Virtual Reality: What’s The Brain Got To Do With It?

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Yeki bood. Yeki nobood … [that’s] how all the best storytellers always start: It was so. And it was not so’

The other evening, I experienced virtual reality for the first time.

As firsts tend to go, there was some fumbling, some clumsy figuring out of what went where, how certain touches caused certain reactions. But it was eye-opening. Extraordinary. The kind of first that leaves you eager for more.

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My wannabe-Rainbow-Road made using Tilt Brush

Virtual reality has fascinated me for years – though perhaps not in the sense that it’s understood now.

My curiosity developed with platforms like Runescape and Second Life – online metaverses and/or massive multiplayer online role play games (MMORPGs), allowing members to create 3D avatars to explore online worlds, meet each other, chat and play games.

Ultra nerdy they may be, but these virtual worlds were spaces where you could be whoever you wanted to be. It was your imagination that gave you limits.

And as I found out a bit later during some “investigative” work whilst at university (ok I caved to curiosity and spent a couple weeks playing on free accounts) – the people who use these platforms also have intense, meaningful friendships and relationships through the platforms, despite being online-only. Time and again, users of metaverse platforms told me they could really feel the gestures their avatars made. *Hugs* left them warm. Digital kisses gave them real life shivers.

Our brains are such strange, plastic, wondrous things. And if we can have visceral connections to simple computer avatars, what kind of body-simulation relationship may develop when we deep-dive into virtual reality? What impact might we see when having an avatar is a fully immersive experience?

Now there’s a lot of chatter about the physical, philosophical and psychological implications of virtual reality already. Especially once you move beyond gaming.

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On the physical: as well as benefits that allow people to undertake physical training and research (including brain studies) within simulations, there are concerns about the long-term effects (like vergence-accomodation conflict) and discussions you can easily google on things like virtual reality sickness (which is similar to motion sickness).

On the psychological: a recent study shows that VR-based therapies can be used to help treat people with mental health issues, such as phobias, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or persecutory delusions. This is because of VR’s ability to “con” our brain. We know what we’re seeing isn’t real but our mind and body can’t help but react as if it is.

However, this leads to the more troubling susceptibility of the human mind to external cues. We can trick our minds into thinking a rubber glove is our hand, for example, using a mirror. Likewise, as demonstrated by the now-famous Stanford Prison Experiment and Milgram Experiments, when we’re given certain cues or degrees of power, our behaviour changes dramatically.

Because VR transforms our entire environment, it could make us particularly open to manipulation. And not just in the short-term. According to the German philosopher of mind and neuroscience, Thomas Metzinger:

“virtual environments can continue to influence you after you exit VR. In another study, people who embodied avatars that looked like older versions of themselves were more inclined to save for retirement after they returned to real life.”

Which leads us to the philosophical: in light of the physical and psychological influence, this is where VR becomes really complicated.

There are all sorts of theories related to the mind, cognition, metaphysics and epistemology.

After all, the fact that we’ve now built our own virtual reality devices taps into questions that have been around since Plato: how can we know what is real? How do we know that we’re not in a Cavern trying to make sense of shadows cast by flames on the wall? Or as Descartes asked: How do you know that you’re not being fooled by an evil genius or simply dreaming? What if we are hooked up to something like the Matrix and all this is just a simulated world?

Philosophers like David Chalmers and Nick Bostrom have suggested that it’s highly likely that we really do exist in a computer simulation (the latter is whose research Elon Musk referred to recently).

It may feel a little far-fetched given our technology is still so imperfect. But even so these are deeply problematic and fascinating subjects to research. I mean, there’s a reason why brains-in-vats are such compelling thought experiments. And this is so much bigger than that. As Black Mirror-ish as it seems, we could end up talking whole brain emulation or “mind uploading” if we push hard enough.

Black Mirror’s exploration of technology ethics is well worth visiting.

In Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker does much more than just tap into the agonising moral dilemmas of modern technology through the series. Anyone who watches is forced to confront the very real challenges inherent in our use and love for personal tech.

Specific episodes in series 3 also pick up on many of the ethical issues arising from potential future uses of VR – including military usage in Men Against Fire (ok may this is more AR), full game immersion in Playtest, and whole brain emulation in San Junipero.

Ranging from meditations on virtual consciousness and ‘the real’, to downright terrifying (and all-to-believable) predictions for future VR technologies – the key thing is how they deconstruct the pros and cons of VR on philosophical, psychological, and physical levels. They ask hard ethical questions. Questions a lot of us forget about when we’re swept up in the excitement of a new experience.

The importance of ethics when it comes to VR will clearly be central to how the technology progresses. Especially given its potential impact on the way we live.

Looking at MMORPGs and metaverses again makes the ethical complications come to life.

