Why virtual reality is necessary on a planet of 11 billion

Virtual reality is more than a trick. It's a solution to big problems.

PETER DIAMANDIS: Every year I spend time thinking about what are the technologies going from deceptive to disruptive this year that today's exponential leaders need to be thinking about and actually beginning to work with. And for this coming year, for the next few years my view is that virtual reality is part of that. And it's gotten different terms and there are different elements of it, virtual world, virtual reality, augmented reality. And really the kickoff was the purchase of Oculus Rift by Facebook for a couple of billion dollars. But in addition to that what we've seen is a number of technologies coming together – infinite computing, very cheap high resolution cameras, machine learning capabilities, low latency, high bandwidth networks. All of these things are coming together to reinvent the virtual world experience.

JEREMY BAILENSON: If you think about cars. Forty thousand people died in the United States last year driving, 1.3 million worldwide died in car accidents. Think about the productivity lost by sitting in a box for an hour each way to and from work. Think about the fossil fuel that we're burning while we commute back and forth to work. Think about the road rage. Think about the germs that you get on public transportation. I'm not claiming that we should not see people. I love social connection. What I'm saying is that there's a subset of travel that if you think about it, why do we drive all the way to work so we can sit at a desk and pound on a computer? Maybe we only need to go two days to work. And for those meetings that are not essential we need to put those in VR. We cannot support a planet of 11 billion people which we'll be at quite soon with everybody driving and flying everywhere using fossil fuels it's just not going to happen. So, why don't we have networked meetings yet? And the answer is because there's this secret sauce, this social presence that we have face to face that we don't get with video conference yet and VR isn't there yet. So what we need to do is to be able to track more body movements. The bottleneck is actually not bandwidth because avatar-based communication is cheaper from an bandwidth standpoint than video. The reason is if you're doing an avatar-based communication, all the 3D models for the avatars are stored locally on each machine. What travels over the network is the tracking data. So, locally a camera detects that I smiled and then it sends over network a packet that says smile at 22 percent. And then on the other computer it then draws that smile. So you're not sending visual information over the network. What you're sending is very cheap information which is semantic information about movements. The bottleneck is we can't track movements that accurately so if you think of the commercial systems right now they track what we call 18 degrees of freedom. Your head and both hands. You can do rotation which has three and X, Y and Z which is obviously three. And so you've got 18 points, two hands and a head. In order to have the conversation flow we need to have subtle cheek movements and the twitch of my elbow, everything I do communicates meaning whether I'm doing it intentionally or not.

DIAMANDIS: Imagine a virtual reality experience where when you go into such a reality world everything looks like it's real and you can navigate around it and begin to do extraordinary things in this high fidelity world. At home you will have yourself 3D scanned down to the millimeter. I then enter into a virtual world and I have an AI there that is my shopping advisor. It says Peter, what are you looking for? And all of a sudden in this virtual world everything I see is in my size, in the colors I want, recommended by this AI. And I can say, you know, I'd love to see a fashion show. On a runway are avatars of me wearing all these different outfits walking by and I can say I want to see that one and that one and all of a sudden I'm looking in a virtual mirror and I'm wearing that outfit. And I can look around, see what it looks like and I go, "This is it. I want that." Boom, it's produced, manufactured to my exact size probably using 3D printing capabilities or robotic capabilities that afternoon in the local factory and delivered the next morning and it fits perfectly. So that's the future of the virtual retail store if you would and why I think virtual reality is going to do effectively a hundredfold improvement over what the Amazon experience is today.

JORDAN GREENHALL: The line between what it means to be dreaming and what it means to be awake is going to become very interesting. It's going to become more and more interesting because remember, VR is just one piece of a generalized consequence of accelerating technology. And so it's not just that we're going to be doing VR. We're also going to be radically improving our actuation capacity in the world in general. And so we can imagine circumstances where I might craft an object in VR and then say in quasi real time some mechanism is, in fact, actually 3D printing that object so that I reach out, take off my VR glasses and the thing that I thought I was creating in an entirely imaginary space is actually physically present in my hand. That's going to cause some very interesting changes in the way that we relate to the difference between what reality can do and what imagination can do. VR is extremely well positioned to create a designed reality that you are going to have a very, very hard time rejecting. If you think about the way the propaganda back in the early twentieth century got good at understanding how human beings parse information to make decisions and getting in underneath our psychological defense mechanisms, VR is 100 million times more capable of engaging in that. The good news is that if we do a much, much better job at being let's call it ethical and crafting a relationship between our power to affect the world and the way that power affects us. So, if we do a much, much better job at being ethical around VR then it will be the most powerful tool that we have for radically improving the way that we respond to the world. For upgrading our capacity to respond to the world because it would be a much more embodied and whole system hack for our deep constructs.

