Looking back on past ideas about what the future would be like has long been a source of massive amusement to younger generations and one of disappointment to older folk – anyone else still waiting patiently for the personalised jet packs that would make the daily commute a doddle – and tremendous fun! – as was promised in 80s and 90s television shows like Tomorrow’s World and other like it? Yeah, me too… Anyway, our conceptions about innovations that haven’t been invented yet are often at once fairly close, yet amusingly wrong – for example, when the idea of electric lights was first described, some residents refused to countenance the idea, thinking that the light would not be constant and steady, rather that it would flicker and flash like lightning. Others believed that the light would be far too bright for human eyes, and that it would cause blindness and prevent peaceful sleep from taking place. These worries seem laughable now, but at the time, there was no scientific evidence either way and they seemed plausible and even possible to the more conservative members of the population!
In much the same way, virtual reality has always seemed dangerous to writers – the brave vanguard of the imagination who lead the way and show fiction how to become science fiction, and science fiction how to become science fact. (If you don’t believe me, a little research into Star Trek will reveal how scientists used many of the ‘space age’ inventions as a baseline for modern inventions – Skype, mobile phones, wireless connections – all appeared on the small and big screens long before they became realities now so integral to our lives that we can scarcely imagine trying to get by without them!)
At first, as always, virtual reality seemed to be dangerous: a seductive wonderland where you could be whoever you wanted to be, you could perform acts and commit crimes that the real you would never dare to attempt, and you could change your appearance, gender, size and age with the click of a keyboard – and all at a dreadful price. Lawnmower Man, television shows like A Town Called Eureka and Warehouse 13, and several works of literary fiction all show the dangers of entering an unreal world. These tales include visions of people becoming so caught up in their make-believe worlds that they refuse to come out of it, risking starving to death or suffering renal failure from neglecting their bathroom visits.
However, the reality – so far – is immersive, but not exclusively so. No one – so far – has been so deeply embedded into the fake world that they cannot find their way back to real life, and no one – so far – has found out how to transform their consciousness into a living cloud of data, able to race down telephone lines and over data connections with little to stop them save a carefully crafted computer virus. There have been a few cases of gamers being so deeply addicted to their games that they have suffered from medical issues due to neglecting their basic bodily functions such as eating and sleeping properly, along with having regular bathroom breaks – but these unfortunate addicts were playing regular video games, firmly seated in their bedrooms or offices – not secure in the mistaken belief that they were living an entirely different life in a fantasy world…
As with all innovations, virtual reality is not the villain. Rather, it is a tool that people will use and love, or use and hate and how much it impacts on any life will depend on that person and their particular tech needs at the time.