In between the constant humming of the technology community about Artificial Intelligence, we often hear snippets about Virtual Reality. Our focus on creating alternate realities is an extension of our natural propensity for storytelling. This combined with our fascination and perpetual push for technological invention has culminated into what we know as Virtual Reality in the 21st Century.But, is it a worthy endeavor? Are we merely indulging in an unhealthy escape from reality or is there a larger more functional component of this technology?
There is a cause for concern when you read someone state that a benefit of Virtual Reality as that it is “better than reality.” I realize that temporarily escaping the daily pressures of life can be a healthy psychological coping mechanism. It helps us blow off steam and, perhaps, encourage creativity. However, if we take a look at a 2017 report by Deloitte (Rewriting the rules for the digital age), there is strong evidence that our productivity doesn’t exactly keep pace with technological development.
Certainly, their extensive research focuses on business productivity. Yet, there is also a gap between individual productivity and technological progress. While technology makes our lives easier, is it also promoting our laziness?
It’s definitely decreasing our attention span.
How does any of this relate to Virtual Reality?
The human experience is unique. Our sensory input channels are a fundamental aspect of carving neural pathways in our brains. Those neural pathways are our algorithms for decision making. If we spend most of our time in some artificially constructed world where everything is ‘perfect,’ when we disengage from that world, cognitive dissonance appears.
A short refresher on cognitive dissonance: it’s mental stress, which can translate into physical distress if left to run rampant, that occurs when you experience a situation or information that contradicts your current belief system – inclusive of values and ideas to which you’re emotionally attached.
So, here you are, in your perfect virtual world and when you step out of it, you will eventually be confronted with a non-virtual, imperfect world that involves human conflict. As much as we’d love to hold the belief that we can forever be in that virtual state of perfection, that’s not going to be the case. When faced with conflict, there’s more than simply fight or flight. But, if you’re neural pathways don’t have a healthy dose of experiencing negative situations, you’ll revert to the basic animal response of either engaging in a battle or running away.
Fleeing the situation doesn’t necessarily mean you’re physically running away. It can also mean dissociating yourself through other mental constructs. This encourages a path towards developing personality disorders.
Humanity has both extremely positive and severely negative expressions between one another. Without healthy conflict resolution skills, we see the nefarious and destructive side of human psychology take hold.
Virtual Reality for Good?
The good news is, despite my Cassandra-like lamenting of Virtual Reality, there is the promise of it helping humanity.
First, it can be used as a teaching or training tool. Indeed, VR has been deployed to help athletes improve their skills. Furthermore, VR simulations are increasingly included in military training for the purpose of simulating how to use equipment and to prepare soldiers for their specific missions. Also, medical schools are incorporating VR to educate future doctors on the specifics of performing surgery.
Businesses can also make use of VR for training their employees for:
- Proper use of industry related equipment
- Handling dissatisfied or irate customers
- Interviewing job candidates (though, honestly, it can be done just as well through Skype)
- Extensive training for complex assignments for both in house and remote workers
- Reviewing best practices in managing workplace conflict by presenting employees with realistic scenarios
The benefits of VR can be transferred to the K-12 environment as well (though the current cost of VR equipment and software is prohibitive given the limited educational budgets of many public schools). Additional research as to the reliability of the educational benefits in public schools is warranted, but for now, it’s a promising area.
It’s true, and the research supports this, that consistent practice of a specific skill over time leads to expertise. Virtual Reality helps create a situation where well constructed instructional design methods along with practice in a realistic environment maintain and increase the practitioner’s skill. No longer is expertise limited to living in a certain location near a university or being physically tied to a place of employment.
As with all technology, the “good” or “bad” isn’t inherent in the equipment or software. Rather, it’s revealed in how us humans use it. The choice is completely up to us, and it lies somewhere between the two extreme points of dissolving into a video game type of non-reality or helping people become better at finding solutions to real world problems.
This post is part of our contributor series. It is written and published independently of TNW.