Sunday, March 24, 2013

Bill Davidow: "Virtual Reality is Addictive and Unhealthy"

Illustration: Eddie Guy for IEEE Spectrum
In August of last year, Bill Davidow, Partner Emeritus at the venture capital firm Mohr Davidow ventures and former SVP sales and marketing at Intel, published an opinion piece in IEEE Spectrum magazine called "Virtual Reality is Addictive and Unhealthy". Among other things, Mr. Davidow writes that:
"... I see people walking down the street, eyes fixed on the screens of their mobile phones, ears plugged into their iPods, oblivious to their surroundings…to reality itself. They are not managing their tools; their tools are managing them. Tools now make the rules, and we struggle to keep up."
The focus of the article is not virtual reality as in "virtual reality goggles" but rather the extra dimension of cyberspace that provides the ability to immediately access information from all corners of the earth. But, given its title, it's fair to ask about goggles "are they also addictive and unhealthy"?

Addictive? Probably. Just like video games are addictive, video games that are turbocharged by immersive virtual reality goggles are at least as compelling as the equivalent 'flat screen' experience.

Unhealthy? Maybe too soon to tell. One could address this on several different time-scales:

  • Minutes: a virtual reality goggle that presents a virtual world with a bad head-tracking system can cause nausea within minutes. I think we are just starting to scratch the surface of understanding how to create  pleasant experience in VR goggles. How does the noncontinuous nature of objects refreshed on the screen impact our perception (see Michael Abrash's blog post for one such angle)? How should 3D hand-held controllers be represented in virtual space? Once a feeling of discomfort arises, does it go away after a few more minutes? Are our brains 'perfectly elastic' in this sense, or will there be lingering a effect?
  • Hours: what are the risks of playing an immersive game for hours on end? Physical injury is one risk. Side effects to a 3D experience should also be considered.
  • Weeks and beyond: what are the long-term effects of being immersed in goggles? Most VR applications today limit exposure to an hour or less. Even an intense soldier training session will not last hours and hours. What happens when people start using these devices over long periods of time in an unsupervised environment?
Of course, there is the social - or anti-social - aspect of goggles. To me, this is particularly relevant for augmented reality goggles such as the upcoming Google Glass. How do you feel speaking with someone wearing the goggles when you are unsure if they are paying attention? As Davidow notes:
" the quickest way to end a deep and meaningful conversation was to glance at your watch. What would he say today about our ever more tempting smartphones?"
At least with a smartphone, you usually know when your conversation partner glances at it. With goggles this will be much harder to tell.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

They are not managing their tools; their tools are managing them. Tools now make the rules, and we struggle to keep up." This was a good post. A long time ago I watched a martin landau movie "access code" about how our surveillance tools were later used against us by a superior AI, blindsiding all the government agencies who thought they were in control. In essence we built up the perfect prison for ourselves, never considering that what made sense with human masters, suddenly became insanity when some other entity took control.

As technology further divides us as the old kind of human beings, and we operate more and more through it, we are part of a new kind of society. The end of this article, where it seems we lose our importance to each other, being connected to things in way that make us more anti-social on a human to human interpersonal basis seems like a troubling trend.