I got situated in a swivel chair as the device was pulled over my eyes and noise-canceling headphones were draped over my ears. I was momentarily submerged in darkness before the power button was pressed, and then I was off on my first flight with digital drugs, proudly displayed on the main drag of the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show (CES).
This was one month ago, from Jan. 6-9, when flocks of nerds, engineers, journalists, and trendy startup hipsters alike convened in sunny Las Vegas, Nev. for CES, where exhibitors like Sony, Nikon, Intel, and more show off their latest gizmos and gadgets. The event drew over 170,000 visitors from more than 150 countries, and I was lucky enough to be among them.
Every year, the CES convention hosts an astounding diverse array of technology. However, distinct trends always emerge, illustrating where the industry is headed.
In 2015, it was smartwatches and 4k televisions, but this year virtual reality dominated the show floor.
Leading the charge was Oculus, an American company poised to launch its much anticipated VR headset, dubbed the “Oculus Rift,” in late March.
The Oculus booth served as a Mecca for visitors perusing the main hall of the convention. It offered hands-on demos with the Rift at the expense of a painstaking four-hour wait in line.
I had never experienced virtual reality, but I wasn’t interested in enduring such a trial.
Instead, I opted to dodge the line and try out the Samsung Gear VR, another virtual reality headset on display at the booth developed by Oculus and powered by Android smartphones.
I was assigned to a spot in Oculus’s sleekly designed testing space, complete with rotating seats allowing a full range of motion. An Oculus employee helped me don the gear and set me on my journey.
After a brief period of isolation, a menu appeared, floating in the middle of a room, teeming with options for experiences. Looking around, I saw walls, furniture, even a ceiling.
In an instant, Vegas had disappeared and an entirely new environment materialized around me.
By the end of the demo, I had stood by an Eskimo as she went ice fishing, trained my reflexes at a ninja academy, and directed troops on a battlefield from the comfort of an orbiting spaceship.
The adventure was mind-blowing, and it was fun… until I took off the goggles.
Once I was back in the booth, back among the loud, bustling chaos of the convention, I was struck by how quickly I had forgotten I was there.
The graphics in the headset aren’t exactly life-like quality, but coupled with sounds, they were enough to trick my brain into thinking I was somewhere else.
The virtual reality didn’t feel all that virtual while I was living it.
Almost immediately after returning to Earth, I was flooded with thoughts of this technology’s possible uses: “Brave New World”-style visits to the “Feelies,” first-person immersive versions of “The Sims,” or simulated acid trips.
I imagined the implications for health, children and adults forgetting where they are, forgetting to eat, and dying of starvation.
It happens now with traditional video games. CNN reported two deaths following “non-stop” gaming binges in January of 2015, and the DSM-5 now recognizes “Internet Gaming Disorder” as a form of psychological addiction.
Virtual reality, even in its primitive state, offers users an intensely more immersive experience than a typical computer screen.
It seems reasonable to suspect deeper immersion will come with increased risk of self-neglect, but not just for gamers. Anyone addicted to perceptions, altered or otherwise, could find themselves hooked on VR.
Once the technology advances enough, people enticed by psychedelics could tune in to endless hallucinations, perfectly suited to their tastes, or obsessive compulsives could play out their fixations without interruption.
Right now, VR depends on feeding the brain new observations in the form of sights and sounds. That may not seem like a lot, but the brain’s job is to receive sense-input and use it to build our reality.
As hardware gets better and better at generating input, anything is possible.
But what does it say about our society when in the 1960s our country’s greatest technological minds converged on exploring our reality, and now they are racing to escape it?
All of these contemplations reminded me of a famous thought experiment devised in 1974 by philosopher Robert Nozick called “The Experience Machine.” He describes it as follows in his book “Anarchy, State, and Utopia”:
“Suppose there was an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired…you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain…Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think it’s all actually happening…Would you plug in?”
Nozick argues we wouldn’t. He claims that “plugging into the machine is a kind of suicide” and affirms that humans want “to do certain things, and not just have the experience of doing them.”
I want to believe Nozick, but there’s an awfully long line of people waiting at the Oculus booth that have me convinced otherwise.
Bryce Detweiler is a third-year student majoring in communications studies and philosophy. He can be reached at BD846487@wcupa.edu.