Hazelton: Will innovations like the Oculus Rift encourage us to take virtual reality too far?

Paul Hazelton

I want you to picture being virtually immersed in a video game where physicality matters. Imagine versions of “Battlefield,” “Mortal Kombat X,” “NHL 16,” or better yet, “Grand Theft Auto V,“where players’ overall fitness factors into their success.  

Intense and orgasmically entertaining? Totally. Leagues harder? Definitely. Feasible? Not yet, but according to Moore’s Law and billion-dollar investments in virtual reality (VR) headsets plus related technologies, the answer could soon be absolutely.

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Come April, gamers will get their first taste of VR tech when the much-hyped Oculus Rift launches. And though the headset won’t be wireless or based on players’ bodily abilities, it’s the first of many baby steps in a gaming experience that may ultimately replace traditional console/PC gaming — not to mention a swath of other media. Even with the current state of graphics, which are only projected to increase in quality, virtual reality should be convincing enough to flood your system with adrenaline and perhaps temporary PTSD

While I agree that’d be b*tchin’, this  leads us to a broader, much more important question: What happens when virtual reality becomes indistinguishable from our own? The potential impacts on global society will likely push us toward a cultural epoch where we decide, once and for all, if reality is worth the hassle. 

Again in gaming, one can imagine — especially with emerging products like Virtuix Omni — an experience where tactile sensation, visual acuity, fitness, focus and creativity will be tantamount in posting high scores. This could lead gaming to become a nationally-televised sport. If it does, and the games are based on physical ability, I believe it might rival the entertainment value and difficulty of current athletics, all while decreasing injury. But will gaming addiction become more prevalent? Logically, the answer seems to be yes.

But that’s an easy one. What about VR porn? Well, it actually already exists in its most basic iteration. But with advances in technology, what’ll be the point in swiping right on your latest Tinder match when the digital porn star on top of you feels, smells and tastes like an actual, airbrushed woman/man? My guess: you won’t have a Tinder. 

Even more concerning: What happens when this and advanced artificial intelligence fuse, allowing us to customize romantic relations? Will we stop dating real people entirely? Because as we all know, seeing actual people comes with innumerable and unpredictable pitfalls that often lead to broken hearts and/or blue-balls.   

And what of tourism? Will we still feel the need to take excruciatingly-long trans-Pacific flights to see the wonders and people of the world? And, if we don’t, will we lose sight of problems present, thereby diminishing our empathy along with a key piece of our humanity: exploration? Or, conversely, will we be more engaged in injustices, world events and global culture based on the hyper-real experiences offered up by YouTube and news outlets? 

If virtual reality muscles its way into cinema, will we want to leave our homes and drive to the local theater? To be sure, horror movies will become far too frightening for many — mainly me — to watch.

Regardless, will reality shows become further removed from reality or less so? Will precious family time in front of the TV remain? Will TVs exist?  On the same note, how will advertising factor into this new frontier? Will it become completely subliminal? Because, I think most would agree, that’s not agreeable.  

Will virtual reality allow us to perceive the general bigotry marginalized groups experience? Would that be enough to inform us about the realities those people are forced to deal with on a daily basis?

If we get used to virtual, visceral violence, will we as a culture become even more desensitized to the real thing? Is that possible? Would being able to participate in these simulated taboos lead to more real-life murders, rapes and general crime or less? 

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Could this cause an artistic renaissance where wealthy patrons commission everything from virtual heavens to apocalyptic “Mad Max”-scapes? Will artists paint these worlds — as some companies are already toying with — in virtual reality, leading to an inception effect?  

How will all these virtual changes morph societal norms and governmental laws? How much more will it change the way America and other countries train their troops? Will war exist as we know it or will it be fought virtually, claiming economic — or what have you — casualties instead of ceaseless civilian souls? Would we ever be safe from the NSA’s all-seeing eye? I, unfortunately, doubt “yes” is the answer to those last two questions as much as a revival in Bill Cosby’s career. 

With this technology and the progression of the sharing economy, the Internet of things, automation and robotics, will we even need to open our doors? Will we eventually permanently adorn our couches and door-less living rooms as flesh figurines? After all, wouldn’t physical avatars who, in our stead, venture into the world be safer than being there ourselves, like in the movie “Surrogates?”

Would that put us in danger of losing sight of reality?

And if all this does transpire, how will it alter the course of human evolution and human history? Will we fundamentally lose what it means to be human? With every possibility a purchase away and all societal stipulations rendered mute, will we become the ID?

Now, that line of questioning got real deep, real quick with a bunch of hypothetical futurism, but that was the point. Far too many people neglect to ponder these quandaries and questions about other technologies. Maybe this is because we’ve been primed by movies like “The Matrix” to fancy this fiction. Maybe it’s because it sounds reminiscent of the conspiratorial rhetoric “Ancient Aliens'” Giorgio rambles about. But either way, we should think about what we’re dealing with here, no matter how seemingly unlikely the possibility.

So, before you go buy that $599 set of Oculus goggles, think of the potential ramifications for future generations. Of course, that’s not to say that anything you do will matter — technology will soldier on regardless of whether you engage with it or not — but understanding that these eerie scenarios could metastasize will at least spur discourse about the morality and efficacy of the trend. And — who knows — that might be just enough to partially avoid the same fate as the hypnotized, overweight, scooter-bound humans in Pixar’s “Wall-E.”

Collegian Columnist Paul Hazelton can be reached at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter @HazeltonPaul.