If you could live forever in a moment in time, would you?
(This article was originally published in the Winter, 2017 issue of CC Magazine as “Virtual World”)
Escaping into a pleasant memory is a common experience, and thus unifying. We can all appreciate the enjoyment of being transported into a different time and place, and especially reliving an experience we consider unforgettable and joyful.
Many readers of this article would recall their time in college, for example, and many alumni would agree we are extremely fortunate to call Connecticut College our alma mater and the host of a singular, transformative experience for many of us, one in which we learned how to think and transitioned into adulthood.
While these alumni share the time and place of a common experience, the factors that made it so impactful are unique to each of us: sensory inputs like the smell of brunch on Sundays, the stillness of studying late at night in Shain, the haze of Senior Week. Each of us has our own algorithm of experiences within the larger context of “college” that made it what it was.
Personally, I’ll never forget Commencement: a hot day, with a breeze pushing thin clouds out over Long Island Sound. My close friend and I noted our exceptional fortune and marked the moment in our minds. We promised never to forget this time and place. Eight weeks later, we flew to Budapest, Hungary, for a summer of backpacking — the quintessential post-graduation summer adventure that, for me, turned into a stay of three and a half years.
I’ll never forget these memories. And chances are I’ll never remember them precisely as they happened. Such is the erosion of time and the limitations of memory. We do our best to rebuild experiences in our mind, yet can’t close the gaps as accurately as we’d like.
One day, we may be able to do exactly that. And that day is much, much closer than we realize.
VIRTUAL REALITY, or “VR” as it’s commonly known, is one of several emerging technologies that could figuratively and literally disrupt the world as we know it — not just education and travel, but perhaps even our entire concept of history itself.
For a quick primer, the concept of virtualized environments, into which users can immerse themselves, has existed for decades. Something resembling mainstream adoption was exponentially accelerated when Facebook purchased a prototype virtual reality headset, known as the Oculus Rift, for $2 billion in 2012. With this single acquisition, the largest social network on Earth took what had been a crowd-funded project that a 21-year-old built in his garage and proclaimed VR as the social and technological platform of the future.
As with any arms race, technological or otherwise, other major players quickly entered the fray in order to wrest their share of the market and thought leadership away from Facebook. While Facebook has the social network, the others, which now include such corporate colossi as Apple and Google, have since dedicated themselves to the production of tools and experiences to facilitate development of VR technology and their respective positions within the virtual realm. Google, for example, has set its sights on the classroom.
The story that compels many within the virtual industry is a recent work of fiction called Ready Player One — a story about the struggle to take control of OASIS, or the virtual world in which the future of humanity spends most of its time. The one factor that solidified OASIS as the preferable alternative to the physical world was when education as a social utility went entirely into the virtual realm.
This transformation eliminated many of the barriers to quality education most of the world’s classrooms face: overcrowded and decaying classrooms, overworked and under-resourced teachers, and disengaged students. A virtual “muting” option essentially eliminated bullying. The virtual classroom, therefore, becomes a cleaner, safer alternative that can be accessed anytime, anywhere, by any student equipped with a virtual reality headset.
THE TOOLS TO CREATE the virtual classroom are already under construction. Google has deployed their super-economical version of the Oculus Rift — the Cardboard headset — into elementary school classrooms. Now, instead of being lectured about Machu Picchu, students can don their headgear and virtually tour the Incan citadel set in the Andes Mountains.
Logically, there’s no reason any environment can’t be created via VR, real or fictional, past, present or future. It’s easy to imagine students of political science attending the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and debating the merits of a particular constitutional passage with Thomas Jefferson, or English literature students touring Mars as they discuss the Martian Chronicles with Ray Bradbury. Imagine strolling through the streets of Milan with your Italian 101 class, or taking the same class while seated in the Colosseum, circa 85 A.D., along with 50,000 other students, simultaneously. This scenario — one in which the user has supreme control over every aspect of the virtual experience — hints at the awesome potential for education that VR presents.
While these concepts remain in the realm of the fantastical, there are actual opportunities for virtual immersion in places one can’t safely travel, such as the VR tour of Syria created in the spring of 2016 by Amnesty International. To share the experience on a more personal level, VR enables users to view medical procedures from within an operating theater, and can serve as a therapeutic device for sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The ability to transport into another place or perspective offers unprecedented potential for a stimulation of human empathy.
And while there is considerable excitement about the VR’s potential for enhancing empathy, there is equal — if not greater — concern regarding the inherent threat of a technology that, by design, is potentially divisive, and surfaces two particularly ominous scenarios.
First, what happens when we are presented with an environment preferable to the one in which we’re living? One in which we can design every detail, unconstrained by the limitations of budget, or even physics, and are constrained solely by the limitations of our imaginations?
And second, while we sit on the precipice of this unprecedented leap forward in technology and its impact on human interaction, it’s interesting to note that ultimately, the primary concern will be one that is fundamentally human: As the virtual world is built, our primary concern will be ethical.
How powerful will the people and organizations in control of the virtual realm become, especially in a world where, according to Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, up to 80 percent of the students it surveyed already struggle to discern real news from fake? Who will create fact, and by whose agenda? What if the creator of the dominant U.S. history application in VR feels that Thomas Jefferson isn’t worth including?
What happens when we are presented with an environment preferable to the one in which we’re living?
THE ADVENT OF THE INTERNET changed how we interacted with computers. In the same way, the advent of mobile computing and powerful, portable smart devices has modified the way we interact with the Internet — and each other — into an algorithm of applications, or “apps,” with each user’s algorithm unique to a user’s wants and needs. Will this pattern of customizing one’s experience persist into the virtual realm? How effectively will we empathize with the needs of others if this happens, if our definition of a common reality changes?
The barriers to greater mainstream adoption of the technology — affordable access to a virtual environment, a lack of tools to facilitate the sensory components of the experience, an absence of social interactions and, most importantly, technology powerful enough to create and store the memory required to produce virtual experiences — are being mitigated as you read this.
A variety of headsets can be purchased online and at electronics stores, many for less than $100 (and as low as $25). Haptic devices, including gloves and stylus pens tethered to desktop computers, provide resistance when users interact with virtual objects. The NBA offers one game each week streamed real time in VR, and Super Bowl LI was the first NFL championship game available virtually. Desktop computers are now being equipped with memory and processing capabilities powerful enough to create VR applications.
The next generations of each component suggest a fully immersive environment in which users can interact with their peers and environment in real time. And while we’re clearly at the dawn of the VR Age, investment bank Citi projects the VR industry to be as large as a trillion dollars by 2035.
If the classes of 2035 are conducted virtually, perhaps reunions will be as well. And not just at Conn, but at the restaurants and clubs we used to frequent when my friend and I first arrived in Budapest. And when we return as our 20-something selves, if we feel like it, we might just stay.
As my friend and I took in the view of Long Island Sound that Senior Week, we joked about what we’d eventually give to return to this particular moment in time and inhabit our younger selves, if only for a moment. The day may soon come when we will be able to do exactly that.