Sunday, March 10, 2019

Introduction

VR: Consciousness in a Digital Realm

Welcome to the VR: Consciousness in a Digital Realm blog. Computer technology has advanced to the point where for a modest amount of money anyone can travel to new worlds that only exist within a computer. With Virtual Reality technology you don’t just experience these worlds at a distance through a flat pane of glass, you’re effectively transported to the other side of the screen. You can go Through The Looking Glass to explore places that are entirely creations of the human mind. To me it’s the most exciting thing computer technology has accomplished so far.

In this blog I’m going to explore all aspects of Virtual Reality. I’ll discuss hardware and software, but my main interest in VR is in how it affects the mind and how it may affect society in the future.

I’ll start with my definition of Virtual Reality. Virtual Reality is a realm constructed by human beings that you can transport your conscious mind to.

VR Gear has been around for decades, but only recently has the technology gotten to the point where it’s affordable, and the quality is high enough that with a little suspension of disbelief, people can actually feel like they’ve been transported to another realm.

Words or videos can’t convey what it’s like to actually be in Virtual Reality anymore than a movie of Times Square can convey what it’s like to be standing there for real looking up at the massive animated billboards, the crowds, the traffic, and buildings all around you, but I’m going to try to give you a hint of what you can expect the first time you try VR.

When you put on a VR headset, it’s like putting on a Scuba mask that exists in our reality but its glass is a window into another reality. There’s no sense of looking at a screen in VR, you can’t look past the edge of a screen and see the reality around you like you can when you’re watching TV, and everything you see is in full 3D. You can look around the digital world in all directions. If you’re in a small room in reality, but in a futuristic city in VR, looking up with the headset on you’ll be looking up at tall buildings, buildings that are presented in full scale towering hundreds of feet over your head despite the fact that the ceiling in reality is only a few feet above you. To people who are familiar with VR this seems obvious, but I’ve met people who assume that VR is just a “TV strapped to your face” and they’re astonished when they discover that they can look around in all directions.

At this point I need to briefly explain the two forms of VR that are widely available. The most basic form of VR lets you move about in the VR realm with three degrees of freedom. This is what cell phone based systems and some self-contained systems, (like the Oculus Go), use. The head motions these systems can track are pitch (looking up and down), roll (tilting your head side to side), and yaw (rotating left and right). This is enough to let you look around the world, but if you take a step or crouch, the entire world will move with you which breaks the illusion of being in another world and can be disconcerting to experience.

More sophisticated VR systems add three more degrees of freedom so they can track your movements when you move forward and back, step side to side, and crouch and stand. Most systems that track in six degrees of freedom (DOF), require you to be tethered to a computer or game console either with a cable or through a wireless connection. There are a few standalone headsets that can track head movements in 6DOF however.

If you’re using a 6DOF system you not only can look all around you, but you can also move about in the virtual environment, (with limits that will be discussed in later blog posts). If you see something interesting, you can lean in to get a closer look and the computer moves the digital world around you appropriately.

Despite VR being available in some form for decades, it’s only gotten to the point where it can deliver experiences that can convincingly transport people to another realm in the last few years. However it can’t yet transport you to a completely photo-realistic environment, so for the best experience you need to bring something to VR, your imagination and the ability to suspend disbelief and look past the technology. If you can do that, then the technology to transport your consciousness to digital realms is available right now.

After a while of owning a headset you may find yourself thinking of it more as a portal to other places than just computer technology. For me jumping in and out of VR has become routine, but even after spending hundreds of hours in VR over the last few years, I still get a powerful sense of wonder and awe when I put the headset on. The magic doesn’t wear off.

In future blog posts I’ll discuss the systems available now and offer suggestions for getting into Virtual Reality.