Virtual reality is not a more immersive version of movies and video games; it’s qualitatively different. VR can contain games, and right now there’s a lot of overlap between the tech we need to create virtual worlds and the tech we already have for games, but that’s a tiny part of what VR will be. Virtual reality is not a medium.
I’ve heard people compare even current clunky VR to being on certain drugs, and I’m not the only one with ethical concerns over how we use this potential drug. There’s no reason to think people will escape to VR with any less frequency than people currently escape to TV, games, drugs, etc, but there’s some concern that VR will go beyond capturing the current escapist audience. It’s easy to imagine a VR dystopia where everyone’s living a virtual life at the expense of their job, friends, real life.
I like to think about this question, because if it’s actually a potential problem, it’s more efficient to battle it before it happens. In my experience thus far, the closest comparison to the experience of VR is dreaming, the original virtual reality technology, which is conveniently already available in all of our own heads, so today I’m going to talk about it from my own personal perspective, with plenty of tangents and wild speculation. (Also, turns out all of us here at eleVR are lucid dreamers. Possible correlation between people interested in VR and people interested in lucid dreams?)
Question: Since I can lucid dream, and I can virtually experience literally anything I can think of in all its interactive sensory glory, why don’t I? Why do I get into it sometimes because I know it’s cool intellectually, and then forget about it and move on with my life? Why doesn’t everyone prioritize lucid dreaming above all else, optimizing for frequent REM periods throughout the day in some dystopian polyphasic sleep zombie scenario where all anyone does is escape to the dream world all the time?
Could it be that the potential future where everyone escapes to VR is as unlikely as everyone spending all their life literally dreaming?
I’d done a tiny bit of lucid dreaming as a young child, but only as a tool to redirect or wake up from nightmares, without thinking much about it beyond stopping the chronic nightmares (which it did). Later I found out lucid dreaming is a real thing, there’s all these people out there consciously controlling their dreams just for fun! And that’s when I dove back in. I was pretty intense about it for one summer, years ago.
Lucid dreaming is often lumped in with things like astral projection and ESP, which are not science at all, so I dug into the research to try and separate out what lucid dreaming actually is. It didn’t take long to get a feel for everything that’s been studied on the academic side of things, which is unfortunately not very much, both because of its previous associations with pseudoscience and because it’s hard to get non-self-reported data. As one who lucid dreamed as a kid without even thinking of it as anything weird, I was surprised to find skepticism in the science community that lucid dreams were even possible. It’s like if someone who doesn’t remember their dreams claimed that nobody dreamt at all, they just all make it up.
I could understand skepticism that dreams exist, if you don’t remember yours. I mean, you’re claiming I hallucinate uncontrollably every night and then forget it all? Really?
It turns out you can signal out from your dream in real time through controlled eye movements (REM in lucid dreams follows how you’re moving your eyes in your dream), proving at least that people can become conscious enough while sleeping to remember to do the signal. This and other science lends support to the idea that dreams actually happen when we think they happen, not just as a false memory created later. I hope to see a lot more research on this stuff, because I think lucid dreams are a unique avenue into the nature of perception and consciousness and all that.
Anyway, without a good body of research, I was going to have to learn to have them again, make some direct observations. First, I had to focus on remembering my dreams every morning in the first place, which I wasn’t doing regularly at that point. Think about how nuts it is, that we all hallucinate crazy things every night and for the most part don’t even care. All these realistic yet surreal experiences, with full immersion and interactive exploration, fully tangible, every night, and I hadn’t even been bothering to try to remember them when I woke up in the morning! Why is dreaming a recreational novelty with such a small market?
With a little practice I was at the point where if I did happen to realize I was dreaming while I was dreaming, I would actually remember it when I woke up. At the beginning of this, when I was extremely excited and focused on researching and practicing the whole thing, I could basically will myself to lucid dream and because my entire brain was immersed in this research it invaded my dreams the same way everything I work intensely on makes its way into my dreams. I was focused. As things got less intense, I relied more on the many other different methods people use to induce lucid dreams.
