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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Virtual Reality

The other night on Ted Koppel’s Nightline program, the subject was “virtual reality.” The dreamy definition of “virtual reality” (VR) by Jason Lanier, the man who coined the phrase, is that it is a computer generated, multi-media, interactive technology that will provide “a wonderful, inspirational future for the human imagination. I can’t put it any simpler than that.”

VR is supposed to be many things. There are apparently medical applications for research and, for example, to help some disabled people learn how to use their motor skills again. That is the hope, at least.

There are hoped for educational applications. With VR, reports ABC science correspondent, Michael Guillen, school children can walk through hills, explore valleys of our and other planets. Some equipment is required here — VR helmets or goggles that are wired to a computer. Later in the next century, VR boosters say that people can wear exoskeletons to better immerse their senses in virtual reality.

But it is the entertainment use that VR will probably first reach consumers who wish to trade inside the head fantasies or actual reading, conversing and travelling for this techno illusion. Koppel tried to raise these questions with his guests who declined to interact with his real questions.

Koppel said: “The moral and social consequences of being able to do or at least to have the illusion of doing almost anything is, quite literally, mindboggling. It does raise some interesting questions about the moral implications of virtual theft, murder or adultery.”

Techno porno businesses are already drooling. Imagine a VR program that brings you together with your favorite movie star, allows you to enter worlds of sensuous pleasure that, in the words of one scientist, “will allow us to smell and to taste things also.”

It is not that far away. Virtual reality theaters are being planned around the world, says Guillen, and the VR helmets for $200 each are soon to reach the stores.

Are the VR people just talking about an advanced form of video game? No, no, no, says Lanier, who thinks video games for children “are almost more dangerous than television. . .they become like rats, you know, in a lab maze.” “You have to understand that virtual reality only becomes magical and only becomes real when it is truly interactive, and that has profound implications,” he told the Nightline audience.

Lanier added: “[I/t creates an adult version of make-believe that’s supported by technology, and I can’t imagine anything more empowering than that.”

The other Koppel guest, Professor Frank Biocca raised some warning signals. “It’s very difficult to spend a lot of time inside the medium, . . . it is to some degree irritating and can potentially create a kind of simulation sickness, a sort of a motion sickness.” He added: “There’s no doubt that the business interests will be interested, obviously, in making a great deal of money with this particular technology.”

VR, says Biocca, could eventually consume about 15 years of a person’s waking life. “Is that necessarily a negative experience? It remains to be seen,” he observed.

Well, well, with so much real reality all around us — poverty, corruption, crime, community and family disintegration, waste, pollution and more — isn’t it just creative for these businesses to be planning to let millions of people get away from it all for hours at a time? VR, driven by commercial values, will give escapism a new meaning or rather a virtual meaning.