The Rise of Virtual Reality: From Campfire to Oculus

The Rise of Virtual Reality: From Campfire to Oculus


Reading is a fairly recent phenomenon. It's generally accepted that language developed in the human species between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago. The written word, however, came much later, and was first used by the Sumerians for simple legal and administrative matters. After this, for thousands of years, the privilege was constrained to an elite few - the upper and priest classes. But with the advent of the printing press in the mid 1400s, reading finally became a global phenomenon, available to the common person as well as the noble.

This begs the question: why is reading so important? Simple: it allows us to learn new things with no first hand experience. We can read the biography of someone that we admire and heed their warnings. We can inject ourselves into the lives of the Capulets and Montagues and finally understand exactly what it means to be fully in love. We can get the distilled wisdom of great money managers in just a couple hundred pages, and suck up the learnings generated from billions of dollars of mistakes. In a very real sense, reading is low tech virtual reality. Using only our imaginations and the power of visualization we can jump into another era, another body, another world.

Because of the low cost of producing a book, millions and millions have been created. This means that we have an almost infinite number of perspectives and lives that we can inhabit. We can jump into the mind of a Roman statesman, through Cicero, or that of a heroin addict through the scribblings of Burroughs -- the list goes on and on. While movies and television have provided us with a more intense form of virtual simulation, they are not as plentiful, and thus don’t give us the same benefit of choice. In addition, they don’t generally give us the same first person perspective that writing does. And, they come with a cost.

In the past, when our lives contained less stimulation and allowed us more concentration, it’s likely that our powers of clear-headed visualization were stronger. As any experienced meditator will tell you, a still mind is necessary for building flow and vivid mental imagery. When the waves of mental machination settle, it’s possible to build crystal clear mental pictures. This is a skill like anything else -- it can be trained. Today, however, we’re not pushed to use our visualization skills very often. In fact, our standard forms of entertainment (television and movies) do the visualization for us. While it’s been common practice for people sit around a fireplace and tell stories for thousands of years, today they sit in front of glowing televisions and idly stare by as stories are conjured up in front of their passive eyes.

So, it’s likely that our newer technologies are making it less and less possible for us to enjoy the glory and benefit of our earlier, but more plentiful, linguistic technologies -- namely reading and storytelling. But let’s face it, we’re not going to suddenly stop watching television and movies. This means that we need something new and better. And, it might be here: immersive, sight and sound virtual reality. For just a couple hundred dollars, you can purchase an Oculus, or a number of other products, and experience the world through a myriad of new stimulating first person perspectives. While gaming is the obvious first use case, I believe the most exciting uses are for training and learning purposes. Instead of reading about what it’s like to be a fireman, you’ll be able to actually live the Go-Pro footage and audio of a fireman in the midst of an intense inferno. Instead of reading about what it’s like to run an intense board meeting, you’ll be able to look through the eyes of a CEO, across a table filled with hand-wringing individuals, and feel what it’s like to make the key strategic decision. The possibilities are endless.

With virtual reality, we’re outsourcing our visualization capabilities to a new technology, and the quality of learning, and intensity of experience, might very well make it a worthwhile bargain. We’ll see.

Image: US Department of Defense

U.S. Navy controls inventions that claim to change "fabric of reality"

Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.

U.S. Navy ships

Credit: Getty Images
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  • U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
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Why so gassy? Mysterious methane detected on Saturn’s moon

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An impression of NASA's Cassini spacecraft flying through a water plume on the surface of Saturn's moon Enceladus.

Credit: NASA
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CRISPR therapy cures first genetic disorder inside the body

It marks a breakthrough in using gene editing to treat diseases.

Credit: National Cancer Institute via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published by our sister site, Freethink.

For the first time, researchers appear to have effectively treated a genetic disorder by directly injecting a CRISPR therapy into patients' bloodstreams — overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to curing diseases with the gene editing technology.

The therapy appears to be astonishingly effective, editing nearly every cell in the liver to stop a disease-causing mutation.

The challenge: CRISPR gives us the ability to correct genetic mutations, and given that such mutations are responsible for more than 6,000 human diseases, the tech has the potential to dramatically improve human health.

One way to use CRISPR to treat diseases is to remove affected cells from a patient, edit out the mutation in the lab, and place the cells back in the body to replicate — that's how one team functionally cured people with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, editing and then infusing bone marrow cells.

Bone marrow is a special case, though, and many mutations cause disease in organs that are harder to fix.

Another option is to insert the CRISPR system itself into the body so that it can make edits directly in the affected organs (that's only been attempted once, in an ongoing study in which people had a CRISPR therapy injected into their eyes to treat a rare vision disorder).

Injecting a CRISPR therapy right into the bloodstream has been a problem, though, because the therapy has to find the right cells to edit. An inherited mutation will be in the DNA of every cell of your body, but if it only causes disease in the liver, you don't want your therapy being used up in the pancreas or kidneys.

A new CRISPR therapy: Now, researchers from Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have demonstrated for the first time that a CRISPR therapy delivered into the bloodstream can travel to desired tissues to make edits.

We can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically.

—JENNIFER DOUDNA

"This is a major milestone for patients," Jennifer Doudna, co-developer of CRISPR, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR.

"While these are early data, they show us that we can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically so far, which is being able to deliver it systemically and get it to the right place," she continued.

What they did: During a phase 1 clinical trial, Intellia researchers injected a CRISPR therapy dubbed NTLA-2001 into the bloodstreams of six people with a rare, potentially fatal genetic disorder called transthyretin amyloidosis.

The livers of people with transthyretin amyloidosis produce a destructive protein, and the CRISPR therapy was designed to target the gene that makes the protein and halt its production. After just one injection of NTLA-2001, the three patients given a higher dose saw their levels of the protein drop by 80% to 96%.

A better option: The CRISPR therapy produced only mild adverse effects and did lower the protein levels, but we don't know yet if the effect will be permanent. It'll also be a few months before we know if the therapy can alleviate the symptoms of transthyretin amyloidosis.

This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine.

—FYODOR URNOV

If everything goes as hoped, though, NTLA-2001 could one day offer a better treatment option for transthyretin amyloidosis than a currently approved medication, patisiran, which only reduces toxic protein levels by 81% and must be injected regularly.

Looking ahead: Even more exciting than NTLA-2001's potential impact on transthyretin amyloidosis, though, is the knowledge that we may be able to use CRISPR injections to treat other genetic disorders that are difficult to target directly, such as heart or brain diseases.

"This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine," Fyodor Urnov, a UC Berkeley professor of genetics, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR. "We as a species are watching this remarkable new show called: our gene-edited future."

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