I particularly liked the one where you simply stay aware as you fall asleep, and then you’re asleep, and still conscious, simple as that. I mean, keeping your sense of self through all the crazy hypnagogia that tries to happen to you, that can take a lot of attention. It’s mental effort beyond what consuming popular media requires of people. So, that’s one possible answer to why everyone doesn’t escape to the virtual world of dreams all the time. VR technology will remove that barrier.
But say you do put in the effort and practice, and get a nice crisp lucid dream. Then what? Choices are hard, in the infinite sandbox. Maybe just watch a “let’s play” of someone else’s dream, instead…
Oh, wait, I know. Let’s experiment with the nature of reality and perception!
Lucid dreams inform the relationship between raw sense data and the model of the world we build in our heads. Lucid dreams show me that I can simulate anything I’ve ever experienced, completely realistically, without any incoming sensory data at all. This means that my experience of the world is truly mine, my perception of reality could be 100% flawed and I’d have no idea. We are all capable of hallucinating an entirely realistic world, and the only way I really know whether it’s a dream is that I just know, as if it were its own sense, which maybe it is.
And I can simulate much more in my head than what my real senses can input. I can see beyond my waking field of view, beyond my waking spectrum of light, which means seeing an entire spherical video all at once in hypercolor is definitely on the table once computers can interface directly with the brain (not predicting this in the near future).
I can access deep raw emotions, terror or love or despair or joy. A dream joke can seem super funny but be not funny at all in real life. If there’s a future where direct access to the brain lets us simulate everything that could be done in a dream, that’s the real potential for dystopia (instead of just a laugh track sitcoms could directly hack our brains into thinking they’re funny. Also, much more efficient tear jerkers, instant brand loyalty, and it will probably be categorized as a disorder if you resist doing virtual happiness, like refusing to take medication).
Dreams tell me that my physical body is not hard-coded into my brain. I can have wings, or extra arms. I can be in more than one place at the same time, simultaneously operating separate bodies, other types of bodies, animals, or no body at all. I can be an entire rave of dancers all at once, several household appliances, or all of empty space. When I’m lucid I remember that I am just one individual Vi Hart, existing in an enduring physical reality, and while my ability to change that is quite limited I nonetheless find that I am my favourite thing to be. Reality bias, maybe.
It’s crazy what our brains can do, how much more they can simulate than our usual experience, and I see philosophical implications. I’m not sure I’d believe reality is a thing, if there weren’t this completely open dream world to compare it to. The real world is so remarkably self-consistent.
Then there’s other dream people. It’s common for people to become not-all-the-way-lucid in such a way that you realize it’s a dream but still believe other characters in your dream are actually people, and behave towards them like they’re people. I fell into this trap sometimes when I started, but now when I’m lucid I’m fully aware that the other person is me, everything is me, and the person goes from being a person to being a thing in an instant, and then I understand what extreme sociopaths probably feel like about actual real people and then that’s pretty creepy, and then I wonder whether it’s creepier to treat non-people like real people because you don’t know the difference, or creepier to treat perfectly-simulated people like non-people, whether it be actively treating them like things or simply dropping them from consciousness, winking them out of existence with no regard to who they previously seemed to be.
Nothing I’ve experienced in games or VR has reached that moral uncanny valley where I don’t have a clear mental separation between human being and avatar, whether it be my own self or someone else’s, but we’re going to get there soon. Already with our demo someone mentioned that they felt like they were being rude to virtual Emily when they looked around the room while she was talking; they knew it was just a video but it was real enough to trigger ingrained social rules. Already people instinctively identify what they see happening to their VR avatar as something happening not to an avatar, but actually to them. What happens when you can’t tell whether another person is real or not?
What happens when AR is so good that you’re, say, in the office, and you can’t tell at a glance whether that person-shaped-thing walking down the hall is a physical human being, or the avatar of someone teleconferencing in, or whether it’s one of the virtual non-people your company programmed in because they did some productivity tests and found that filling the office with attractive productive-looking virtual people makes the real employees get more work done?
