If you don’t like the real world, you will soon have a choice — a choice with broad implications for our society and technology industry. Facebook, Google, Samsung and many leading venture investors and technology companies are betting that within five years we will be able to strap on some goggles and immerse ourselves in a virtual world of our making.
Virtual reality — and its close cousin augmented reality — are expected to either substitute, or overlay our current ability to experience only what is immediately around us. It promises to allow us to go to the Taj Mahal without leaving our living room, to see the bio and name of the person standing before us in the blink of an eye and be “inside” completely artificial worlds for our entertainment. These technologies promise to blend the “thereness” of experience — where we are the middle of a four-dimensional map we call reality — into the ability to be in the center of new worlds that exist only in software. We would be able to move around those worlds completely independently of our location in reality.
Some have scoffed at the money being spent on developing these technologies. They point out the nerdiness of augmented reality glasses (I see you Google Glass) or the vertigo-inducing first generation Samsung VR headsets. They suggest the technology is not up to the task, or that it is still missing the “killer app” that will drive people to adopt virtual reality.
They are right about current technology but completely miss the point.
The earliest iterations of the telegraph, radio, television, the World Wide Web and mobile communications were all similarly clunky. During their gestation period, costs of adoption were high, capabilities limited, and barriers to widespread consumer acceptance appeared insurmountable. Yet the emergence of these new technologies eventually pushed aside what had come before. Clearly, when given an opportunity to be engaged with more immediate communication methods, humans have consistently chosen to be ever more connected.
Mark my words. This trend will continue with the availability of virtual and augmented reality. In fact, based upon my experience with social media and content companies, I expect the ability to experience artificial worlds — where individuals can make the rules bend to their will — will be so much more compelling to them than anything that has come before. People are driven to more and more self-reinforcing echo chambers in social and digital media, squeezing out the inconvenient truths of contrary facts. Why will they not prefer realities tailored to their whims?
The implications for our society will be significant.
The nature of the workplace will dramatically change. Business travel will become less necessary, as will face-to-face meetings generally. Shared office spaces will give way to shared virtual spaces. Reality itself — both the sense of being tied to a particular moment and place as well as what is actually real — will be challenged by the ever-improving possibilities of virtual reality and experiences. Bandwidth will become the new highway, and bandwidth constraints the new beltway backup. The aged will discover a world where their physical infirmities and limitations on mobility will be made irrelevant by the avatar they adopt in their virtual world.
We are poised for a change in how we interact with one another that may be more profound and have broader implications than any prior technological advance. Consider the changes to society brought by the Internet, and imagine how you would have thought of them in 1990. Did you imagine them?
Now imagine a world of virtual reality in 2040. If your imagination fails you, don’t be disappointed. You’ll soon have plenty of help.
Jonathan Aberman is a business owner, entrepreneur and founder of Tandem NSI, an Arlington-based organization that seeks to connect innovators to government agencies. He is co-host of “Forward Thinking Radio” on SiriusXM, a business and policy program, and he lectures at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.