How real does reality have to be, not to be virtual

Microsoft video of the future of experiencing sports

microsoft VR

The above video is making its rounds on the Internet. Rather than being an advertisement for a movie, or for a technology that is only being dreamed of, this is in fact a demonstration of existing technology coming out of Microsoft. Hololens was introduced as a new virtual reality environment a couple of years ago, and at the time seemed to be a technology that would take a decade or more to enter our homes. I keep reminding myself and others that the iPhone is still not even 10 years old. And given the exponential nature of technological progress, it would seem most likely that virtual-reality will become commonplace by 2020.

One cannot help but watch this video and imagine a near future where the line between reality and virtual reality becomes completely blurred. For those who feel that this is “too much”, imagine today denying yourself the use of the Internet, your mobile phone, your personal computer or laptop and any other technology that we now take for granted. Just like the frog in the heating water, introduced slowly enough [which in technology terms means 2 to 5 years], many technophobes can find themselves dependent on such science fiction like advances.

The sports world, and in fact all forms of entertainment, are desperately looking for new ways to allow people to experience the world. Watching a football game from a fixed angle on a flat screen, even if it’s 60 inches wide, is still very two-dimensional and limited. The whole idea of going to the actual stadium, is to not only watch the game, but to experience everything around you. Whether it’s the music being played over the loudspeakers, or the human wave as it passes you by, there are certain things that you can only “feel” if you are on site.

However, new technologies [a number of which are Israeli in origin] are allowing fans to interact with a live game in ways never thought possible. There is a new 3-D virtual reality technology that allows a fan to stop the action and literally rotate the viewing angle such that one has a totally new experience. Imagine watching the football game where you can hit replay, but now view the action from the perspective of the quarterback or from the tight end who breaks away to catch the winning pass. The TV channels are staffed by an amazing group of people who are constantly manipulating the camera angles available to them to give the best possible shot. This new 3-D technology allows every viewer to become his or her own director and decide on their own, how they wish to watch their entertainment.

Applications outside of sports are pretty self-evident. This is for all intents and purposes, the first step in having a completely immersive holodeck just like on Star Trek. In the video, each user has to wear a rather bulky set of VR glasses in order to have the experience. As is typical with almost every technology, these VR glasses will shrink from year-to-year, as their cost also tumbles, and it may not be very long before we are all wearing contact lenses that provide the same experience.

I should just point out that there is no inherent need to experience visual virtual reality via a device that sits in front of our eyes. The time will come when VR is directly transmitted into our brains via a subcutaneous chip on the back of our heads. And yes, the allusion to the plug on the back of the head of the characters in the matrix is intentional.

When we speak of the future of medicine, psychiatrists may be relatively protected from the elimination of other entire specialties. I suspect that there will be a long period of time during which psychiatrists and psychologists are helping people deal with all types of anxiety, related to stepping in and out of VR experiences. There will definitely be people who simply cannot disconnect without immediately falling into a deep depression. Throw in a bit of AI, and it truly is not hard to imagine individuals who have an entire group of virtual friends within their VR experience. I have no intent to offend anyone, but it should be recognized that such virtual-reality will also be a greatly used portal for pornography. This is important to recognize because such VR can create situations where people will stop being able to form anything akin to a normal human to human relationship. If anyone feels that systems like Tinder objectify people far too much, this is nothing compared to what VR can do to social interactions.

I have to note, as I have in the past, the brilliance of Jewish law. Once a week, there is a commandment to dissociate ourselves from anything that is electronic. Like it or not, we are very much forced to interact with the people around us and our community. Without the veil of VR, we have no choice but to talk to each other as people have done since the start of time. Whether for religious reasons or philosophical ones, I could easily imagine a movement that demands that all VR be shut down one day a week, to allow our human brains to reconnect to real reality. Given my personal beliefs, it is interesting that God saw to it to protect us from ourselves by virtue of constructs like Shabbat.

The rate of progress is exhausting, mentally draining, morally problematic and practically unavoidable. Almost everyone on this planet will eventually have to come to terms with these types of technological intrusions into every one of their regular experiences. To be fair, my vision of all of these tech is not apocalyptic. There are many people who will benefit from such VR, in every way. Imagine an individual who is incredibly shy who can practice interacting with people via a safe VR environment. Imagine a quadriplegic who can experience normal mobility by virtue of such VR. And as I already noted above, the power of such systems in the medical world is almost unlimited.

Social norms are a moving target. Once upon a time, the idea of checking your phone in the middle of a conversation with another person was considered the ultimate rude action. Today, it is very normal to see people tweeting in the midst of even the most serious discussions. Our children will experience the world in a way that we cannot even imagine. And their children will experience the world in a totally new way as well. I wouldn’t dare try to predict anything beyond the next couple of years. But before I know it, I personally may be so “attached” to my VR glasses that  life without them will be almost unimaginable.

Let me add a brilliant comment from my supermodel lawyer wife who notes that Jewish law requires two witnesses who have seen the event in question with “their own eyes”. This implies that a VR modified experience would not be legally admissible according to halacha, and very possibly also according to civil and criminal law in many countries. VR will force us to rethink the most basic parts of our lives. And as of yet, no one has answers to some of the most vexing questions.

Thanks for listening.

About the Author
Dr. Nahum Kovalski received his bachelor's of science in computer science and his medical degree in Canada. He came to Israel in 1991 and married his wife of 22 years in 1992. He has 3 amazing children and has lived in Jerusalem since making Aliyah. Dr. Kovalski was with TEREM Emergency Medical Services for 21 years until June of 2014, and is now a private consultant on medicine and technology.