“Think about virtual reality like uranium. It can heat homes, and it can destroy nations.”
– Jeremy Bailenson
What would you do if you could do anything?
Would you be a rockstar, playing a sold out arena? Or be a surfer, riding the gnarliest 100-foot swells this side of Hawaii?
No seriously, stop for a second and picture it.
Imagine yourself there.
For most people, this is a fun hypothetical question. But not too long from now, it’s going to become reality. Because entertainment is about to get as real as real life and nothing is ever going to be the same.
This is happening thanks to the combination of two forces that you would never expect to overlap. Together, they form a staggeringly potent combination.
By combining the radical discoveries in psychology’s understanding of happiness with the astounding advances in virtual reality technology, we will finally have the ability to create peak emotional experiences on demand. We’ll be able to create flow states.
Flow: The Secret to Happiness
Now think back to that thing you wanted to do if you could do anything. You might have been an athlete, a musician, a performer, an entrepreneur.
Why that experience above all others? Odds are when you were picturing that scene, you weren’t just thinking about your surroundings. You were thinking about how you felt — that indescribable feeling of being totally immersed in the moment and truly alive. That sensation of forgetting about yourself as an individual, just for a few seconds, and recognizing your identity as a small piece of something bigger.
Some people call it “getting in the zone,” but psychologists have found this state to be so vital to success that they’ve created an official term for it. That feeling is called flow.
Flow is a psychological state that arises when a person is so engaged by their current activity that their sense of self entirely fades away. Director of the Flow Genome Project, Steven Kotler, describes it in his book, The Rise of Superman, as a state of mind “where we feel our best and perform our best.” When we enter flow, time both speeds up and slows down. Seconds can last for ages while hours fly by in the subjective blink of an eye.
There’s a huge number of ways to enter flow; anything from skydiving, to writing poetry, to coding a new algorithm can allow you to enter this elusive state of mind. For decades, top performers have been utilizing flow to find success, sometimes without even knowing it.
Now, forward-thinking, motivated communities are starting to take notice.
Creating a Movement
Over the past several decades, psychologists have become increasingly aware of the pivotal role which flow plays in human happiness. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the godfather of flow research, believes the amount of flow state we have in our lives is the defining factor in our long-term happiness. Csikszentmihaly started a movement amongst psychologists to understand the causes and implications of flow.
Steven Kotler has continued this study, working to codify flow, breaking down 17 different “triggers” for flow. These triggers include: a sense of (simulated) danger, immediate feedback on one’s performance, absorption in the activity at hand and a balanced level of challenge.
No one is exactly sure of the best way to induce flow, but it’s commonly agreed that the more of these triggers can be hit, the more likely one is to enter flow.
Every person has their own unique set of factors and stimuli that puts them in flow state. But once there, the euphoric rush is the same. Athletes, artists, musicians and entrepreneurs agree that finding out how to maximize your flow time can lead to long-term success and happiness. Flow experts such as Kotler and Csikszentmihalyi would argue that finding and maximizing flow can be seen as the purpose of life.
In the past, finding flow has always been difficult, requiring risk, training and determination. Pretty soon, that might change. This is happening because a new shift in technology might make flipping on all seventeen flow triggers happen as easily as flipping on a light switch.
That technology is virtual reality.
Virtual Reality: Becoming Present
“I think I’ve seen five or six computer demos in my life that made me think the world was about to change. Apple II, Netscape, Google, iPhone … then Oculus. It was that kind of amazing.”
– Chris Dixon
Virtual reality technology had a highly visible false start in the early nineties, leading many to write the technology off as vaporware. However, even the doubters have had to take notice of the recent resurgence in VR started by the Oculus Rift. These doubters have frequently and loudly wondered what’s different between today’s virtual reality hardware and the machines that caused the failed takeoff in the early nineties.
The difference can be boiled down to a single word — presence.
Presence is the phenomenon that occurs when your brain believes, on a very fundamental level, that a virtual reality experience is really happening. This doesn’t mean that you forget about real life. Rather, it means that when a virtual Tyrannosaurus Rex attacks you, your brain feels an instant pang of terror. It means that your subconscious believes you are there.
Presence is the reason that VR impacts you like no other medium. You feel it in a virtual reality experience so powerfully that the real world melts away.
"It's the sense of being someplace else while in virtual reality; many people feel as if they've been teleported. Presence is an incredibly powerful sensation, and it's unique to VR; there's no way to create it in any other medium," says Michael Abrash, chief science officer at Oculus.
For decades, this type of realistic virtual reality has been the holy grail to a certain variety of nerd. From Star Trek’s holodeck to Snow Crash’s metaverse, the idea of creating our own reality with different rules is a tantalizing dream. With virtual reality, you can explore a distant planet, visit another city, or even live out another life, all without leaving your home.
Realistic virtual reality allows us to rewrite the source code of our perception.
No consumer virtual reality headset to date has been able to induce presence, but that’s going to change when the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive hit the market within the year.
This is a true game changer. Virtual reality is already starting to make waves in the gaming and entertainment industry. Pretty soon those waves are going to turn to tsunamis as the world wakes up to the power of presence.
The ability to induce presence is incredible by itself, but there’s a hidden force multiplier in the current VR tech: if you can trick your brain into believing that you’re riding a 100-foot swell, and you can create that swell at any time from the comfort of your home through virtual reality, then you can create flow on demand.
