The Oculus Rift and the Human Psyche: The Societal Effects of Virtual Reality and Its Accompanying Immediacy
by Cariann Saunders
Virtual reality (VR) is a concept that aims to incorporate an intimate sense of immediacy, or complete absorption into an alternate environment. The more acutely a VR user is able to forget his actual surroundings and become engrossed by a virtual setting, the better VR achieves its purpose. From VR’s early days of science-fiction novels and visual flight simulators, to enhancing today’s video games and medical treatments, the underlying motive of virtual reality remains the same: to wholly dismantle one’s tangible reality and replace it with a simulated one. VR can be assumed to follow trends of similar groundbreaking technologies as its devices continue to advance and become more affordable for the general consumer, which leads to an anticipated growth of more thorough immediacy. Thus, this piece explores what factors will contribute to VR becoming more immersive in the future, and then analyzes how the technology’s growing popularity and effectiveness will impact the human psyche. As society becomes increasingly more fascinated by escapist entertainment, the need for social interaction may be substituted for the isolation and extreme immediacy that accompanies the steadily advancing technology of VR. While VR is perhaps the most immersive form of technological entertainment to date, it is crucial to carefully consider the potential effects such revolutionary technology will eventually have on human behaviors and interactions.
An Introduction to Virtual Reality
VR tech emerges to introduce an intimate form of immediacy
The concept of virtual reality (VR) has existed throughout the ages in various forms; from its portrayal in science-fiction novels and theatre performances, to early attempts at physical invention with mechanical devices such as “visual flight simulators” for the U.S. Air Force, VR has undergone notable alterations and societal considerations as it progressed to its modern-day, technologically-advanced state (“History of Virtual Reality”). Despite its many transformations, VR has always remained, at its core, a technology that exhibits the concept of immediacy, in which “its purpose is to disappear” (Bolter and Grusin 21). It strives to create a virtual environment that is stimulating yet transparent, so that the user can effortlessly disregard his physical reality and focus solely on the virtual experience.
This notion was first most acutely implemented with Ivan Sutherland and Bob Sproull’s 1968 creation of a head-mounted display system that incorporated both virtual and augmented reality. This VR/AR invention was dubbed the “Sword of Damocles,” as it was extraordinarily heavy and required being hung from the ceiling in order to operate correctly (“History of Virtual Reality”).
While this “Sword of Damocles” was a major invention of its era, its primitive and sizable mechanics interfered with it conveying total immediacy to the user. It was an entire forty-two years later (2010) when the self-taught engineer Palmer Luckey created the Oculus Rift prototype known as CR1, which served as the foundation for the eventual creation of the Rift that exists today (Purchese [see fig. 1]).
Fig. 1. Orlovsky and Oculus Rift. Galyonkin, Sergey. 8 June 2013. Flickr. Web. 14 Sept. 2016.
Rift, a virtual reality headset, is owned by the company Oculus VR, which has attracted a large amount of attention since its acquisition by Facebook for 2.3 billion dollars in 2014 (Angulo). This funding, along with momentous technological improvement throughout the years, allowed virtual reality to take humankind’s yearning for absorptive entertainment to a new, shockingly intimate level of immediacy that had not been possible in the past. Thus, when considering society’s natural affinity for escapism in entertainment pieces such as films, video games, and now virtual reality, as well as how the Rift will undoubtedly experience further technological advancement and consumer reach as it improves within the next few years, a high level of immediacy has the potential to become the norm in our continually technologically-advancing world. Although this poses a number of positive effects such as virtual reality program training, education, and health programs like fitness and meditation, there is also a conceivable amount of danger in terms of the human psyche’s emerging reliance on immediacy and society’s cultivating desire for immersive entertainment.
Immediacy and Our Society
The psychology and social implications of virtual reality
Dr. Albert Rizzo, a researcher at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies, has studied potential uses of virtual reality such as treating strokes, post-traumatic stress disorder, and autism. In an interview with the American Psychological Association, he discusses how “exposure therapy” through VR can help patients “to engage, to confront and to process difficult, traumatic memories” (Hamilton). This is because virtual reality possesses the immense power of immediacy, which Bolter and Grusin explain to accentuate “the transparent presentation of the real and the enjoyment of the opacity of media themselves” (21). Thus, rather than just experiencing media (or merely exposing patients to sounds, images, and video), VR allows users to immerse themselves into virtual worlds without the interruption of acknowledging the medium or technology that is operating to make the experience possible. It can deposit users into entirely foreign environments that are so intimate that it is, to date, the most precise simulation of a reality that technology has been able to create.
