Today’s VR technology is ever more successful at getting the user to forget for a time that what they see is not real. Thomas Metzinger, a philosopher, calls this phenomenon the “embodiment illusion” or “localization illusion”. It touches upon a philosophical discourse that goes back to Plato but extends up through the ever-new findings from brain research about the construction of reality by our minds.
“Our perception is a fantasy that is in harmony with reality”, according to Philipp Sterzer, perception psychologist at the Charité Hospital of Berlin. The fascination for VR stems from this – on its face – supposed contradiction: Virtual reality is not just a dream.
For a long time, the gaming industry was the key driver in the development of virtual worlds. And indeed there are now a variety of sophisticated and affordable headsets and goggles, videos, games and apps that allow for immersion into computer-simulated worlds. Despite all the hype, still no massive breakthrough has been achieved, even with all these solutions.
VR experts often compare the situation with the development of computer games in the 1970s. It was only with the video game “Pong” that the “Golden Age of Arcade Games” was ushered in. So, in the case of VR, we are waiting for the big success to come on the heals of baby steps.
The computer game industry isn’t the only place that could benefit from the possibilities opened up by VR technology. Museums allow visitors to take walking tours of ancient sites, for example, and gain architectural insights that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. Physicians learn surgical techniques in simulated environments. Medicine students at the University of Maryland use this technique to learn how to insert a catheter.
In the UK, students at the Paramedic Clinical Simulation Centre use their VR suite to simulate emergencies. This way they can experience the complications and the uncertainties that come along with extreme situations, like a simulated fire in a nightclub. Among other things, self-confidence and communication skills for such scenarios are built up in the immersive VR suite for later use in real emergencies.
One prerequisite for VR training is that the students don’t get ill. Motion sickness is an important topic right now in the context of VR, especially with VR computer games. It occurs because the brain is perceiving motion visually, but the inner ear, which is responsible for registering bodily movement, tells the body it’s standing still. Some effects of these contradictory signals can be vomiting, dizziness or difficulties orienting oneself in real space once the VR goggles come off.
This is certainly one reason to wonder how many people will actually want to soar above the Eiffel Tower, or whether students will actually discover human anatomy better through VR simulation. One thing is for sure: VR already is opening up many new perspectives on the world today.