If it’s legal and makes money, people will exploit it as hard as possible. Imagine the future: not enough oil for people to use cars anymore, not enough housing in the city, so you telecommute in to work on a secure VR device that your company has complete remote control over (though it’s pretty laggy because the way we’re going in the US, in 50 years internet speeds still suck). You go in to your virtual work environment, where they choose what everyone around you looks like, and what you look like to other people, if there’s actually real people. You won’t know whether your real boss is walking by and yelling at you to get back to work, or whether it’s a boss copy, and knowing you don’t know, your real boss has plausible deniability for their real words to you.
In order to talk to your friend on your virtual facespace, you’ll first have to endure an algorithmically optimized attractive objectified maybe-person who wants you to try out this great new virtual product with her, and will give you a guilt trip if you want to skip the ad. Imagine how this kind of stuff could be used “productively” in schools. And it wouldn’t it be so much easier to raise young children if they really were the only being in their universe, and those around them actually had no independent existence, thoughts, or feelings?
Maybe in VR there’s lines that should not be crossed, maybe it should be a requirement that there’s no ambiguity as to whether another simulated human is just a simulation or an avatar of an actual human experiencing the other side of the virtual encounter in real time. I don’t know. The idea of it creeps me out, but plenty of purposeful dehumanizing is legal and prevalent even now, and the fabric of society hasn’t entirely torn apart. Still, treating an image of a person like a thing, or seeing an objectified person, is fundamentally different from having to treat actual people and non-people equivalently, yourself, in real time, in your actual life (whether virtual or not). Probably the answer involves extensions of existing things, like workplace guidelines and advertising laws.
Anyway, that’s a separate ethical problem from the escapism and lucid dreams thing, so let’s get back to that.
The thing about lucid dreams, where I can do anything, is that I’m built to want real things. Maybe it’s reality bias, maybe I just burnt out, but I lost the hardcore interest I had. I found myself in a lucid dream and realized there was nothing in particular I wanted to do. I had an entire list, but nothing seemed very compelling at the moment. The things humans desire, all those sensory and intellectual pleasures, evolved for reality. I had lucid dreams where when I thought about what I wanted to be doing right then, the answer involved waking up and then doing the thing in real life.
This was hugely valuable experience, because there’s a lot of things I zombie my way into doing in real life, and I’m a lot more productive when I become lucid in waking life and realize that I don’t actually want to be scrolling through twitter or whatever, that if I could be doing anything right now, possible or impossible, I’d choose to write an article about virtual reality and lucid dreaming.
Maybe this is a way in which lucid dreaming destroys itself, or maybe it’s just me. VR, on the other hand, doesn’t require self-awareness in order to work.
I also had dreams where I’d realize intellectually it was a dream, but then decide against actually becoming lucid because nothing I could consciously do on purpose could possibly compare to the awesome thing my subconscious was coming up with. This, again, is the “Let’s play” effect.
So I’m not addicted to lucid dreaming, and almost no one else seems to be either. I also burnt out on enough terrible grindy games as a kid that I cannot fathom feeling addicted to any of the games people are addicted to now. Maybe savvy audiences will not have VR addiction escapism problems, not once the novelty wears off, and those who do will be on the same scale as those addicted to current games or TV. Maybe.
I’m not sure though. I also have a lot of reasons to believe I don’t quite fit the norm for the things I’m talking about in this particular article.
I’d like to note that many people do have lucid-dream-like experiences that they report are actually real, such as that they are psychically connecting with another real person who is sharing the dream world, or they’re astrally projecting and travel to see real locations, or they’re seeing the future or whatever. Perhaps they just never employed their sense of reality to ask themselves a real solid “hey, am I dreaming?” and instead just went along with the story, or maybe the answer came back “Yes, you’re dreaming, but who says that’s not real,” or maybe the sense of reality I have is not universal. Some people do “reality checks” where they try to trick the dream into breaking in some way and thus proving it’s a dream, but I’ve found that these are not reliable, and even when they do work they’re a great way to go through the motions of thinking you’re becoming lucid without actually becoming lucid, and then you have a normal dream which only has the plot “I am lucid.”
