Virtual Reality Goes Mainstream: A Complex Convolution

Annual Question: 

Thomas Metzinger

Suppose you have just popped one of those new hedonic enhancement pills for virtual environments. Not the dramatic, illegal stuff they now discuss at—that’s way too dangerous. No, just the legal pharmaceutical enhancement that came as a free direct-to-consumer advertising gift with the gadget itself. It has the great advantage of blocking nausea and thereby stabilizing the real-time, fMRI-based neurofeedback-loop into your own virtual reality (allowing you to interact with the unconscious causes of your own feelings directly, as if they were now part of an external environment), while at the same time nicely minimizing the risk of depersonalization disorder and Truman Show delusion. Those pills also reliably prevent addiction and the diminished sense of agency upon re-entering the physical body following long-time immersion—at least the package leaflet says so. As you turn on the device, two of your "Selfbook-friends" are already there, briefly flashing their digital subject identifiers. Their avatars immediately make eye contact and smile at you, and you automatically smile back while you feel the pill taking effect. Fortunately, they can see neither the new Immersive Porn trial version nor the expensive avatar that represents your Compassionate Self. You only use that twice a week in your psychotherapy sessions. The NSA, however, sees everything.

2016 will be the year in which VR finally breaks through at the mass consumer level. What is more, users will soon be enabled to toggle between virtual, augmented, and substitutional reality, experiencing virtual elements intermixed with their “actual” physical environment or an omnidirectional video feed giving them the illusion of being in a different location in space and/or time, while insight may not always be preserved. Oculus Rift, Zeiss VR One, Sony PlayStation VR, HTC Vive, Samsung’s Galaxy Gear VR or Microsoft’s HoloLens are just the very beginning, and it is hard to predict the psychosocial consequences over the next two decades, as an accelerating technological development will now be driven by massive market forces—and not by scientists anymore. There will be great benefits (just think of the clinical applications) and a host of new ethical issues ranging from military applications to data protection (for example, “kinematic fingerprints” generated by motion capture systems or avatar ownership and individuation will become important questions for regulatory agencies to consider).

The real news, however, may be that the general public will gradually acquire a new and intuitive understanding of what their very own conscious experience really is and what it always has been. VR is the representation of possible worlds and possible selves, with the aim of making them appear as real as possible—ideally, by creating a subjective sense of “presence” in the user. Interestingly, some of our best theories of the human mind and conscious experience describe it in a very similar way: Leading theoretical neurobiologists like Karl Friston and eminent philosophers like Jakob Hohwy and Andy Clark describe it as the constant creation of internal models of the world, virtual neural representations of reality which express probability density functions and work by continuously generating hypotheses about the hidden causes of sensory input, minimizing their prediction error. In 1995, Finnish philosopher Antti Revonsuo already pointed out how conscious experience exactly is a virtual model of the world, a dynamic internal simulation, which in standard situations cannot be experienced as a virtual model because it is phenomenally transparent—we “look through it” as if we were in direct and immediate contact with reality. What is historically new, and what creates not only novel psychological risks but also entirely new ethical and legal dimensions, is that one virtual reality gets ever more deeply embedded into another virtual reality: The conscious mind of human beings, which has evolved under very specific conditions and over millions of years, now gets causally coupled and informationally woven into technical systems for representing possible realities. Increasingly, consciousness is not only culturally and socially embedded, but also shaped by a specific technological niche that, over time, quickly acquires rapid, autonomous dynamics and ever new properties. This creates a complex convolution, a nested form of information flow in which the biological mind and its technological niche influence each other in ways we are just beginning to understand. 


[ Mon. Dec. 28. 2015 ]