This is an article from the fall 2017 issue of LSA Magazine. Read more stories from the magazine.
You are standing in front of the sun. From this distance, its roiling plasma seems close enough to touch. Beads of sweat form on your brow —you’re convinced you can feel its searing heat. Look down and see that you’re floating among thousands of twinkling lights — the stars, dust, and matter that make up the universe, swirling and stretching farther than the eye can see. Turn your head and you spy a tiny blue orb, its humble appearance belying the life teeming on and within it. The orb is Earth. Which is where you are, too, when you pull off your headset and return to reality. But what is reality anymore?
In the past few years, the market has exploded with devices intended to modify, enhance, or even replace our reality — temporarily, anyway. From Google Glass to the Oculus Rift to the HTC Vive, this technology has transformed from a futuristic novelty to a set of sophisticated systems that can be purchased for a (relatively) modest price at your average electronics retailer.
Although people have long dreamed of machines that could alter our perceptions, virtual reality had its true genesis in the mid-20th century. There was the Sensorama, an arcade-style booth that encircled the seated user’s head, pairing a 3-D film with additional sensory experiences such as smell and motion. (The Sensorama never took off.)
Then, in the late ’80s, video game juggernaut Nintendo tried out the Power Glove, which further pushed the boundaries of interactivity. But once again developers found themselves stymied by unrealistic graphics and a technology that wasn’t quite ready for prime time.
Fast forward to today, when lightning-fast internet and near-photorealistic graphic capabilities have combined to make virtual and augmented reality a major topic of conversation once again. New VR devices —which sit atop the user’s head, blocking out all visual input from the real world and replacing it with either 360-degree video or a computer-simulated world — arrive seasonally.
A complementary technology called “augmented reality,” or AR, has been gaining steam, too. With AR devices such as Google Glass and Microsoft HoloLens, a user’s real surroundings are visible, but the devices map walls and flat surfaces, placing dynamic items within the viewer’s frame of reference. Interest in VR, AR, and related technology has spread to companies like Facebook and the New York Times, which are both experimenting with how to integrate interactive 360-degree videos into their services.
But now that the technology is more widely available, questions loom. Can VR and AR help make us happier, better people? Can they teach us something about ourselves, about the world? Can they engage us in more deeply intimate ways? And would that be a good thing? And who decides?
Welcome to the reality revolution.