What is reality? Usually it’s overheating on the Central line whilst ignoring a podcast en route to a Monday morning meeting. But what if we go a bit deeper, beyond the tube and past the coughing person next to us who shouldn’t be on public transport; how do we actually manage to distinguish between what is real and what is not? These are questions that up until recently, weren’t often considered by the general public. With the emerging technology of virtual reality headsets and augmented reality, these are now questions that are on the tip of everyone’s tongue. With an estimated $2.3billion dollars (around £1billion) having been invested into VR technologies in recent years, it’s quite fair to say that these aren’t questions that are going to go away any time soon, either.
Before considering whether virtual reality could eventually substitute an actual reality, it’s perhaps important to look at what virtual reality has to offer and what it’s purpose actually is. Virtual reality is a digital mechanism for creating a simulated environment through the use of computer technologies. Broken down, this translates to a way in which to experience real life situations and environments through the use of (typically) a headset that straps onto your head and covers your eyes. It allows you to experience the thrill and fear of a 10-loop roller coaster without physically being on it. It can re-create an environment so effectively that it leaves the consumer experiencing a life-like reality from the comfort of their own home. Virtual reality has to date, mainly been used in the production of video games such as Resident Evil 7: Biohazard and Elite: Dangerous, as well as for the viewing of some movies. There are also apps and programs that can be run in combination with the use of a virtual reality headset that allow the user to explore locations they may not be able to in actual reality, such as India, the Amazon forest or a tour of a museum halfway across the world. In this way the purpose of virtual reality could be described as both a medium of entertainment and a way to experience a reality that may not be possible in ‘real life’. The way virtual reality is able to mimic realistic experiences is what makes it so popular. Virtual reality is able to deliver artificial stand-ins for real life stimuli that are often produced by someone affected by their natural environment. An example of this would be the way your stomach drops when hitting a particularly big drop on a rollercoaster, or the way your skin feels when the sun is shining on it. Our bodies and minds are able to identify the ways in which a stimulus would feel in reality, and mimic that experience in our minds when presented with a triggering environment, much the same way we may experience the ability to ‘feel’ things in dreams.
So with all this in mind, back to the question.. Could virtual reality ever actually substitute an actual reality? The answer is much more complicated than simply yes or no and it is dependent upon a lot of varying factors. The use of virtual reality has so far, been extremely popular, allowing people to experience situations and environments on a whole new level. Whilst the popularity of virtual reality is only likely to rise, whether the experience it can offer is truly comparative to experiences in actual reality is under debate. How far can a headset mimic the feeling of the wind in your hair, or sand beneath your feet? Whilst current and potential future developments in the virtual reality field could go a long way to providing a convincing and realistic experience of such things, there are some events that virtual reality simply cannot and never will be able to replace. Eating, sleeping and using the bathroom are all examples of this. Virtual reality will never be able to sustain or alleviate the physiological needs of our physical bodies. There will always need to be an element of actual reality within our lives to sustain ourselves. Whilst pop culture shows and movies such as Black Mirror and The Matrix dabble in presenting a world where such a thing is possible, it is unlikely to be realistically possible without considerable scientific development and major breakthroughs in the understanding of the human body. Even then, whether the general population would accept and adapt to such a way of living is difficult to predict.
A more philosophical viewpoint that has been explored by Lawrence Stark, a former professor of engineering and optometry at the University of California, poses the question, how do we know that what we call an actual reality is actually reality? In the same way that virtual reality convinces us of our virtual experiences by providing us with supporting stimuli such as a moving field of vision when we move our head, doesn’t real life offer us the same supporting stimuli? We are convinced of our actual reality through persuasive argument. We are persuaded that this is an actual reality because of the convincing way in which our bodies react to the environment and our thought processes. Virtual reality mirrors this way of persuading us of a reality and from a philosophical standpoint, makes both types of reality as legitimate and real as each other. The lines between the two are therefore more blurred, and the question of whether virtual reality could substitute an actual reality is obsolete, as there is no clear distinction between the two.
Generally, the answer to the question posed is highly reliant on an individuals attitude towards and belief of how far science can go. Currently, high-end virtual reality headsets retail for around £300 per unit. If you add on the costs of separate games, movies, experiences and so forth, the cost of having and experiencing virtual reality stacks up considerably. This then poses the question, at such a high cost, would it be cheaper to simply experience what is on offer in actual reality? With the rise of social media in the past decade it seems hard to imagine a world where people would rather sit at home with a headset on than explore the world and share their snaps and experiences on the internet.