Note that Dr. Rizzo’s observations of the potentials surrounding virtual reality are focused solely on mental rehabilitation, thus reiterating VR’s extreme effect on the human psyche. Although VR carries heavy potential in progressing the medical world, does this positivity transfer to societal interaction as well? Stanford psychiatrist Dr. Elias Aboujaoude would respond negatively to this inquiry, as he states that once VR becomes affordable to the general public, it is possible that it may “drastically change a person’s social and emotional needs over time…We may stop ‘needing’ or craving real social interactions because they may become foreign to us” (Kim).
This claim is supported in society’s current interaction with social media: consumers are so immersed in the technological versions of their social lives, the “Internet realities” they create within online spaces, that the fulfillments of such online tools are completely separate from their everyday realities and real-world experiences. The Internet, however, contains barriers that VR has largely deconstructed. When a user observes an online landscape, for instance, there are layers of distractions that bring attention to the media and technology that are required to construct the on-screen content, such as windows, scrollbars, icons, etc. (Bolter and Grusin 23). Conversely, when this same user utilizes a VR product such as the Rift, there is not much to remind him of his space in the actual world, assuming he is able to mentally remove himself from the presence of the tangible headset/equipment. Hence, VR is the future of complete immediacy, and, most crucially, the future of our human psychologies and how we consider social interaction and common satisfaction.
The Plausibility of Virtual Reality Becoming All-Consuming
Hypermediacy as immediacy’s greatest barrier
Bolter and Grusin state that though virtual reality aims for transparent immediacy, as this would provide the most pleasing and intimate experience for the user, a VR viewer of today’s world “must wear a bulky head-mounted display, a helmet with eyepieces for each eye…virtual reality is literally ‘in the viewer’s face’” (22 [see fig. 2]). This hinders the sensation of complete immediacy, as the user is no longer able to forget the medium; conversely, he is physically reminded of the VR headset, which in turn interrupts the simulated experience. The persistence of the medium’s existence forms a sense of hypermediacy, or a focus on the multiple layers that create the media/VR environment, rather than ignoring these to embrace solely the media itself. William J. Mitchell explains that hypermediacy exists as a clear visual style that “emphasizes process or performance rather than the finished art object” (Bolter and Grusin 8). VR, however, does not intend to exhibit this particular style; the process that brings such technology to life is intended to be disregarded, while the media it creates (virtual environments) are meant to be fully recognized and experienced. In order for VR to succeed, hypermediacy must be completely deconstructed, as “transparency…remains the goal” of immediacy content (Bolter and Grusin 46).
Fig. 2. Woman Using a Samsung VR Headset at SXSW. Palmero, Nan. 15 Mar. 2015. Flickr. Web. 14 Sept. 2016.
Furthermore, while Bolter and Grusin seem to imply that this exists as an inevitable barrier for the desired immediacy of VR, with its “bulky head-mounted display” (22), the technology is highly likely to improve within time, especially if current technology development trends continue. The Oculus Rift’s March 2016 release date, for instance, was the first time a virtual reality headset was aimed specifically at the consumer market.
Though there are still a few barriers that prevent the Rift from getting into the average consumer’s hands, most notably the $599 price tag (Sydell), this has great potential to change. With limited VR content currently available, consumers could be “choosing to wait before diving in” (Lee). Rift founder Palmer Luckey even admitted that he wanted to first make the VR headset “something that everybody would want” before making it “something that everyone can afford” (Sydell), and it is evident that the Rift is still currently hovering in the desirable, but not affordable, phase. Additionally, VR has already undergone a noticeable amount of technological advancement, with today’s Rift model extraordinarily distinctive from the 1968 “Sword of Damocles.” With a growing audience forming in interest of the product, this trend of enhancement can be predicted to continue in terms of pricing adjustments for the average consumer, hardware improvements, and technological advancement. Similar technologies have undergone identical trends of marketing and innovation, which is what ultimately decides whether an invention will transition from an expensive, limited-audience device to a popular, affordable one that appeals to the masses.
Three dimensional (3D) printers, for example, were once considered to be new, innovative technology, similar to the abrupt exposure yet hesitant consideration the Rift initially received. Comparable to how VR presents the world with exhilarating experiences that extend far beyond a mere digital display, 3D printing introduces a fresh method of transforming the ordinary content of virtual images into immersive technology, or tangible objects that can be experienced firsthand rather than solely on-screen. Both technologies, however, faced intimidating futures in their early stages. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg even stated after his company’s 2014 Rift purchase that the “acquisition is a long-term bet on the future of computing” (Kovach), signifying that Facebook trusted advances in computing to allow VR to transform past its initial technology and potential. Similarly, 3D printers were disregarded of ever fully reaching the general market if they did not experience future innovation, as their prices were exorbitant and their products too complex to adequately appeal to the average consumer.
