Technology is redefining our reality … literally. In recent years, advancements in virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and artificial intelligence (AI) have already begun to change how we live. From online workspaces to gaming, social media and healthcare, new virtual worlds are all the rage.
Meta (formerly known as Facebook) has made some big waves early in the VR space with its “metaverse”— a more immersive version of the current internet accessed through a VR headset. But it’s far from alone. Big Tech players from Microsoft to Google to the Fortnite video game maker Epic Games are capitalizing on the trend to reinvent reality. Is the new tech up to the challenge? Will VR headsets and AR glasses catch on more broadly? Could they become the new standard for work meetings?
This week’s Elevate the Conversation takes us through the inventive new ways these technologies are reshaping the world … as well as some of the questions, issues and ethical dilemmas raised by the changes they could inspire.
Virtual Worlds to Come
Personal 3D Avatars
A new world may require a personal makeover. Digital 3D avatars that look, move and sound like us could revolutionize how we interact in virtual spaces. Our pixel-fueled cartoon selves may not only act as our virtual alter egos, but also change the social aspect of games and other digital platforms. This could challenge psychological theories about human interaction and even help scientists to better understand how we behave in a virtual world. It also opens the possibilities for people to walk in different “skins.” For those transitioning, or contemplating the journey, their personal avatar could give them a taste of a new life. Others may experiment by assuming characteristics that are opposite to what they are in real life. Consider the empathy and understanding that could emerge when moving in the virtual world as a person of a different race, gender, ability, weight, language capability or refugee status?
VOTE: If you could walk in another’s skin with your personal avatar, who would you choose to be?
Gaming at Work
Digital avatars are already being used in online office spaces like VirBELA, where employees navigate a corporate campus on their screen that would put even the most lavish Silicon Valley firms to shame. In VirBELA, you can walk from meeting to meeting, go to the auditorium to watch a presentation, even bump into people waiting for virtual coffee. VR-enabled tools, like Spatial and Gemba Live, are taking things one step further, allowing VR headset users from across the globe to come together and interact as if they were in the same conference room re-creating the satisfaction of office interactions.
A Boomer Market?
The kinds of people most likely to participate in the virtual worlds of the future may surprise you. Baby Boomers have more disposable income, and more at stake, when it comes to futuristic tech. For millennials, virtual reality may just mean another gaming device, but for seniors it potentially means freedom — the ability to “travel” to places no longer as accessible to them in real life. Or the freedom to work in roles where ageist hiring won’t work against them to limit career options. As senses such as touch and smell become possible in VR, those experiences will become indispensable to those whose physical senses are declining. As America and the world age, the AI-based elderly care industry is expected to reach $5.5 billion by 2022.
SHARE: Have you tried or are you inspired to try the metaverse or another VR product?
A Life-Changing (Virtual) Reality
New Horizons in Health Care
The pandemic has accelerated the shift toward virtual medicine. With the help of improved AR glasses, first responders can connect emergency patients to experts many miles away, and specialists can respond in real time. These could prove lifesaving, especially in large parts of the developing world where doctors aren’t easily accessible outside cities
Unbeknownst to most shoppers, the retail experience is poised for drastic, game-changing disruptions. Sure, AR and VR have already started to shape how we shop, but the real fun is only just beginning. A series of recent innovations could push these new technologies to the next level, making the VR shopping experience as pervasive as online shopping is today. Fast forward a few years and virtual reality could transform your home into an exact replica of your favorite mall. Your personal shopper may look and sound just like you (or your favorite celebrity), and you can try on the latest fashions just by pointing.
The Future of Fandom
The world of professional sports is set to play out even faster — and with transformative experiences. With advanced AR headsets and screens operating in a “connected” stadium, users could view stats and data overlaid right there on the playing field. What’s more, AR and VR will allow sports fans to share their experiences in real time with friends in another city or country who can join your celebrations via 360-degree video. Seat-back QR tags will also be used by fans in arenas and stadiums to order food and more.
