For decades, technologists have tried and failed to create believable, immersive virtual realities that don’t make people nauseated with extended use. Virtual reality — or “VR” — technologies progressed, but the holy grail of a Star Trek Holodeck-style virtual environment proved much harder to achieve than expected.
But, in the last few years, VR has been having a momentous revival. Mostly, this has been because of Oculus Rift, a VR headset developed by 23-year-old Palmer Luckey (who was recently featured on the cover of TIME) with the assistance of an extended community of professional and amateur VR engineers. Oculus seemed to break the code and create 360-degree VR landscapes that are immediately compelling and exciting. Eventually, Oculus raised .4 million dollars on Kickstarter to develop a prototype.
As the widespread and enthusiastic support suggests, the ability to create experiences and put VR users into faraway places is exciting to pretty much every industry, including gaming and pornography, VR’s most obvious initial applications. It would also have impact in our personal and internal lives in profound ways.
Currently, VR experiences are primarily visual and auditory, and, obviously, no matter how good the sights and sounds get, they will never be enough to recreate our full multisensory experience. But work is being done to include the other senses; several companies are bringing touch to VR, for instance. Taste is still missing, though, and so is smell, which is very important for creating meaningful emotional experiences and lasting memories.
These all may be pretty hard to crack, but I expect we’ll manage it eventually. Now, let’s assume that we have already created fully immersive VR that is close to real life in every sensory way. What would people want next?
The next huge step would be to influence our sense of identity and narrative memory of our lives. When I enter VR, I still know that I am “me” in real life having a VR experience. Every VR experience would be a lucid dream by default. We wouldn’t yet be able to “forget” ourselves in the dream. We’ll overcome this too, because people will want to actually become the character in the dream — to change their identities, their histories, their character traits, their behaviors and to forget whoever it was they were before. And they’ll want to do it over and over again to experience many different kinds of lives, ones that are better than their real lives (and sometimes worse), or just different to see what it’s like. It will be exactly as Alan Watts imagines in his famous “Dream of Life” talk:
“Let’s suppose that you were able, every night, to dream any dream you wanted to dream, and that you could, for example, have the power within one night to dream 75 years of time, or any length of time you wanted to have.
And you would, naturally, as you begin on this adventure of dreams, you would fulfill all your wishes. You would have every kind of pleasure during your sleep… Then you would get more and more adventurous and you would make further- and further-out gambles what you would dream.”
It will also be a lot like the vision of reincarnation of Hinduism and Buddhism, both of which hold that all creatures are moving through many, many lives. Over the course of this infinite number of lives, beings are presented with challenges and opportunities to learn and to grow and, specifically, to become wiser and more compassionate. In both Hinduism and Buddhism, the ultimate goal of all beings is to exit this cycle of rebirth and death, because all lives, no matter what kind, are faced throughout with unavoidable suffering. Virtue, logic, and an intrinsic desire for happiness overlap in the motivation to end one’s own and others’ suffering by gaining enough wisdom and compassion to cut through the mechanics that maintain the cycle. This requires developing mystical insight into the nature of identity, presented differently in each tradition. Once this is achieved, the mystic is not reborn after death — he has escaped the cycle.
Of course, exiting the experience of multiple lives isn’t going to be the goal for VR users. Some may become tired or overwhelmed by such a multitude of experiences, and might eventually like to fade out peacefully. Others may not tire. They may enjoy living different lives infinitely and enjoy the creative work they get to do in each of these lives.
It does not seem likely that all people will decide that all life is full of suffering and ultimately not worth living. At worst, some people may appreciate creativity and beauty more than simple peace, even if it comes with a degree of unavoidable suffering. At best, they may find that life can become good enough that we end up disproving the original premise of Buddhism and Hinduism: that suffering makes all life ultimately not worth living. VR may offer an opportunity — and reveal our capacity — for infinite creativity, even in the face of strife.
This leads to the last great obstacle: duration. There may be physical limitations on the time that someone can stay in VR. Perhaps VR experiences will be expensive, or the user will need to emerge to eat or urinate, or the computer itself will not be able to run continuously. Like the other obstacles, demand from users to overcome this problem will be so high that we will undoubtedly achieve it. Users will then be able to fully immerse themselves in any sensorially and mentally realistic environment and character they want, indefinitely. They would be able to choose whether to be themselves or be someone new. And they will be able to choose to stay in these lives for as long as they want.
At this point, people will be able to literally create their own lives, which is an idea more new-agey than classically Buddhist or Hindu. They’ll see that our sense of identity is fluid, undetermined, and mutable rather than fixed. More than this, pleasure, insight, beauty, diversity, challenge, experimentation, stability, any existential ache or craving to have something, to be someone, to finish it all off — all of that will be available to us in true abundance.
This will lead to a fundamental change in our values. In part, because I’ve been influenced by the contemplative traditions’ thoughts on multiple lives, I imagine that one consequence of VR will be that people will become more mature, more insightful, and more empathetic by living through the great diversity of experiences that VR will make available to them. Moreover, we’ll be required to find new ways of relating to our desires and rethink how much satisfaction their fulfillment will bring us. When even the most wondrous experiences are at our fingertips, I think we’ll be surprised to find something even more wondrous embedded in those experiences: a new way of relating to experience will feel simultaneously safe and yet fully enlivened, a kind of awe and wonder at the plenitude of reality, a mature relaxation into watching what new potentials unfold for us as we continue to develop even further. We will develop a love for creating new goals, without any naive or despairing hope that there will ever be a final end to things, unless as a matter of personal choice.
This maturity is what I am most looking forward to for us as a species and collective presence on this planet. This relaxation away from thinking that any kind of experience is going to solve all of our problems, yet enjoying every experience we have. It’s a reassuring thought. It makes me feel that we will be making decisions out of collective enjoyment of life much more than out of collective fear, as we do now. Fully immersive VR will be a fast track to a collective awakening — an awakening in a classically mystical sense.
The pleasant surprise is that we don’t have to wait for immersive VR. This enlightened and appreciative approach to a full life is, at least in principle, available to all of us through existing means, both traditional and contemporary. In any case, the first step is recognizing this way of life as a desirable and attainable way to live. And for those of us who weren’t already aware, VR is hinting at the possibility.