Virtual reality and augmented reality are often treated as the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of new technology. They’re bracketed together as if they were pretty well the same thing when in fact they are very different indeed and I believe that AR and VR will have very distinctly different effects on human behaviour.
AR is a generally positive trend that lets us get more out of life, alerting us to places of interest and providing a way to understand and complement our immediate environments. As the name ‘augmented reality’ suggests, it’s a way to get more out of life, to deepen our appreciation of the amazing world around us and the crowning achievements of artists, architects and engineers. We can enjoy our locale, finding the best places to eat, drink, shop and visit. AR, in short, is life affirming.
VR is a very different kettle of fish: a disturbing means to ignore our immediate environment and retreat from the richness of life. It is part of a broader trend towards isolation: look around any public space and you will see people staring at screens, playing games and listening to their music in what are effectively cocoons. But at least in these cases the person might have some social element (in-game messaging, for example) or you could argue that the person is embracing his or her personal tastes without fully checking out of the real world.
VR goes further than any of the trends that have distracted and entertained us in recent years. It has nothing to do with reality, sentient existence or the pleasures we have always taken. At its heart it is, quite literally, anti-social, the ultimate rejection of the kaleidoscopic sensation of being a human being, an assault on the rich tapestry of life, or at least a great rent in its fabric.
This all might come across as po-faced and it’s certainly true that if VR becomes a casual source of occasional recreation it will be relatively harmless or even fun. But everything we have seen in screen addiction tells us that there is an excellent chance that lots of us will become very regular users of VR. It’s quite possible that a significant minority of us will spend much of our lives in virtual worlds with blocks of time stolen from the social world.
Soon, I fully expect to see carriages of trains and subways inhabited by rows of VR users in headsets. The very things that make us social human creatures will be eroded and a new breed of people will arrive: egocentric ciphers incapable of the small acts of generosity and grace that make city living bearable – the making way for others, the giving up of seats, the small conversations. As the virtual world invades and impinges on our time we will lose a precious something from our real world.