VR + Flow = On Demand Bliss
Now, let’s think back one more time to your ideal fantasy. The thing you would want to do if you could do literally anything.
You now know two things:
- You are going to have the technology to create a presence-inducing simulation of your fantasy in the near future.
- Flow, the psychological state that arises when you are totally immersed in what you are doing, is one of the most powerful psychological experiences possible.
Here’s where it gets crazy — by creating the ability to induce presence using VR technology, we’ve also come up with a way that we’ll be able to bring on flow states on demand.
Games can already induce weak flow states that Steven Kotler calls dopamine loops, but until now they’ve never been able to create the real thing, because one of flow’s most crucial triggers is something known as “deep embodiment,” basically an intense physical connection to the world around them. VR will allow us to mimic deep embodiment like never before.
Virtual reality + flow is going to be an insanely powerful force. Steven Kotler compares it to “legal heroin”, saying that “when video games start producing full-scale flow states is arguably the point that VR becomes more fun and perhaps more meaningful than actual reality.”
Obviously, a technology of this massive power would have society-shifting ramifications as millions of people decide to spend their time primarily in VR. Why wouldn’t they? This tech speaks to a very deep longing inside the human psyche. It speaks to our desire to be free from constraints. This same longing has pushed people into everything from psychedelic drugs to lucid dreaming to Zen Buddhism.
Each of those are legitimate paths for finding flow. But each of them also brings challenges and hardships. Now, it will be as easy as slipping on a virtual reality headset, and you’ll be able to enter a realm previously occupied by world-class performers, psychonauts and monks.
What would it be like to live in a world where anyone can live out their dreams on demand? One could imagine a nightmare scenario where everyone is living in their own private fantasies on repeat, cut off from the rest of the world. There’s another possibility, though — a VR metaverse that harnesses the power of flow to create a stunning explosion of human creativity and ingenuity.
Swimming in the Internet
“I think there’s a lot of reasons that you can argue that it is a moral imperative that we create a perfect virtual reality”
– Palmer Luckey
It all boils down to one question. Can we create virtual reality experiences which make use of VR’s unique flow inducing capabilities and harness them for creation? Just as VR offers a nearly limitless expanse of passive experiences, it also allows for a correspondingly gigantic set of creativity and productivity enhancing experiences.
Imagine, for a second, what composing music in virtual reality would be like. You strap on your Oculus Rift, and all around you are buttons, knobs and dials. A DJ board on steroids, and interactive to a degree never before possible. Every movement you make can be algorithmically translated into sound, and you can become so immersed in this environment, with absolutely no distractions, that time flies by and flow state comes and goes maybe without you even noticing.
But it doesn’t stop with music.
Picture writing code and having visual indications of your program appear in virtual reality. Programming could be transformed from staring at text to a stunning and interactive simulation.
Sound far-fetched? Here’s what one Rift researcher had to say: “You’re not in a two-dimensional view [in the Rift], so you can look around the data. You look to your left, look to your right, and see different subnets of information. With the Oculus you have that immersive environment. It’s like you’re swimming in the Internet.”
Sound like an indie dev working on an over ambitious solo project? Nope — that was DARPA plan manager Roger Pound. DARPA is currently testing the Rift for use in preventing cyber-attacks.
Right now, VR pioneers and entrepreneurs are creating stunning new tools to allow anyone to unleash their creativity. From Tilt Brush, an application that allows anyone to create 3D artwork in VR, to Primrose, a VR coding / text editor that allows you to create worlds around you in real time, to my company, Agora VR, which allows groups to create interactive presentations and seminars in VR — there are many ways that VR is going to allow you to create, not just consume.
Let’s Get Building
There are countless stunningly innovative ways that VR could be used for art, science, education, and just about every other discipline: The artist, for example, who can create his sculptures with no regard to the laws of physics, or the genetic researcher who can fly over her datasets viewing big data expressed in such a way as to drastically improve her insight.
Virtual reality has near limitless potential for creation.
These experiences will be able to induce strong flow states. They can and will hit all 17 flow triggers. And it’ll probably be easier to enter flow doing the virtual reality version of creation than in the physical world. VR coding will provide an easier on-ramp to flow than physical world experiences.
Therein lies the challenge for all VR developers and enthusiasts: how to ensure that VR as a medium is used as much for creation as possible, and not just as a method to get a “hit” of flow.
From here, there are two virtual reality futures. There’s one where the vast majority of people are passive consumers of prepackaged experiences. They pick from the latest in an endless stream of flow-inducing but ultimately empty experiences — the Candy Crush’s of VR.
But, there’s another way.
Instead, build virtual reality as the ultimate creative platform. One where, on any given day, you can find an art historian in Manila teaming up with an astrophysicist in Dublin to build a moon base in the style of Leonardo da Vinci. Or where a machine learning student works to perfect his algorithm that’s teaching an AI avatar to skateboard. Or any of an increasingly weird and wild variety of potential applications.
If, if, we can pull it off this way, the metaverses of science fiction lore will look downright boring by comparison, because our metaverse would be one built to unleash the greatest power in the known universe — human creativity.
Jason Ganz is the CEO of Agora VR, a company dedicated to spreading big ideas in virtual reality. He's a tech optimist and startup junky who is thrilled to be living in the most exciting time in human history. You can get in touch with him at @ and follow his work @agoraVR.
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