Part I: Virtual Reality

A vision for the virtual reality from yesterday to today via tomorrow.

Firstly, we need to establish common ground for what we term as 'Virtual Reality': its properties and what we expect from it. There are various perspectives and definitions, and for the purpose of this document, we must settle on one.

We begin, therefore, with a touch of philosophy.

What is Virtual Reality?

The word 'virtual' derives from the Greeks, where it meant 'real' or 'actual'. In common, non-technical language, 'virtual' refers to something almost or nearly as described, but not entirely or according to strict definition. For example, 'the virtual absence of border controls'.

Centuries later, tech enthusiasts introduced an almost opposite definition: β€˜not real, but appearing to be real’. This is the definition of β€˜virtual’ we use most frequently today.

Thus, virtual reality signifies β€˜a reality that is not real, but appears to be real’. The term seems overloaded with the notion of 'real'. Here's how we simplify it:

Virtual Reality is an immersive environment that people perceive as authentically real.

In this context, we label 'virtual reality' as the ultimate β€˜true reality’. Why, isn't our β€˜real reality’ not β€˜true’ enough?

Sometimes it isn't. Occasionally, we walk down the street feeling disconnected, as though observing ourselves from afar, or perhaps we are daydreaming. Sometimes we sit through a lecture or business meeting, wishing it would end and thus mentally removing ourselves from experiencing the tedium. There are times we are tortured, unable to evade the pain that confronts us.

In this regard, virtual reality should represent the space where you truly are.

Buddhists often guide us towards being in the moment, in the physical place we inhabit. At times, the very same Buddhists guide us away from the suffering and torment that this place may impose on us. The crucial point is that no one but you holds the reins of your true reality. You are not a captive of the so-called β€˜real world’, whose existence is often doubted by Buddhists.

People have been creating their own virtual realities for centuries. Painted cave walls, coloured cathedral windows, layered sand of Buddhist mandalas, voluminous books of fiction, and cinema screens β€” these have all been mediums through which virtual reality has offered a helping hand to humanity.

What was lacking was interactivity. People immersed themselves in these realities, but the realities of paintings, books, and movies never responded.

Once computers became popular, video games prospered. They provided various solutions to the problem of interactivity.

Games offered scripted quest lines and puzzles for players to discover and solve, allowing them to enjoy the satisfaction of piecing together the puzzle and being rewarded with victory animations.

They offered sandboxes with a set of rules that enabled players to interact with the game's world in many ways: mining minerals, building houses, planting crops, taming animals, protecting fellow villagers from bandits, hunting and killing monsters, and traversing ethereal spaces, all within a single game!

Yesterday: Virtual Reality is Behind the Screens

At some point, someone unknown to us pondered: if we extract the essence of the 'game' from a video game, what remains? It must be the purest form of virtual reality! Let's remove that and declare that we finally have it.

That's how we arrived at Second Life and other 'virtual reality' apps. Today we use the term β€˜Metaverse’ to describe the elements that make virtual reality possible:

  • It is a three-dimensional space;

  • There are other people in that space;

    • Those people are represented by human-like (or humanoid-like) avatars;

    • People can interact with each other and with some of the world's objects.

  • The environment attempts to mimic 'real reality' by incorporating some of its features, such as:

    • physicality: gravity, lighting, spatial audio, impassable obstacles;

    • vitals: health, hunger, debilitation;

    • economics: virtual currency, property, marketplaces;

    • politics: governing institutions, enforced social restrictions.

The goal of this imitation is to make the 'virtual reality' believable. Surprisingly for many, it has worked quite well. Research shows that when a player's character runs in a game, the same neurons activate in the player's brain as if they were running themselves. It also affects heartbeat and other vital signs.

Still, viewing that already convincing reality through the keyhole of a computer screen is somewhat limiting. We should leap into that digital mirror as Alice in Carroll's tale did, immersing ourselves fully in the virtual β€” true β€” reality.

Science fiction writers were the first to envisage this vivid world of the future, and they fed it to us all.

Tomorrow: Virtual Reality is Augmented

In the world of tomorrow, as described by science fiction, virtual reality envelops us. We don't need computer screens to be there. Neither do we need these heavy VR headsets. Within a short time, the cumbersome and weighty VR headset will become lighter, then it will transform into VR glasses. Eventually, these VR glasses will follow the same path as regular ones, becoming VR contact lenses.

Perhaps at some point on this journey, we will conquer our fear of injections and allow technology to penetrate our brains, establishing a sort of neural link there. Maybe this neural link won't be invasive but merely electromagnetic. These are details with which science fiction need not concern itself. Neither should we.

Instead, we need to consider how we would interact with this 'true virtual reality' in the future. When would we continue to use the same 2D rectangles with buttons β€” as we still use paper menus in restaurants? When would we create something different?

Which 'features' of virtual reality would be personalised (and only visible to one person, like today's text messages), and which would be shared (so everyone could see them, like websites and your Instagram profile photo)?

Faced with this design challenge, the most formidable obstacle is the absence of the 'screen' β€” the surface on which all 'virtual reality' interfaces now exist. Our instinct might be to recreate such screens, as we are accustomed to designing interfaces for 2D rectangles. Recognising this, deconstructing it, and finding the right way forward represents the main design challenge for tomorrow's virtual reality.

We will discuss this challenge, but first, let's talk about today.

Today: Virtual Reality by Proxy

Today we don't have neural links or VR contact lenses. We still have the rectangular screens of our computers and phones, and bulky and heavy headsets that can barely produce high-quality 3D.

Nevertheless, we possess the most powerful tool β€” our imagination. Imagine that the world of tomorrow is already here, but for some reason, you can't fully immerse yourself in it. Imagine you have a specific disability: for instance, you fear needles and thus will never install either a neural link or contact lenses. You would then have to wear some sort of headset.

Imagine further that you can't place screens so close to your eyes, and wearing even the lightest headset gives you both a headache and motion sickness (a gift some people regularly receive, so they likely know the feeling). You would probably resort to some sort of rectangular screen set at a comfortable distance.

Once you have completed this exercise, you are equipped to understand the 'virtual reality of today'.

It is a placeholder, a proxy for tomorrow's reality. It must be built on the same principles, with the same logic as if in the future, and then gracefully downgraded to accommodate today's devices.

In designing for today's VR, we shape the experiences of the future, and then modify them to cater to the technical realities of the present.

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