It’s both tantalizing and terrifying – the notion that reality does not have to be as we currently experience it. From Plato’s cave to The Matrix, the idea that the world is not what it appears to be is not new, but it’s one that in recent years has taken some tremendous steps forward thanks to the realization of technologies that have the potential to make a virtual universe a real reality.
Perception is reality
It’s an idea that we really need to stretch our brains to think about. All that we have are our perceptions, the input that comes in from our five senses which our brain then puts together to create a codified experience. Everything that you think is real is inside your head.
When you look at a flower, you don’t see the flower. The specialized nerves in your eyes sense the light that’s bouncing back off of the petals and transmits that information to your brain, which decodes it into an image that you then perceive as the flower. When you feel the grass on your feet, that sensation is something that comes from your body. The spiky/softness is all about what the nerves in your feet are picking up, something that can be vastly different from the reality. Our senses give us a profoundly personal understanding of the world, which is the reason that two people can experience the same thing in vastly different ways.
This goes even further, all the way down to the quantum level. Recently scientists at the Australian National University discovered that whether atoms act like particles or waves might have nothing to do with how they’re acting but rather how they are measured. That means that even on the quantum level it’s all about perception and that reality is perhaps debatable.
But it’s not just the physical world that can fool us, the emotional reality of our existence is also incredibly perception based. Human interactions and the feelings that they elicit are just as much based upon our brain’s interpretation as the five sense.
The truly fascinating part is that your reality is still completely valid because it is what you experience, there is no other way for you to experience the world.
Or is there?
Because perception is everything, there’s a lot of room for manipulation. What matters isn’t what’s actually there, all that matters is what the five senses perceive to be there. Even when we have technology that extends that reality, like a microphone or a quantum electron microscope, it’s still the senses that matter. The human brain and the reality that it constructs continues to be the center of the world.
This perceptual reality offers a fertile ground for extension and augmentation. The human brain takes tremendous shortcuts in order to become more efficient, often filling in gaps in information or making assumptions in order to speed things up. Technology offers the chance to take advantage of those shortcuts in order to fool the senses and the brain into experiencing things that don’t exist.
Today we’re seeing this kind of technological integration more and more.
Technologies like Google Glass, Microsoft’s HoloLens, and Facebook’s Oculus technology further enhance the reality experience. There is incredible variety in the way that these technologies pull users into the virtual world, manipulating sight and sound to pull users into the virtual world while staying grounded in the real one.
Pokemon GO is one of the highest profile augmented reality programs to hit the market yet. Set to roll out this year, it will allow lovers of pocket monsters to go out into the real world and capture creatures that exist purely in the virtual one through their smartphone or tablet. Users will wear a bluetooth device that alerts them with a “Pokemon” is nearby, allowing them to virtually capture it. Battle modes and trading capability enhance the user experience, stretching it out to a social level with other players.
Cues don’t have to come from traditional sources in order for us to respond to as though they were real. Thanks to the rise of social media and oncoming improvements in artificial intelligence, our emotional lives and sensations prove to be more malleable than we ever thought possible. As our real relationships move more and more into the virtual world, it will become that much easier for relationships to be formed with artificial entities.
Augmented reality is an essential step on the path to a completely virtual reality, in part because it creates a seamless transition between the virtual world and the real one. The real world does offer something palpably different for the senses, even though our perceptions are so easily manipulated. As people become more and more accustomed to stimulation from non-real sources, that line between what is real and what is virtual becomes less and less easy to delineate.
A virtual universe?
Reality is truly becoming less and less real. Over the last decade, humans have seen an exponential upswing in the amount of time that we spend interacting with the virtual world rather than interacting with the real world.
If you want to know how long it will be before mankind creates a virtual universe, then your first step in figuring that out is to look around you. People in your own world, right now today, are less and less involved in the world around them as life becomes more and more enmeshed with online and virtual realities – and we love it. The running gag is that we don’t look up from our smartphones at the dinner table, but the truth is that this constant immersion could well be a signal of the virtual universe that mankind is creating. Augmented reality is taking us to the next level, but a more comprehensive replacement of reality is a next step that’s not far off.
With the accelerated pace of technology, it’s completely conceivable that a virtual universe will be a reality in the next several decades. The question, one that’s far too big to answer here, is what kind of impact it will have on humanity.