It’s enough to make one reconsider the philosophical game of “what if I’m the only actually sentient being and everyone else is a consciousness-less zombie,” but just as I feel solipsism is less likely because if it were true my brain might as well have as much power as it does in the dream world, I feel that philosophical zombies are made less likely by the fact that people claim varying powers of lucidity. So. It’s not proof that the world is real and full of sentient humans, but it’s enough for me.
I’d also like to take this moment to note that there’s no such thing as a dream-within-a-dream in a technical sense. That nonsense drives me nuts. If you dream you fell asleep and are dreaming, or if you dream you wake up, that’s all just dream level 1. There can be levels to the story of the dream, but not the actual dream. We could make a VR video with the story that you’re going into virtual reality, but that doesn’t actually make it VR within VR. And if it turns out that all of life is a solipsistic dream, I’m gonna be real mad at how inefficient my solipsism is. If we’re already in the matrix, oh man, how our evil overlords must laugh and laugh!
Anyway, I think it’s likely that VR will be much, much more attractive as an escape than lucid dreams are, for these reasons:
-It’s easier and dependable. Doesn’t completely break if you stop paying attention for a moment.
-It’s got better PR than your own dreams. VR will be advertised and packaged to manipulate you into wanting it.
-Entire companies will be created with the goal of optimizing your addiction, for profit. You are the sole author of your dreams, and they’re probably super boring.
-Even though VR isn’t real, it does exist in real life. The other humans involved are actually people. You know you’re not dreaming; the reality bias is not instinctually felt.
-Some of those who wish for escape don’t like themselves very much in the first place, in which case being hyper aware of your own consciousness isn’t a win.
-It’s actually a plus if you don’t have complete control and don’t have to make all the choices. Let someone else make the choices, become their story.
So I see all this potential for manipulating people through VR, and I am an artist experimenting with VR, and I don’t want the things I make to be ethically horrible. I hope that, being self-expression rather than optimized ad-driven microtransaction gamified social experiences, I’ll be able to sleep at night knowing I’ve added to the world instead of taking away. If you escape your self, it won’t be into the void. It will be into my self. And when you get back to your self, I hope you will be more yourself than you were when you left.
There’s something important about story, art, self-expression. That someone is making specific content with purpose. I see stuff about super interactive dynamic stories and games, as if the goal were to simulate the lucid dream and its infinite choices, and I’m like, yeah, sounds interesting in a technical sense, but dreams don’t usually make very compelling stories. Even my dreams make boring stories, and I’m great at dreams.
If your interactivity isn’t there to help you further understand the thing itself, whatever that thing is, story or concept or skill, then it’s junk food. When you take away the empty interactions, what’s left? Plenty of games are all medium and no message. They give you nothing outside of themselves.
I like perfect precise art pieces, stories understood in their entirety, art that is a thing itself, something you can take with you when you go. I don’t want choose-your-own-dynamic-Beethoven-style-generated-sounds, I want just the existence of the entire static piece of music. I don’t want to experience it, I just want to know it. If an efficient way to know it happens to be experiencing a recording through time, or reading through the sheet music, that’s not the point, because while a Beethoven piece can be constructed out of noises or dots of ink, neither of those things really have anything to do with what the piece is.
Similarly, the art of film has nothing to do with TV, despite that TVs can show films. TV is junk food, but the analogous healthy food is not art film. The purposes are entirely at odds.
TV is not a junk food version of film, but of sleep.
Mobile games are a junk food version of awake.
Perhaps VR will be a junk food version of death. Total annihilation of the self, just like any good junk food death.
Or perhaps this tells us that people want to spend more of their awake time sleeping, not more of their sleeping time awake. Thus lucid dreaming is unpopular, and VR will creep into that space of things we do to delay the onset of tomorrow.
Next time: nightmares?