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Alternate Realities in a Very Real World

Alternate Realities in a Very Real World

Lately, technology companies have had their hands full not so much with creating new, tangible items, but with crafting and designing digital experiences. Virtual reality and augmented reality programs are taking over the tech scene. While developments like this have been experimented with as far back as the 1800s, it wasn’t until recently that the boom of VR/AR has made its presence in fields outside of video games and cinema.

“Virtual reality” refers to artificial, sensory replicas; in other words, VR makes a simulated experience seem palpable. While the term “virtual reality” wasn’t crafted until 1987, its roots can be tracked to artistic, sensory illusions, such as landscape paintings that played with 2D/3D images, and imitation devices, such as the stereoscope (which made photographs look even more realistic and up-close to viewers). In fact, most VR predecessors were developed by artists and filmmakers attempting to trick the human senses. The first headset for virtual reality was invented in the 1960s and it displayed images from a computer that was connected to the headset. This device was designed by Ivan Sutherland and named the Sword of Damocles (referring to a popular oral story told by Cicero in ancient Rome about a depressed, isolated king and Damocles, a low-class member of his court who desired the king’s role. The king decided to switch roles with Damocles and while Damocles enjoyed the luxuries of power, he also realized that with power came anxieties and pending doom, which is what the phrase “Sword of Damocles” refers to). In the 1990s, certain films and video games utilized VR glasses, such as the VFX-1 headset and the Nintendo Virtual Boy. More contemporary VR devices include Facebook’s Oculus and the Google Daydream headsets (or their more affordable cardboard version).

Meanwhile, “augmented reality” refers to digital images interacting with the material world, enhancing what’s in front of you and combining digital and real-world layers. According to a Huffington Post infographic, the first stage of augmented reality dates back to 1968 when a computer displayed drawings through head mounted display. By the 70s, tech experts were working with cameras and computers to project several images over real-world objects with which users could interact. Other early uses of augmented reality include NASA maps for space explorers and NFL TV cameras showing digital lines on a football field for viewers at home to see during games. Popular examples of AR development today include the Pokémon Go app and Google Glass.

But enough about the past. It seems that the trend of VR/AR is making a breakthrough in the medical world. New doctors and practitioners have the opportunity to practice surgeries in virtual simulations. According to Singularity Hub, last year Shafi Ahmed of Virtual Medics and Medical realities performed a live-stream “cancer surgery in virtual reality…[it] was shot in a 360-degree video while he removed a colon tumor from a patient.” Other experts in VR/AR technology have been working with this to assist patients on a mental level too. This kind of technology can assist patients by simulating a scene, such as a kitchen or grocery store, and educating viewers on what kind of produce to avoid and ways to monitor a healthy diet. Others have found that showing a pleasant environment, such as a beach or a familial space, can calm down anxious patients. Currently, VR technology is limited to visual and auditory experiences, so it’s possible that technology companies are working towards engaging with virtual smells and touch.

While these are just a few positive factors of digital realities, there is a lot of controversy surrounding these different kinds of digital realities, such as desensitization. According to Virtual Reality Society, seeing alternate realities may lower response rates and awareness in humans in the real world. This website also postulates that if an individual were to behave negatively or criminally in a VR world (i.e. video games that put you through battles zones with weaponry), this may affect the brain of the participant or potentially cause trauma. Additionally, Virtual Reality Society claims, “The question is whether it is possible for someone to suffer an injury or mental distress as a result of a violent action carried out in a virtual environment...What may be argued is whether a virtual reality participant can experience pain, distress or other emotions?”


While the long-term effects of VR/AR are unknown, what are your opinions of virtual reality and augmented reality in today’s technological world? Is it enhancing our medical world or is it a Sword of Damocles? Comment below.

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