Virtual Reality And The (Dangerous?) Lucidity Of Dreams

The industry is absolutely obsessed with Virtual Reality, and with good reason. Which industry? Every one of them. You name it: entertainment in all its forms, advertising, education, health and so on. Let’s face it, every regular person would kill to get their hands on an Oculus Rift.

Looks like virtual reality technology is finally ripe enough to be enjoyed at home. A promise well over due by now, after all these years of awkward and uber expensive gadgets. However, there are many things that I still find intriguing about this VR fever. Every new invention (as we will later see), brings new benefits but also new questions and problems. I would like to talk about those last two. I would also like to raise the question as to what are the consequences of the use of VR in advertising.

It happens with every new piece of technology.

I would hate sounding like my grandmother. However, there quite a few things I would like to point out.

Back in the 1990s, every kid had to put up with a legion of doctors and scientists that would go on TV and explain why video games were absolutely harmful. ‘They damage your eyes’, ‘they make teenagers develop violent tendencies’, ‘they give you ceasures’, etcetera etcetera. Spoiler alert: after some good ten years of gaming, I am not a psychopath and my eyesight is…well, that is not the point. My point being, every invention gets bad publicity at first. “The Establishment fears the new”, my Sociology teacher would say.

There are some concerning issues about VR, though. Nausea, disorientation and dizziness are commonly reported by modern VR gadgets users. The very same developers confessed they are struggling with this issue. Motion sickness does not strike as a serious health hazard, but it can really spoil the experience.

There are not conclusive studies as to what the VR visor does to your eyes, so we cannot risk any early statement. Moreover, and since this technology is so new, there is no way of knowing the long term effects of its usage.

I have also noticed that all VR devices manufacturers set age limits: they warn that the product is not to be used by children under 12 or 13, depending on the brand. Why is that? Neither Samsung nor HTC nor Sony have provided an explanation. Even if this is a legal strategy, I would like to know what is it based in. Just for science.

Too much of a good thing.

How real is too real?
As a psychologist, what I find most fascinating about VR is…well, how to put it? The idea of an individual’s confrontation with reality, as vague as that might sound.

They say virtual reality is supposed to be exactly that: real. I also know that augmented reality is a completely different thing. But ask yourself this: what makes impacts the senses in a more powerful way? Staring at the sea, or having a lenses 5 inches from your eye showing you a strikingly real projection of the sea? Could it be that VR is, if not more real, at least more intense than your everyday reality?

Now let me tell you how psychoanalysis thinks dreams work. The body needs to rest, and when it does, all your repressed thoughts come out to play. They are repressed for a reason, which is: those thoughts are upsetting. So the psyche distorts that repressed content in a way that will not upset the dreamer. When that mechanism fails, the repressed content becomes conscious and you wake up screaming or drenched in sweat. You, my friend, just had a nightmare.

It is the biggest cliche ever to feel that the dream you just had felt more real that reality itself. In a way, our psyche is not prepared to manage that kind of intensity. Dreams are usually very moving, even if they are nice or not scary.

What I am trying to say here is that, IMO, virtual reality feels more intense than reality itself. To me, a virtual reality environment feels a lot more like dreaming than actually living. And that is why it is such a powerful experience.

Do not get me wrong, I am not saying that virtual reality is harmful technology or that it should be avoided by any person in any way. The questions I am asking myself have to do entirely with the effects VR has on the human psyche.

Simply terrific.

Another confession: I am a scaredy cat. The picture I will be using to illustrate this section scares the heck out of me, and it is way past midnight and I live alone. So here is what I am going to do: I am going to finish writing this article, and as soon as I finish, not a second sooner, I am going to upload the picture and publish the article without even looking at it. Everything will look better in the morning.

Seriously, all those vapor wave indie horror games that people are so into these days…I do not know how people handle that kind of stuff.

Without getting into metaphysical debates, let’s assume the most frequent horror topics belong to the fictional world. You know, the classics: vampires, zombies, poltergeists and all that jazz. If virtual reality is about experiencing an artificial environment in an extremely realistic fashion…imagine experiencing what does not exist in a realistic way. I just had a brainfart.

From the VR trailer of The Blair Witch Project Pt III.

As for advertising.

As a manufacturer, you can make all the warnings and disclaimers you want: in the end, people will do what they please. Movies, video games and TV shows are full of viewer discretion kind of warnings. And, for all the reasons we discussed above, this warnings are more in order than ever when it comes to VR.

I wonder what the protocol in VR advertising may be. I did some research, but unfortunately I could not find anything about the matter. Imagine this scenario: you are in a VR movie theater, and the Blair Witch Project III trailer comes up.

What kind of advice for viewers, if any, should be in order? Okay, an ad is a 30-second experience. But a virtual reality is an infinitely more powerful experience, which can make 30 seconds last shorter…or longer. In this case, I would say that intensity has nothing to do with briefness.

Since VR in advertising is something we are going to see a lot in the future, I belive this issue should be addressed. Due to the absence of proper research, it would be wise for the industry to consider different scenarios and demographic groups. Take into account that most of the time people do not choose to watch ads. Also, if people are going to be consistently exposed to VR advertising in the near future, the psychic consequences of this technology should be disclosed.

Vive la realité