Studies have found that almost half of virtual world users (40% of men, 52% of women) feel more connected to online friends than people IRL. Likewise, reports of physiological reactions to virtual scenarios, where there’s no actual stimulus, are significant in terms of how we view societal standards in cyberspace. A 2007 ruling of a Dutch court throws some additional light. In this instance, two boys were trialled and found guilty of theft in the game Runescape. The court’s judgement emphasised the blurring line between virtual and real life ethics.

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Interestingly, the view of the Dutch court isn’t alone in thinking cybercrime should be treated the same as real world crime.

Something I’ve discussed a few times in this blog is Extended Mind Theory. In a nutshell it theorises that not all mental processes take place in the squishy grey matter of our brain. Sometimes they take place in the “external” world around us, beyond the boundaries of skin and skull.

As Chalmers said, “the technology we use becomes part of our mind, extending our minds, and indeed ourselves, into the world.”

The theory also suggests that interfering with other people’s environments could have the same moral implications as interfering with their actual person. ie. If I were to snatch your phone and smash it on the floor, this could equate to a form of GBH if the relationship between you and your phone was coupled strongly enough.

It’s murky territory but extending this out yet further to VR is pretty intriguing. Not least if we go down a route that allows full immersion with life-like simulations of every sensation. Concerns around the application of violent games or pornography are already frequent enough but such extreme examples beg the question: what about the everyday impact?

Do we need a Code of Conduct in this brave, new, virtual world?

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The Asimov-like example suggested Metzinger could at least be an initial step.

He argues:

  • much more research needs to be done on VR.
  • experimentation needs to be controlled and regulated (let’s hope Brooker’s Playtest isn’t prescient),
  • subjects in tests need to be fully informed of the potential impact VR use might have on them, their behaviours, and psyche.
  • over-hype needs to be managed (can VR really solve the loneliness epidemic or is it just pop theory?).
  • data privacy needs to be built into it – especially as commercial tech might track personal data such as heart rate to eye movements.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg though and as Motherboard pointed out, we’re already breaking a lot of these rules.

What it comes down to is whether we believe that VR will become a ubiquitous part of our lives and – if so – how we treat this relationship. Should actions in cyberspace be controlled and managed in the same vein as real world activities? Should virtual crimes come with real world consequences? Should we aspire to creating full immersive experiences or should a boundary exist so we never fully forget that we are in a simulation?

I expect it’ll probably come down to where we say the mind starts in virtual reality and where the rest of the world begins.

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There are huge benefits and almost infinite possibilities for the future of virtual reality. Soon its uses will inevitably be commonplace, a staple part of our lives, and – if Zuckerberg et al are to be believed – highly commercial.

Beyond gaming, people are already applying VR in education – imagine the VR version of the Magic School Bus or a history class where you actually visit the past – as well as immersive experiences such as Thorpe Park’s Derren Brown Haunted House or Deepak Chopra’s meditation simulations (which is just plain next level).

There have also been some amazing (albeit niche) applications of VR for storytelling – a French spin-off for television, for example. Also TOMS created a short film to illustrate their charitable impact to in-store customers – whilst it’s as much a piece of marketing as it is anything else, it’s an inspiring use of digital technology.

Anyway, I’m certainly not the first person to flirt with VR ethics (I’ve tagged at least a dozen articles in this blog) but you have to wonder… are we at all ready for a world where virtual reality offers another layer to our lives?

Even in the most mundane applications we’re seeing today there are moral quandaries to navigate. There is no application that does not sit upon a minefield of new dilemmas.

I’m sure philosophers like Chalmers and Bostrom will have a field day.

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Want to explore more virtual reality? Here are my top VR book recommendations.

Some of my favourite novels are futurist ones and a couple that I’d highly recommend when it comes to virtual reality are:

Richard Powers’s Plowing the Dark pits two ‘virtual’ experiences against each other: one, a young woman developing one of the first virtual reality “Caverns” in Seattle in the 1980s (a deliberately Platonic reference); the other, an Iranian-American captured by fundementalists and held captive in a white-washed cell for years and staying sane only by turning the four walls of his prison into his own VR chamber using his mind alone. It’s a challenging read but Powers has to be one of the best American writers of his generation – and like VR itself, you don’t come out of reading it the same way you went in.

Patrick Ness’ More Than This, on the other hand, is a much more approachable novel though no less wonderful. A tense, beautiful thriller it follows a teenage boy called Seth who, having drowned in the ocean, wakes up in a dystopian suburban landscape not very dissimilar to his own and which he assumes to be hell. Being on this list, it’s worth noting that Ness investigates an eerily similar idea to that of Bostrom and it makes for a read that is both action-packed and thought-provoking.

For the SciFi fan, some other great books are recommended on Quartz, VentureBeat and UploadVR.

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One thought on “Virtual Reality: What’s The Brain Got To Do With It?

  1. There is far too much in this blog for me, so I will limit my initial response to some cursory observations on reality. What might it be? How might we consider it as real?