DANFUNG DENNIS: I can place people into worlds that they may never otherwise see and experience something firsthand in a way that is very different than watching a film. You recall it as a memory instead of I saw a movie, I actually was there in this experience. And so those memories actually encode in a stronger way and I think that allows us to reflect and process them in a more personal way. And so I think we're just beginning on this curve of VR where the technology, the storytelling, they're starting to come together where we're passing the prototype phase and we can actually use it to create these profound experiences where people come out after even ten minutes, come out of a headset and they will say I was so moved by that. And a year later will come back and say that experience changed my life.

BAILENSON: Since 2003 I've been running experiments that take a person, puts her in virtual reality and gives her an experience that you couldn't have in the real world. This could be being in a different place or it could actually be becoming a different person. So, the first study we ran was about ageism and we took college age students and they walked up to a virtual mirror. And the reason we have a virtual mirror is to show the person they become different via a process called body transfer. This is a neuroscientific process where if you move your physical body and you have an avatar that moves what's called synchronously – that means at the same time that you move your arm you see its arm move and you see that in a mirror as well as in the first person. Over time the part of the brain that contains the schema for the self expands and includes this external representation as part of the body. So, by using a virtual mirror and showing somebody moving with the mirror you can literally feel like you've become someone else. You can be a different gender, a different age. You can become disabled. You can have a different skin color. And our first study took college age students. We had them become older, about 60 to 70 years old. We then networked a second person into virtual reality and there was a conversation between the two. Over time the conversation turned to stereotypical concepts about being older. So perhaps you didn't have a good memory and these stereotypes were activated in the conversation. So while wearing the body of someone else who's an older person I felt discrimination firsthand as a subject. And what we showed in that first study published in 2005 was that subjects who had gone through this treatment became less ageist when they came out. For example, if you asked them to list words about the elderly they were less likely to list words that were stereotypical.

JASON SILVA: Virtual reality like other media technologies, like cinema, is an engine of empathy. With a movie theater, the size of the screen, the surround sound audio puts you there. With the Oculus Rift potentially you're surrounded now by the media, by the simulated dreamscape. So you are even more there. So when I say an agent of empathy the UN released a virtual reality film of a Syrian refugee camp. The fact that we're able to put reporters now virtually on the ground elicits a sort of experience that is so much more visceral, so much more powerful that the illusive sense of presence that literally puts you in a liminal trance state. Your defenses get lowered, you forget yourself, you forget your problems, you are there. You are in the moment. And so the power of that as an engine of empathy I think can't hurt humanity. I think it's like they talk in the movie Interstellar our empathy rarely extends beyond our line of sight. And I think with virtual reality and the Oculus Rift we now are extending our line of sight by being able to go everywhere at the speed of mind.

DENNIS: So this interactive experience in which you're training yourself to emotionally resonate, training yourself to take an action. This will carry on within you in your mind and your body after that headset has been taken off. So this ability to I think improve ourselves to become a more empathic and compassionate society is what I hope we will use this technology for.

  • According to projections shared by the UN, Earth's population is expected to reach 9.7 billion in 2050. By the year 2100, that number could increase to 11 billion. Virtual reality will be necessary to reduce the waste of such a large population in industries like transport, retail, and manufacturing.
  • As an existing technology, there is a lot that virtual reality can do: rich and immersive environments, heightened storytelling, emotionally resonant experiences, and increased productivity in retail. But it's only in its infancy.
  • As the world's population continues to grow, the technology will need to evolve to facilitate a larger network of users, and developers will have to think harder about the technological potential and the ethical, neurological, and emotional side effects.


Live on Monday: Does the US need one billion people?

What would happen if you tripled the US population? Join Matthew Yglesias and Charles Duhigg at 1pm ET on Monday, September 28.

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