Getting back to reality

After one million hours of virtual reality, it’s time for a reality check

POPSCI: A scientific slant on what’s trending in popular culture

There’s a famous psychology experiment that asks participants to watch a video and count the number of times a basketball is thrown around. And while participants’ attention follows the basketball, a man dressed as a gorilla dances across the screen. Most people miss the gorilla because of a concept known as ‘selective attention’.

At this year’s Mobile World Congress, this is exactly the trick Mark Zuckerberg pulled. During a press conference for Samsung, attendees were asked to put on virtual reality headsets to experience the newly launched device. While this was happening, Zuckerberg walked through the room, unbeknown to the crowd of spectators.

Already, a million hours of virtual reality footage have been viewed. But what will the emergence of new realities do to actual reality? If selective attention means we miss what’s going on around us, and we’re largely unaware, what happens when people physically disengage from reality by putting on a headset?

In early research into immersion, Brown and Cairns described three progressive stages of immersion that climax in total immersion, where individuals are “cut off from reality to such an extent that the game was all that mattered.” The game becomes so engaging that players “lose themselves” and fail to notice simple things around them, such as a friend calling their name.

VR puts total immersion within arm’s reach, but because it requires total attention, it comes at the cost of regular reality. It’s total immersion on steroids. ”When an outside experience occurs, you usually ignore it,” explains one user during a five-hour VR session. What if there’s a fire? What if there’s a break-in? What if someone’s at the door?

Samsung is trying to design around this; its headsets have a ‘passthrough mode’, which allows the user to quickly check their immediate reality without taking the headset off. “The resulting experience is clearly lower fidelity than simply taking your headset off,” says journalist Kif Leswing. “But it’s oddly compelling.” And at least this way there’s a guarantee that you won’t be burnt alive or — god forbid — miss your pizza delivery.

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Written by Sam Shaw, head of insight at Canvas8