VR is Making the World Smaller and Bigger all at the Same Time

Google’s detailed 3D flyover of Hong Kong in Google Earth highlights a developing trend that will accelerate as more and more reality capture takes place and we start to fill up a digital world that mirrors the real world. See Google’s A bird’s eye view of Hong Kong. The 3D virtualization of the real world is going to simultaneously make our collective understanding of the world both smaller and larger. That comes with some really cool upsides and a reason to reflect on one extraordinary cause for consideration.

This 3D virtualization of the real world is a trend that is going to open up tremendous new capabilities for the VR community. Google and others are starting to create the kind of 3D content that can provide VR with a backdrop for a number of types of engaging immersive experiences. As Google and others load vast amounts of 3D content into a real world-based virtual reality dataverse (i.e., a comprehensive digital representation of the real world), we will witness the interesting confluence of two trends.

Trend 1 — World getting smaller

The world is getting smaller due to our ability to understand it visually in a much clearer way than the way we did in the past via books, personal travel and newspapers. Making the world smaller is often discussed as an educational and/or political phenomenon. The sense of understanding that comes from knowing more about our neighbors both living near us and halfway around the globe is part of the human experience and many think that better understanding is good for society as a whole. I generally come to this discussion thinking that it’s good for society when people have more information and are able to understand more about others in the world, but the realist in me also recognizes that not everyone sees it that way.

Trend 2 — World getting bigger

Virtual reality is also enlarging the world by allowing us to experience digital representations of our world which can be at times real or created or even both. Perhaps most interesting is that as we create a 3D virtual representation of our world, we can append anything our imaginations can conceive to this realistic digital world. This creates the complication that unless we have some kind of visual or other cue differentiating the reality-based from the imagined parts of the dataverse, peoples’ experience and memory of what is real may well become confused.

Take the example of Google’s fly around capability. When the photo realistic environments of say, Damascus, Syria or Los Angeles are used as a backdrop and combined with some realistic looking open world video game, the casual observer could be confused as to which parts of the immersive experience are real and which parts are imagined. Objects and people can easily be added to a photo realistic environment and the effect is getting better and more seamless with each generation of GPU. When users experience VR with imagined/created interactions overlaid onto photo realistic backgrounds, it wouldn’t be that hard to shade the experience toward a misrepresented historical or geopolitical account, perhaps even with a particular agenda. Without a “STOP, PLEASE BE ADVISED THAT YOU ARE LEAVING THE “REAL” DIGITAL WORLD AND ENTERING INTO AN IMAGINED ONE” sign (kind of wordy), those unfamiliar with that part of the actual world may conflate the two.

I think that we are going to start wanting many of our daily activities, like news gathering, game playing and communicating with our friends to take place in this exciting immersive world. While we are stuck in 2D, there is some but probably less concern about conflating imagination with reality. Maybe it’s just me, but I know I’ve done that with movies and historical fiction books that offer up a fictionalized account of real world historical events. Of course, while I know that Hogan’s Heroes did not actually play any part in WWII or blow up any real bridges, how much easier would it be to conflate reality with imagination when the story takes place in a seamless, photo realistic and immersive environment? After two years pass, all you’ll remember are some images that you saw in what probably seemed like a pretty real environment. Memory and discernment are in for a test.

Until the VR tech and reality capture techniques provide substantially more realism, this issue is more a future concern than a current pressing issue. Moreover, I don’t see this so much as a cause for sounding some alarm, but rather something that we need to consider as we go into this new world of 3D storytelling in virtual reality. Wherever you are on the “Do games make us more violent, insensitive, empathetic, etc.” arguments, I do think that immersive VR could raise the stakes.

As the dataverse gets more photo realistic and immersive, we are going to want to figure out cues that will help us to be able to navigate these two worlds, the real and the imagined. My hope is that the way we create virtual reality will enable us to keep our feet planted on the ground even as we soar through glorious new worlds.

Originally published at www.hightechtomorrow.com.