    At its simplest, reality could be thought of as the situation we find ourselves in at any moment. Currently I am beginning my response in the local health centre waiting room awaiting my six monthly heart health check. How do I know this? All I have to go on are my senses. I accessed the family diary this morning to confirm the appointment details. I drove to the local village along roads that followed the same route as usual with all the familiar landmarks in their appropriate locations. When I checked in with the receptionist she confirmed that I was indeed booked in for the appointment. I suppose when my name is called by the nurse that will be further confirmation that the whole affair is real, and when the needle goes in to take a blood sample, any lingering doubt about the reality of the appointment will vanish.

    The above narrative is predicated on my brain processing the various sensory inputs to produce a reality, that happily corresponds to what I expect it to be from previous experience. The question is: Is it real? As an organism Homo Sapiens are the result of a process of evolution that has operated for approximately a billion years, and even longer if the processes of pre-organic chemistry are considered. Whatever the details of our evolutionary ancestry, it is reasonably certain that our predecessors were endowed with the sensory-neural apparatus that enabled them to find food and avoid predators, at least long enough to reproduce and pass on those traits. If the random evolutionary process threw up an organism that was deficient in either one of these traits, never mind both, then they would not survive to reproduce and so their lineage would end with them.

    However, human senses can be fooled, as in the Muller-Lyre line length test. There are psychologists who are prepared to assert that this apparent failure to recognise what is true, is itself evidence for how good human senses are, because it is the interpretation that is at fault and not the sensing. Once the truth of the Muller-Lyre test is known, people are no longer fooled by it. Experience of our reality is built up over many sensing and interpreting events, and in that experience, corrections are made to our understanding of the reality which we inhabit. However, it is cautionary to note that we do not learn from fatal experiences, though others might.

    If this evolutionary idea of sensory reality is feasible, then organisms that survive do so because they are suitably equipped to live and reproduce in the reality in which they exist. That might not get us any closer to a universal explanation of reality, but it does appear to indicate that in such an environment, the organism’s sensing of the reality in which it exists is a true measure of that reality. However, even if we are ready to accept this simple explanation, we have to recognise it goes nowhere in the consideration of that reality, being merely one of a number of possible realities. The brain in a vat thought experiment springs to mind.

    If the above narrative provides a rudimentary notion of reality: What about virtual reality? We use expressions such as, “off in their own world”, “living in a dream”, “lost in thought” and “miles away”. These expressions indicate that for at least some short present time those so engaged are not completely connected with what I might call everyday physical sensory reality. Books, TV, films and theatre have a similar affect on people enjoying them. Their disbelief of the unreality of such things is suspended allowing the audience to engage with the contrived alternative reality.

    However, could it be that virtual reality is in some way different to the above contrived alternative reality of fiction. Virtual is synonymous with ‘almost’, indicating that virtual reality is like everyday sensory reality, but not experienced in the everyday physical environment, but behind a headset. The human senses and mind experiencing the headset reality are the same as before, in what I have called everyday physical sensory reality. That is why the headset reality is registered and described as virtual, because it closely matches our everyday physical sensory reality.

    Horror films that over exaggerate the death and gore fail to scare because they are too far removed from what we recognise as scary. Horror, where less is more, enables our imagination to fill in the blanks, and it is far more effective in getting us to believe it and be frightened by it. Because virtual reality is sufficiently close to what we have come to recognise as reality, it causes us to take it seriously and therefore it can have a profound effect on us. Just as a near miss in a road traffic situation does, whereas vehicles passing in the expected way, even at high speed, causes us no concern.

    Are there issues for long term exposure to virtual reality? This is yet another question in the stable of questions that include exposure to computer games, violent films and pornography. Young children appear capable of differentiating cartoon violence to the Tom and Gerry variety from the real thing because, just like the over done horror films, it is so far removed from what they recognise as reality. Perhaps this ability, even in the young, gives us a clue about how to identify potential dangers of virtual reality.

    If virtual reality presents a credible reality that is not so far removed from what we normally experience.
    If very regular exposure to virtual reality causes an adjustment of what we recognise as everyday reality.
    If small almost imperceptible changes are made to the virtual reality in 2.

    The first item introduces the viewer to a world that so closely mirrors what they recognise as real, that they are unlikely to question it. The second through regular exposure could cause an adjustment in the viewer’s idea of reality. These three in combination might have the effect of altering a viewer’s idea of reality over time.

    I contend that this transformative process is nothing new. There has long been a debate about the effects of various forms of media on the morals, behaviour and beliefs of people exposed to it. I am old enough to remember the ‘Lady Chatterly’s Lover’ trial, though too young to acquire a copy. Some books are advertised on the basis that reading them will alter your life. Many claim that poetry provides them with mind altering experiences from solace to stimulation. Such experiences could be seen as altering the reader’s view of reality, or at least providing them with a different perspective on the reality they already perceive. Perhaps virtual reality is just another way in which we can experience different realities, or perhaps, in virtue of its immediate and personal connection with our senses and mind, it is a very different kind of thing that will require deeper consideration.

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