An expert on the subject explores virtual reality “as the potent and relatively young technology…migrates from industrial and research laboratories to living rooms across the world.”
Clunky but still spectacular today, virtual reality is unquestionably the Next Big Thing. Bailenson (Communication/Stanford Univ.; co-author: Infinite Reality: Avatars, Eternal Life, New Worlds, and the Dawn of the Virtual Revolution, 2011, etc.), the founding director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab, delivers a lucid account of how VR works, today’s applications (mostly games and education), ongoing research, and its dazzling future. “VR is not some augmentation of a previously existing medium,” writes the author, “like adding 3D to movies, or color to television. It’s an entirely new medium, with its own unique characteristics and psychological effects, and it will utterly change how we interact with the (real) world around us, and with other people.” Wearing a helmet with a screen inside and perhaps other devices such as sensor-equipped gloves, a user enters a seemingly real environment and can interact with it. Since people learn better doing than by watching, VR is already teaching by allowing subjects to walk under oceans and through forests, treating PTSD by re-creating the traumatic event (simply imagining it doesn’t work as well), and relieving pain by intense, immersive distraction. Hollywood has taken notice. A working scientist, Bailenson resists the temptation to convert tantalizing laboratory results into revolutionary breakthroughs, and he does not ignore VR’s downsides, from simple eyestrain to “simulator sickness” to an ominous blurring between the real and virtual worlds. Producing fake news becomes a snap, and it can teach nasty as well as valuable skills. At least one mass murderer used VR to practice. The “killer app” for VR will be the ability to deal with other people in virtual space. Like miracle cures and a perfect alternate world, it’s inevitable—but not yet.
A sensible, thoroughly satisfying overview of the next quantum leap in digital technology.