Virtual Reality Creep: You'll Be in 'The Matrix' Sooner Than You Think

How virtual reality is on the cusp of taking over your real reality.

At the VRLA Summer Expo held Friday and Saturday in downtown L.A., debate wasn’t centered on whether or not virtual reality is bound for maturity and mainstreamification (it is), but what kind of “topia” (“u-“ or “dys-“) our world will resemble once we can abandon physical reality for an immersive virtual alternative.

In lectures and panel discussions, several VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality) pioneers stressed the moral responsibility intrinsic to their work. The considerations—technical, philosophical, artistic, even neuronal—on how to ethically shape humanity and its relationship with technology were both inspiring and quease-inducing: It was like getting caught in a transhumanist pep rally.

“We get to be the ones who define the grammar and language of a whole new medium,” said Caitlyn Meeks, director of content at High Fidelity. “We have the chance to see what the future’s going to look like. What we’re going to make it.”

High Fidelity, currently in beta, was dreamt up by Second Life creator Philip Rosedale, and the concept is similar. It’s not a game per se; it’s a space that allows users to develop an avatar and live a virtual, well, second life. Meeks explained that a parallel world has the potential to eliminate the negative constraints of reality, like economic disparities, distance, and physical handicaps. In the VR iteration, you can “touch” other users and convey subtleties of voice and movement.

“We certainly enjoy games, but really we dwell in something far deeper. If we want to be human in virtual reality, we need virtual to have the space and scope to allow us to unfold and be ourselves,” Meeks said, echoing many other speakers at the Expo who suggested that games will not be the ultimate expressions of VR.

Meta Vice President Ryan Pamplin called entertainment and gaming “just the tip of the iceberg” in his session detailing the numerous applications for augmented reality, which included, possibly, in the distant future, computer-aided ESP.

“We can profoundly change the way that people learn,” Pamplin said. “I think people can…become smarter in ways that we’ve never been able to do with a textbook.”

UCLA professor and researcher Mayank R. Mehta presented a study illustrating how VR disrupts neuronal function in rats, significantly. It caused 60 percent of their space-mapping neurons to shut down. But Mehta too expressed enthusiasm that VR could eventually improve education and revolutionize clinical therapy.

For instance, with the Meta 2 AR head-mounted display (HMD), you can see 3D representations of molecules, blueprints, the human body, a space station, all floating in mid-air or on multiple virtual screens. You can move them and touch them.

“You can’t have a physical model of all of these things,” Pamplin said, explaining how the device might impact chemistry, architecture, surgery, and space training, as well more quotidian areas such as online shopping and guided assembly. 

Pamplin’s talk was the first-ever holographic slide presentation. The audience could see the 3D visuals he was manipulating via a video camera placed in his HMD.

The Matrix-like existence might not be too far off: Pamplin believes complex AR experiences are “not a possibility in [far off] 2020,” but “a possibility we are very close to today.”

Angela Haddad, VR artist and producer at SilVR Thread, believes the new wave of VR has clicked because we’re “finally ready as a society” to embrace it, partially because of how connected we feel to our smartphones. “Soon enough, it will feel more natural and normal to be in virtual reality for a really long time,” she said. (It’s believed that VR and AR will be an $120 billion industry by 2020.) 

But as Visionary VR CEO and co-Founder Gil Baron mentioned, “to talk about VR is so fundamentally different than experiencing VR.” Despite the lofty technological aspirations voiced in the lectures, the expo hall where attendees could try out some cutting-edge VR and AR experiences was dominated by games and entertainment. 

Buzz hovered around a flight simulator from Mindride and a “silent rave” made possible by donning an HTC Vive HMD, SkullCandy Crusher headphones, and a SubPac wearable bass backpack, which delivers feedback in sync with the music and sounds reaching the user. Everywhere people wearing chunky HMDs were looking at nothing in particular in the real world but something spectacular in the virtual world, shooting imaginary foes or using virtual hands to press virtual buttons to control virtual spaceships.

(To address the elephant in the post: VR porn was absent from the expo.) 

I “road tripped” in Pearl, an adorable animated short VR film from Google Spotlight Stories. A few booths down, I jumped out of a plane and “flew” over San Francisco and Brazil on something called an Extreme Machine. 

These aren’t seamless virtual experiences—games still appear pixelated, you’re still bound by cords and bulky machinery, and it’s not uncommon to feel nauseated with prolonged immersion. The VR experience won't make you feel like you've stepped into Vanilla Sky or Strange Days —yet. But the headsets are a plausible intermediary, and there’s no telling when the technology will catch up with the creators’ spirited transhumanist rhetoric.

All photos courtesy of VRLA.