However, 3D printer manufacturers are at last paving a steady path towards becoming more consumer-accessible for hobby and educational users in particular, which has allowed prices to fall. The market research firm IBISWorld states since the price of 3D printers has been drastically decreasing, the product’s annual growth has increased by 21.4% from 2011-2016 (“3D Printer Manufacturing in the US”). Overall, 3D printing is currently prospering in multiple markets: from the professional “MakerBot” to the more user-friendly “3D Systems,” their models are now specific and more affordable (Stevenson).
Since the Rift also possesses the potential to attract a broad audience, including consumers of video games, immersive movies, and even virtual travel experiences, it can be expected to experience similar market trends. Irrefutably, VR is no longer targeting the 1929 narrow audience of flight simulators, just as 3D printing is no longer directing its efforts towards manufacturing engineers interested in “rapid prototyping” (Stevenson). As VR continues to become more accessible to the everyday user, its sales, as well as efforts to please consumers and improve immediacy, will also increase. Within due time, we can expect VR headsets to be innovated to the extent that they are no longer adverse components of the user experience, thus replacing the barriers of hypermediacy with the luxuries of more well-developed immediacy.
Looking Forward: Virtual Reality’s Long-Term Effects
The implications of immediacy becoming a societal norm
Because of virtual reality’s conceivable potential to overcome the hypermediacy barriers that currently exist, or the elimination of bulky headsets to allow for a more authentically immersive, pleasing experience within VR, if current trends in technological advancement continue, the technology will eventually advance to become a commonplace element of entertainment. Thus, if consumers begin to adopt this high quality form of immersive technology on a large scale, along with developing individual tastes for the VR environments that they prefer, they will also become accustomed to the immediacy that accompanies it. Complete, nearly thoughtless immersion into virtual environments will no longer exist as a distant, futuristic consideration; rather, this transparent immediacy will be embedded in the everyday realities of consumer entertainment.
If Kim’s statement that VR’s immersive capabilities are so immense that the technology has the ability to “drastically change a person’s social and emotional needs over time” is true, the normalcy of human-to-human interaction can begin to transform to that of human-to-machine satisfaction, or relationships and mindsets entirely engulfed by the virtual environments we decide to experience and enjoy. Our modern-day considerations of humanity, or what it means to be human, may be rewritten as we enter a new era of technology – one that is largely dictated by the high level of immediacy that virtual reality presents, and the elevated entertainment expectations that ensue.
Overall, while the Rift and other VR technologies continue to develop and provide their customers with improved opportunities to experience a variety of virtual environments, it is critical to consider such innovations’ influence on a mass scale, rather than merely individual users. As VR continues to accumulate substantial momentum in the approaching years that follow Oculus Rift’s consumer release, users are certain to absorb the product’s excellent projection of immediacy and the detailed, virtual worlds they will be able to delve into and experience, recognizing that the greatest virtual experiences are those in which reality is most easily forgotten. But, more crucially, what does this rising technological advancement indicate about society as a whole? If the desire for complete immersion, or transparent immediacy, into media content becomes one that is wholly fulfilled via technological advancement in products such as the Rift, why should humans limit themselves to realistic experiences when technology provides them with customizable, virtually-stimulating ones? VR becoming a widespread, immersive product implies substantial shifts in individuals’ considerations of social gratification, their interactions (or lack thereof) with one another, and a resulting shift in worldview for humankind as it becomes more technologically-centered and engrossed within simulated realities rather than face-to-face encounters.
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Bolter, Jay, and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge: MIT, 2000.
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“History of Virtual Reality.” Virtual Reality Society. Web. 13 Feb. 2016.
Kim, Monica. “The Good and the Bad of Escaping to Virtual Reality.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 18 Feb. 2015. Web. 10 Feb. 2016.
Kovach, Steve. “Facebook Buys Oculus VR For $2 Billion.” Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc, 2014. Web. 13 Feb. 2016.
Lee, Tyler. “HTC Vive & Oculus Rift Sales Have Apparently Flatlined.” Ubergizmo. 6 Sept. 2016. Web. 6 Sept. 2016.
Purchese, Robert. “Happy Go Luckey: Meet the 20-year-old Creator of Oculus Rift.” Eurogamer.net. 07 Nov. 2013. Web. 15 Feb. 2016.
Stevenson, Kerry. “What Are the Target 3D Printing Markets?” Disruptive. Disruptive Magazine, 13 Apr. 2015. Web. 13 Feb. 2016.
Sydell, Laura. “Is Oculus Rift’s $600 Price Too High for Virtual Reality to Succeed?” NPR. NPR, 9 Jan. 2016. Web. 5 Sept. 2016.
Cariann Saunders recently graduated from the University of Georgia in May of 2016. She received a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism in Mass Media Arts, a Bachelor of Arts in English with an area of emphasis in creative writing, and a certificate in New Media. She is an avid lover of storytelling, both digital and on the page, and is currently working in the post-production field of narrative and commercial television in New York, New York.
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