honest, mosquitos are annoying, and so is having to slather your lily white body in white ghosting sunscreen. And yet driving past my local park this morning on my way to work, I happened to get caught at a traffic light. I watched the breeze gently caress the leaves of a hundred-year-old oak tree and I was transported. It was a glorious morning with blue skies, real birds singing real songs, the very definition of a beautiful summer’s day. And there was a part of me that jolted at the realisation that popping on a pair of virtual reality glasses could 100% recreate that scene in minute detail. But what do you lose not having that breeze blow through your hair, or the grass scratch you legs?

There’s a trend right now called “The Tactilians” which talks to how much we crave touch both physically and emotionally in a world filled with sleek, cool surfaces. Fact: We now touch our smartphones more than any other surface, which is changing the way we process emotions. Wearables and ‘touch infusion’ technology may negate this but how far can they really go?

Maybe it’s the Gen X’er in me showing up, but I worry that VR compromises something that hits at the very core of what defines us and makes us human: You lose being present.

So, in a world where Mindfullness is a full blown epidemic and modern day CEOs swear by the app ‘Headspace’, I’m facing a moral dilemma. On the one hand I am blown away by VR, a complete convert, and yet on the other I am cautiously resistant to what this new technology actually means for us.

Virtual reality is described by many as the great empathy inducer. The NYT with their brilliant series “The Displaced” have really understood this as have Charity Water: the glasses-wearer gets to walk many kilometres carrying a large bucket to the village well with an 8-year-old African girl to get water for her family every day. Seeing the state of the well, filled with all manner of horrors, feeling her fear, and her parched thirst simultaneously, it is impossible not to feel for her. Empathy is a natural end result, and there is great power that comes from that.

So in closing, as I contemplate a Virtual Reality brief on my desk for one of our clients, I’m beckoned by what awaits. Am I in? Oh yeah, absolutely, but always with a small part of me that’s kind of missing those mosquito bites and windswept hair.

Watch this space and we’ll keep you posted on how we go with our VR development journey here at DDI.