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Virtual reality will bring us closer to the human condition

Here’s the potential power of VR — to create new realities where we can be what we choose to be, rather than what we are told to be or born to be.

Many people think that virtual reality will isolate us. This February photo of Mark Zuckerberg walking through a room filled with people wearing VR headsets drew particular ire, as people who saw it projected a dystopian future of human seclusion:

Mark Zuckerberg via Facebook

As someone who has been passionate about virtual worlds for 20 years, since before technology was capable of even supporting VR, I disagree. I believe that VR will help us understand and relate to each other — and ourselves — in ways we can hardly imagine.

I have been fascinated with VR for a very long time. In 1996, I was on a team that created one of the forerunners to VR with the VRML browser OZ Virtual. We applied many of those learnings to EVE Online, a massive sci-fi gaming universe that’s now in its 13th year.

With EVE Online, we sought to create a living, breathing virtual world. EVE Online players govern themselves, choose their own professions and build their own community. They can amass power and wealth and trust and lose it all in the matter of minutes, just like in the real world. In many ways, life in the EVE universe feels just as meaningful as real life. The friendships you make, the betrayals you experience, and all the other emotions you feel are just as authentic.

In EVE, more so than in the real world, you are free to become whatever you want to be. You can be a galactic explorer, lead thousands of ships in battle, or amass huge amounts of wealth. With the right ambition, you can truly self-actualize.

But even the most beautifully imagined virtual world comes with certain barriers when experienced on a computer screen. The keyboard, the mouse and the room in which you’re playing all separate you from the world you’re exploring — your own unavoidable fourth wall.

What excites me most about VR is the possibility of removing those barriers. When I first experienced a VR headset, it felt so genuine that I was surprised when I looked down and saw that my clothes were different than the ones I had put on in the morning. The virtual world was real. That is a remarkable step closer to creating virtual worlds that are as meaningful as real life.

The technology advancements are exciting. The games are exciting. More so though, I believe that virtual reality will teach us more about the human condition.

The virtual is real

I won’t judge you for looking at someone wearing a VR headset — mouth agape in awe, grasping at empty space — and thinking that it looks more like a withdrawal from humanity than the next step in human evolution. But the search for new ways to define what it means to be human is a uniquely human endeavor. Using technology has been a part of that exploration for thousands of years, since the Sumerians etched the Epic of Gilgamesh into clay tablets.

When I think about VR, I think about the theater. In the sixth century BCE, Athenian stories began to unravel on stage that explored aspects of being a person in new and different ways. With theater, we can relive life and all its challenges and emotions, putting a microscope on the aspects that characterize being human. Fast-forward to radio and television, and now that same theater experience can be felt by millions. For example, my home country of Iceland is a small island nation, but millions around the world were able to take part in a shared joy and pride when we played England in the UEFA EURO 2016 quarterfinals. Those moments bring us closer together.

VR can take shared experiences to new levels of intimacy. You can put yourself in the experience of another person. Imagine experiencing theater from the actor’s perspective. The stage is removed. The crowd is removed. Suddenly you are Odysseus returning home after 10 years of adventures, or you are Julius Caesar staring into the eyes of Brutus. VR will be able to provide a yet-undiscovered level of empathy through shared experience.

VR also removes the friction that keeps our brains from recognizing something as real or unreal, and adds immediacy to our acceptance of new environments. As immersive as EVE Online is, the screen, the mouse and the keyboard are all screaming that the space you are seeing isn’t real. Eventually, the players overcome that friction and experience EVE Online as something real, but with VR, that acclimation is immediate. Your brain is engaged immediately, the electrons fire, and you are immersed in a new world.

The way forward

There are still hurdles to overcome with VR. The ergonomics must become better and feel more natural, the prices must come down, and the tether must be removed. But these are all well-worn processes of commercialization. Mobile phones have already laid the path from coding to miniaturization, infrastructure and ecosystem. In the next three to five years, VR will become smaller, cheaper and faster. Then we will have good VR for everyone. After that, it gets really exciting.

As a society, we have agreed to (mostly) accept virtual things, and once we accept those things, they become reality. The value of currency is virtual, our social hierarchy is virtual, and countries are virtual; those things are only reality because we believe they are reality.

Therein lies the potential power of VR — to create new realities where we can be what we choose to be, rather than what we are told to be or born to be. The exciting part will be reaching closer to our fantasies and our dreams and even each other, putting behind our limitations and becoming who we want to be. The exciting part is stripping away the barriers and finding out what it really means to be human.

Hilmar Veigar Pétursson is the CEO of CCP, maker of the acclaimed science-fiction game, EVE Online. CCP is an early developer of VR games, having released the virtual-reality arcade shooter Gunjack for the Samsung Gear VR in 2015, and EVE: Valkyrie with the launch of Oculus Rift. CCP is one of the only game developers with projects slated for every major VR project, including HTC Vive, PlayStation VR on PlayStation and Google’s Daydream. Reach him @HilmarVeigar.

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