Experience on Demand: What Virtual Reality Is, How It Works, and What It Can Do

virtual reality

Ferdinand Foch, the esteemed military strategist and French supreme allied commander during World War I, once rather memorably remarked, “Airplanes are interesting toys, but of no military value.” He would be proven wrong only a few years later, when fighting first broke out in Europe — the first major conflict to consist of aerial dogfights. It’s easy to laugh at Foch’s seeming shortsightedness, but for many years, we’ve thought the same way about virtual reality (VR) simulations: fun technology for video games, but with little practical use.

Dr. Jeremy Bailenson, a communications professor at Stanford and the founder of the Virtual Human Interactive Lab, demonstrates why the conventional attitude toward VR should change alongside the rapidly advancing technology. In “Experience on Demand: What Virtual Reality Is, How It Works, and What It Can Do,” he takes on the vast array of practical applications for VR.

All too often, we like to imagine VR as a way to disconnect from reality — playing augmented reality games or wearing headsets that attach to our smartphones — and clumsily navigating through a world more dangerous than the one we are given onscreen. Your living room becomes a tropical paradise — but stumbling over the coffee table can still hurt you. The popularity of Pokemon Go has probably made more than a few of us skeptical that VR can bring anything good, but even that phenomenon had its uplifting effects: anecdotes of people who suffered from autism and agoraphobia who suddenly become active unafraid to travel outdoors on their own to catch the imaginary creatures on their phone screens.

For the last two decades, Bailenson has been hoping to achieve uplifting results like these — using three-dimensional modeling, gesture tracking systems, and agent-behavior algorithms. We can improve navigation and guidance issues for the most common hazards gamers face, he reminds us, but we also can change lives for those across the autism spectrum with VR equipment. In addition to entertainment, it can give journalists an important step ahead in bringing us to the scenes of local disasters — hurricanes, war zones, even interplanetary orbits — and allows users to participate directly in historical events as they unfold.

Bailenson recalls the VR experience of a Stanford quarterback who led his team to a 2014 Foster Farms Bowl victory after experiencing the play multiple times through simulation. There’s no way to memorize all the plays themselves, but through VR, the quarterback was able to relive the critical ones that he needed to win. Not only does it help with the skills we may wish we had, companies have already taken up VR for purposes of on-the-job training — using the technology to even solve basic problems on the sales floor.

He presents a strong argument in support of his lab’s research, but he is also careful to point out the risks — such as the possibility that VR can produce false memories in younger users whose prefrontal cortexes are still developing. Rather than caution about the dangers, he proposes them as future challenges to be met, as he and his team continue to explore the vast realm of possibilities in virtual reality and continue to improve these virtual worlds.

This article first published in Brain World Magazine’s Fall 2018 issue.

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