10 SOCIETAL IMPLICATIONS OF GLOBALIZED VR


The internet

Perhaps the single biggest change globalized VR will bring about will be how people use and access the internet. Today we access websites on our phones and laptops through two-dimensional screens. But in VR, the internet will become a place you can visit. Imagine interconnected VR experiences where you could step in and out of rooms filled with unique content. Entire planets could form around different themes, accessible to millions of people at a time.


More effective digital communication

Phone calls, video chats, and text messaging will fade out as VR telepresence applications become the dominant form of global communication. Software will incorporate body language and eye contact, two critical components of face-to-face interaction that only VR can simulate, to reproduce the feeling of having a conversation with someone in person. Hanging out with friends and holding business meetings at the speed of the internet will increase the spread of information tremendously.


Massive lawsuit battles

When fans recreate worlds in virtual reality based on their favorite franchise, incumbents (i.e. movie studios and similar content publishers) will be scared. They will sue people and serve takedown notices, reacting as they always have to new technologies because of institutionalized neophobia and a culture of protecting their existing partnerships and business model. But the smarter companies will swiftly adapt to this brave new world and take advantage of VR as a medium to promote their brands. While there may be no lawsuits yet, developers are already building out VR experiences based on IP they don't own (Spirited Away's boiler room, for example).


VR as propaganda

It's easy to look away from a TV commercial or install Adblocker on your browser, but there is no such protection from ads in VR yet. Not only will it be harder to ignore branded messages in VR, but it'll be even easier to be persuaded by them when you're living out a sponsored experience. Interacting with a Coke bottle on CokeWorld as if it were really in your hands will be a much more effective means of advertising than a highway billboard whizzing past your rearview mirror. Besides companies and their brands, imagine what governments might look like in VR for a moment. What happens when powerful institutions figure out that VR is the most effective brainwashing machine ever invented? We must remain vigilant about the dystopic possibility of VR as a means to control a population.


The "solution" to education

The American education system has been broken for decades - educational demand outpaces physical capacity, school buildings have been dilapidated for decades, and field trips are too expensive. When the government realizes that learning is more effective and more engaging inside VR, current tools like textbooks and Powerpoints will look antiquated. As a technology that transports people anywhere in time and space, VR could be the paradigm shift teachers have been waiting for.

The first step requires introducing virtual reality technology into traditional school systems. Providing Rifts to schools to supplement a teachers' lesson plan seems like a reasonable possibility: "Okay kids, time to visit ancient Rome!"

But transforming our education system in any meaningful way may require an entire upheaval of existing educational frameworks. Imagine an artificially intelligent virtual teacher (connected to a Wikipedia-like backend) that could talk like a real person and adapt to a student's strengths and weaknesses. Students of the future might remain at home while absorbing information from the smartest teacher there ever was.


Exercise vs laziness

VR has the potential to be the world's greatest exercise tool or the best excuse to get fat. One vision of the future imagines a zombified population that sits on their ass all day, sustained by a computerized CamelBak food straw. Besides Virtuix's Omni, there aren't a whole lot of physical VR experiences right now. If VR remains a "seated experience," the rising rate of obesity will continue.

Another scenario postulates citizens becoming incredibly fit through strenuous real-life movement reflected in virtual environments. Right now, a generation of celebrity gamers physically trained to win competitions in VR is being born.

Those are two extreme examples, but both will affect a minority of the world's population. As a result of VR, some people will become really fit while others will grow large from eating too many Cheetos in their bedroom.


Job creation and loss

There will be a massive restructuring of the job market as much of the tertiary sector of the economy goes virtual. Companies will come to realize everything can be done for cheaper in virtual reality, destroying jobs that once seemed secure. But the same people kicked to the curb will find new opportunities in virtual reality. Stay-at-home jobs today like assistants, call center representatives, and tech support will be among the first to take advantage of VR.


Reorganization of living spaces

Living space will become incredibly precious as people look to maximize their capacity to walk around in virtual environments. Companies like Survios are making sure that the living room is going to look very different in 10 years. People will make dedicated rooms for VR in their basement, like Community's Dreamatorium.


Arcade renaissance

Arcades will make a comeback with virtual reality if they can provide premium social experiences impossible or impractical to achieve at home. No matter how great VR might be at home, the average consumer will never be able to afford the latest hardware to run games at the highest level. Instead of going bowling or out to a movie theater with friends on the weekend, you'll go to a VR arcade with crazy hydraulic simulator machines and the fastest computers. VRCade is already developing a playspace that tracks your body movement to allow you to walk around virtual environments with friends.


Lower carbon footprint

With worldwide telepresence and virtual tourism, people will not need to travel as often. This will hopefully reduce the rate of global warming. The airline industry is in for a rough time and will have to adapt: why get on a 10 hour flight to Hawaii when you can "be" there instantly from the comfort of your living room?

Cosmo Scharf
April 7th, 2014