What would it take to create a fully immersive virtual reality?

How could we create a technology capable of replacing our own reality?

  • Immersion would consist of a complete perception of existing in another world.
  • This idea has been the backbone of numerous stories and would be akin to The Matrix world.
  • Our current VR technology is nowhere near close to giving us this science fiction experience.

Immersive virtual reality is the theoretical holy grail of future technologies. A fully immersive VR world would be able to encompass every single sense and interact directly with the brain and nervous system. In some sense it could even be a replacement for consensus reality. Eat your heart out, Descartes. There have been countless iterations of this idea through both fictional and philosophical works.

The path towards realizing this incredible technology is paved with an enormous amount of what-ifs and wild speculative technological capabilities. But pondering this idea is half the fun. Here's what it would take to create a fully immersive virtual world.

What is a fully immersive virtual reality? 

The varied representations of this technology share many commonalities. People connecting to the system are often booted in through some kind of central nervous system jack and then made unconscious of their physical body and surrounding environment.

We interact with the world through our senses, which are nerve impulses in different degrees of fidelity. A fully virtual world would be able to reproduce all of our senses and more fantastical feelings, thoughts and more in a completely artificial environment. The possibilities for experience are endless.

For those familiar with William Gibson's novel Neuromancer, the Cyberdeck brings to mind an example of a fully immersive VR landscape. At one point in the novel, the protagonist Case remarks about cyberspace:

"Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts... A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding..."

Whether it's a kind of headset, nervous system jacked-in wire, humans suspended in some eternal vat or other disembodied consciousness, this science fiction technology is far out and eons ahead of anything we're now capable of experiencing with our limited VR & AR glasses.

What theoretical technology is needed?

It's difficult to get a grasp on where to even begin development on this technology as it is an intersection between computing, neuroscience, and biology just to start. Take for example what would be needed in terms of a feedback system between the user and computer. The brain-to-machine bandwidth would require incredible feats of computing tech to pass through all that information.

In terms of history, the computer age is in its absolute infancy. Biological systems have been cranking at it for 3.5 billion years. The convergence of these two is going to take a lot more knowledge of all their intricate workings. Right now we lack any uniform insight into what human consciousness is and the interworking relationship between the brain and nervous system.

We've done a great job learning and understanding how individual processes work, but as a whole we don't know much. Aside from some limited brain to speech technologies and other assorted brain and nervous system experiments, scientists haven't had much luck getting a controlling grasp on the systems of control even when it comes to experimenting on non-human life forms.

For example, scientists have been able to modify the behavior of a certain cockroach species by connecting wires into its antennae and shifting its movement a little bit. Yet as a relatively simple animal, our understanding of its control systems still lags behind.

The biggest barrier to understanding and synthesizing all of this into one uniform technology is the disparate paths that these different sciences take. An upheaval and disruption in computing a neuroscience revolution and the will to merge all of this together is needed.

While this fully immersive virtual world still exists on the peripheries of our dreams, we can contribute to the technology already in place. Slap on a pair of VR glasses today and you'll be amazed at how far we've come in the past few decades. Although the current reality is pessimistic about the near-term possibilities of full VR immersion, don't despair. The ever beating drum of scientific progress is elusive but always near.

Are we living in a simulation?

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What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

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Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

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  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.

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