Already popular, virtual-dating games are online landscapes where participants can simulate romance with 3D avatars or tailor-made characters. With AR, the experience is going to be more immersive, and will likely leave its imprint on more traditional dating apps like Bumble and Tinder, too — perhaps in the form of flirty filters on in-app video calls, or through 3D avatars that let you express your personality more effectively than a bio can. AR can even be used to scan the physical realms you frequent — bars, bookstores, gyms and parks — to find fellow app users who share your interests.
Advancements in neurotechnology and AI may also connect us to the digital and virtual universe — and to each other — as never before. For example, what if your mind could act like a gaming joystick? That’s the emerging world of neurogaming. But mind-controlled games are about more than just making the experience hands-free. A group of scientists led by Matias Palva, a professor at Finland’s Aalto University, are developing video games designed specifically to treat depression, with the hope they might also help detect conditions such as Alzheimer’s, ADHD or schizophrenia. Instead of visiting a psychiatrist, you could just play a game. And what about end-of-life care? What if people could skip heavy drugs and opioids and manage pain through their minds? AI could drastically change care options at all stages of life.
It takes hundreds of hours of practice and sparks of creative genius to make great music. But will it in the future? Berklee College of Music is using headphones developed by Halo Neuroscience that use brain stimulation to help students get straight to the magic. For example, the headphones help students master a guitar piece with fewer repetitions and to practice more efficiently.
Speech Within Reach ... for Everyone
Throughout history, people who couldn't speak were disadvantaged or stigmatized. Now scientists at the University of California, San Francisco, have developed technology that for the first time allows them to translate brain signals into entire sentences. Electrodes record brain activity and, combined with the movement of the tongue, lips, jaw and larynx, the device offers up data that a deep-learning algorithm can translate into sentences.
Heart of the Matter
Is It You … or the Machine?
With new technology comes new ethical dilemmas. For example, when a device plugged into your brain is helping you deal with depression, are you responsible for your behavior toward others or is the machine in charge? Those questions of agency and identity have already begun to emerge in research with patients using neurotech advances for mental health treatment. It also raises thorny questions for criminal law: Should you or the machine be held responsible for your actions?
New brain technology will gather a lot of your personal data. But what about your privacy? Chile’s Parliament recently adopted a “neuro-rights” bill to ensure that the data of citizens collected through neurotech gets the same status as donated organs — misusing it or trafficking in it is punishable by law. It’s the first such legislation in the world, at the forefront of a movement spearheaded by Spanish neuroscientist Dr. Rafael Yuste at Columbia University. Given the breakneck pace at which neurotech is advancing, Chile might have offered us a window into the future. The EU has already moved to a “right to be forgotten” standard for online privacy.
Can VR Make You a Better Person?
In an era of widespread compassion fatigue, some activists think VR technology could help break through apathy. A growing body of evidence suggests that lifelike virtual experiences can compel you to care more about social issues. Experts hope this new medium can help conjure up the kind of walk-in-their-shoes empathy that nonprofits and activists say is necessary to inspire action. For example, PETA’s Alex Blount amped up his plea against killer whale captivity by handing out wireless Google VR goggles, instead of ho-hum pamphlets, to passersby. The goggles allowed people to virtually swim alongside a grieving mother orca as she mourned the capture of her baby.
SHARE: What scares you most when it comes to VR, AI and other new forms of technology?
MORE TO CONSIDER
Any virtual world is bound to suffer from some of the shortcomings of the real world, and new technologies often have unintended consequences for historically marginalized groups. Early concerns about the metaverse, surrounding issues like price differences for avatars based on race and gender and harassment in virtual communities, are already raising red flags with those concerned with diversity in the VR and its impact on marginalized people. Will virtual environments suffer from the same lack of representation that has affected women and racial minorities in the gaming world? Can we encode different and more inclusive values into this new universe? How might VR affect climate change? On the one hand, a virtual world might mean less travel and consumption, especially when you can live your virtual dream without paying for travel or luxury items. But the cost of constantly being on the computer and drawing electricity from non-renewable sources has an impact on the environment that must be factored in.
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