If the future is full of VR addicts, should we bring them back to reality?

VR technology shows no signs of slowing down. We need to start asking the question of how we deal with those of us who become addicted to the wonders VR offers.

A man puts on a VR headset. (Photo: JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images)
Ready Player One? (Photo: JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images)

It seems that there are advances in virtual reality (VR) technology on a daily basis. VR versions of popular video games are being released to great acclaim, art installations that utilize VR are increasingly common, and VR films are always a possibility even if they might be further off. 

Most tech geeks look forward to the day when a totally immersive VR experience is available. While current devices like the Oculus Rift can have issues, such as causing motion sickness and weighing enough to limit our ability to suspend disbelief, it isn’t inconceivable that these issues will be resolved in the not too distant future. Before we get there, we may want to ask: what happens if people get hooked on virtual life?  

What happens if people become addicted to VR experiences?

Today there is the problem of internet addiction and excessive time spent with digital media. A recent CNN report claimed that, "For 8 to 12 year olds, the average time spent using screen media every day was 4 hours and 36 minutes, according to a 2015 Common Sense Media report. Tweens spent an average of 4½ hours per day with screen media and 6 hours with all media, including reading and listening to music." This can be bad, as Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University and author, showed in a recent study: eighth graders who are heavy users of social media are at higher risk of depression. 

It must be noted, however, that her research does not prove that social media use causes depression. She only shows that those who do use it excessively are more likely to be depressed. 

Twenge’s writings even inspired two major shareholders in Apple to write a letter in which they argued that: “It would defy common sense to argue that this level of usage, by children whose brains are still developing, is not having at least some impact, or that the maker of such a powerful product has no role to play in helping parents to ensure it is being used optimally.”

The open letter encouraged Apple to be more thoughtful about the issue. The idea that excessive use of technology might be problematic for young people isn’t new but is increasingly relevant as technology advances and becomes ever more present in our daily lives.

While the vast majority of internet use is harmless, internet addiction is a real thing that can rewire the brain. It is known that the blue light from your smartphone can disrupt your sleep patterns and too much light at night is associated with “some types of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.” None of these problems are made easier to solve when you remember that some of our favorite applications are designed to be addictive.

Internet addiction is a different kind of addiction than drug use, but it remains a genuine problem for many people. Currently, addictions to internet use are cured with therapy, behavior management systems, and harm reduction strategies. These solutions could be used with virtual reality addiction just as easily, but would we ever want to wean ourselves off a perfect VR once we get it?

Welcome to the desert of the real

Ideas about a false reality indistinguishable from the real world are more than two thousand years old. However, while Plato and Zhuang Zhou could only speak of dreams when describing a lifelike false reality, the problem of distinguishing reality from fantasy might take on a new and pressing relevance to us as virtual reality technology moves ever closer to perfection.

The problem of improved versions of the things people get addicted to now looms. People today suffer from addictions to internet pornography; how much worse will it be when VR porn becomes not only possible but easily accessed? Many people claim to be addicted to playing online games, and there have been several extremely tragic deaths due to it. Imagine how badly people will have it when the games are totally immersive and have features such as perfectly realistic graphics. While these examples might be questions of scale, as they are the same addictions as people have now, other problems become trickier to solve.

Suppose a person decided they liked a simulated reality better than the real one, would we have to intervene? If the intervention came too late, would we be able to say that this reality was their "real” one any longer? What would it mean for society if a large number of people spent all their free time in a simulated world and only engaged with the real one as was necessary?

This idea was explored in the book (and now blockbuster film) Ready Player One. In the story, the world of the 2040s is so dystopian that most people spend as much waking time as possible in a virtual reality game. As was mentioned in a critical review of the film, there seems to be little interest in actually improving the world as a result of this escapism.  

While this may be analogous to helping a person who plays too many video games cut back, the problem may be harder to solve when today's technology no longer limits their experience. While the same tools may be used, their effectiveness may be reduced in the face of more enticing experiences. 

The questions of how we will handle the problems of addiction and escapism become ever more important as we get closer to the day when inexpensive and near perfect simulated realities become widely available. Until then, try to take a break from the Internet every once in a while and enjoy the wonders of VR—if you can handle the motion sickness. 

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.


Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

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Photo by Reinhart Julian on Unsplash
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Image: u/curiouskip, reproduced with kind permission.
Strange Maps
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