HTC Vive says we’re heading towards a VR First utopia in which virtual reality will take center stage and solve society’s problems. They forgot one thing: human nature.
Last week’s EmTech Hong Kong 2017 conference was a fascinating glimpse into the future, which is a lot closer than you may think. And like any conference that looks towards the future, not everyone imagines the exact same future – partly for practical reasons, and partly because sometimes people get a little carried away by their own marketing hype.
Which brings us to virtual reality.
One section of the conference – organized by MIT Technology Review and Koelnmesse – focused on some of the things we can expect with virtual and augmented reality (which technically are two separate technologies offering two separate experiences, but there is sufficient overlap that people tend to lump them together).
Jason Chiu, CEO of Hong Kong-based Cherrypicks – a mobile marketing startup that got into VR/AR about ten years ago – talked about how VR/AR, powered with AI, will become an everyday tool for real life, and gave a demo of apps like AR maps to help you navigate your way around an airport and a translation app for reading signs. Kevin Geiger, executive director of the Beijing Film Academy’s International Animation & Virtual Reality Research Centre, talked about the impact that VR will have not only on entertainment, but on how content is created. Put simply, directing a 360º movie that enables the audience to pick which character they want to experience the movie through requires a different storytelling approach from your standard film.
Then there was HTC.
Alvin Wang Graylin, HTC’s China President of Vive, offered his thoughts on where we’ll be with VR/AR ten to 15 years from now – and essentially predicted a VR First utopia in which virtual reality will combine with AI, 5G connectivity and brain-computer interfaces to become the last and only screen. Here’s what Graylin predicts this will enable:
- VR will enable you to travel to any place or any time you want – if you want to visit Hong Kong in 1839, for example, you could do that
- VR will make us more productive and efficient
- VR will enable you to turn your 100 sq ft flat into a virtual penthouse
- Resources will be unlimited, distance irrelevant, and time more abundant
- VR will bring about the end of conflicts, because why would there be conflict if everyone has what they need?
- By the same token, money will be less valuable – intellect will be the new currency in the VR First world
- Kids will be more educated, and will be educated earlier
- Workers can virtually live and work where they want
- Humans will use less space and resources, so we can reduce our carbon footprints
- We’ll be happier and healthier and have more free time to do what we want.
Well. Where to begin?
I’ll start by assuming that Grayson is sincere in his enthusiasm for the potential for VR/AR, and recognizing that his stated goal was to counter the traditional narrative of VR dystopias we commonly see in cyberpunk novels, films and videogames with a more positive vision of virtual reality. And I agree that the blend of VR, AI, BCI and 5G (to say nothing of the cloud) is likely going to result in stunningly useful apps, some of which we probably haven’t even thought of yet.
But a VR First world of unlimited resources, dream jobs, unlimited travel, intellect as currency and the end of conflict? Maybe in some VR social media app like Second Life. Otherwise, no.
The critical element missing from this VR Utopia formula is human nature, which is notoriously multifaceted, complex and just plain messy. Virtual reality is no cure for greed, anger, hate, and fear. And humans will bring all their negative qualities with them into these virtual worlds – not everyone, perhaps, but by enough people to make the rest of us miserable.
The VR Utopia also assumes that by 2030 or so, everyone on the planet will have equal and affordable access to VR, 5G, etc, which in turn presumes that all of the factors holding back socioeconomic development in many countries will be solved in the next decade – either within the existing socioeconomic and political frameworks in the world (free market capitalism, planned economies, democracy, etc) or with entirely new disruptive models. While there’s little doubt that we’re already seeing major shifts in those old models, the results of those shifts are likely to be messy. They certainly won’t result in the kind of political stability and socioeconomic equality required for any utopia, virtual or otherwise. (At the very least, I don’t see the guys in Islamic State settling for strapping on VR goggles and living in CaliphateWorld 2.0.)
There’s also the problem of addiction. Take the example of using virtual reality to improve your cramped living conditions by transforming your subdivided flat into the Taj Mahal or whatever where you can have dinner with your dream date. Imagine the feeling you’ll get every time you have to take off the goggles and be reminded of what your real life is like. A lot of people will use VR not merely as an augmentation of reality but as an escape from it in the same way that many use MMORPGs today. You can bet that sites like PornHub are positively banking on it.
I could go on.
To be fair, Grayson did acknowledge that not everyone will opt in to the VR First world, and that some people would misuse or abuse VR, but insisted that the benefits will outweigh any negatives. Perhaps, but that’s not the same thing as eliminating the negatives. You don’t get utopia by overstating the benefits and pretending the downsides either don’t exist or don’t matter. VR will enable a lot of cool and useful things – but it won’t fix the problem of human nature.