Humanity is standing on a precipice. We have never been closer to achieving a world where everyone has the ability to live and thrive. Biotech, nanotech and AI promise to reshape the world and have the potential to imbue humanity with near-godlike powers.
On the flip side, humanity has never faced a more uncertain future. Technological unemployment has the potential to break down our current economic models over the next several decades. The same power that could make biotech, nanotech and AI such massive boons to the human species could also cause untold destruction. And on top of it all, our planet is growing warmer and more ecologically unstable.
If humanity goes one way, we will see our species mature and wake up over the next generation. We could eliminate extreme poverty, adopt a sustainable lifestyle and connect everyone on the planet to the global conversation through the internet.
But if we don’t take action, we could end up with a very undesirable future—a world where we don’t fulfill the ultimate promise of modern civilization.
In order to push the world in the right direction, we need to do three things. We must inspire everyone to help solve these problems. We need to provide the education that will give people the tools to create new solutions, and we need to create a global collaboration infrastructure so that everyone can contribute to creating the future we all deserve.
Luckily, a technology is coming online right now that can allow us to do all of these things.
Virtual reality (VR) is often called the “final medium” due to its unparalleled power to share experiences and ideas. VR films and stories are shockingly effective at generating empathy and creating the impetus for action. VR education will allow us to learn faster and more interactively than ever before. And VR collaboration spaces will allow us to work from anywhere to solve the world’s grand challenges.
Let’s take a look at how this could work.
VR: The Empathy Machine
With all of the grand challenges humanity faces over the next several decades, the first step towards solving them is to generate comprehensive agreement among the people of the world that these are real problems that need solving. The next step is to get them to take action.
The internet has already done a remarkable job of shining light on these grand challenges, and we’ve started to see remarkable outcomes from that. It would be nearly impossible to quantify just how much inspiration TED talks alone have brought into the world. But that’s just the beginning.
For all of the good that stories and videos on the internet can do, they will never allow you to experience a situation like you were truly there. No matter how much we read about issues like the conflict in Syria, it’s impossible for us to imagine the horror of the real situation.
VR can make it feel real because VR can induce “presence.” Presence occurs when your brain is convinced, on a very low level, that the VR simulation you are experiencing is real. It is an extremely powerful force.
“You are walking down a busy street in the Aleppo district of Syria. Children are playing, and vendors are peddling their wares. Suddenly, a rocket hits. Dust and debris scatter everywhere.”
This is the scene set by Project Syria, a pioneering virtual reality film that takes the viewer through the conflict in Syria. It creates an unrivaled emotional experience because it makes you feel like you are there. In every previous medium, there has been a disconnect between the viewer and the content. In virtual reality that distance disappears.
This extension of human empathy can induce real policy and behavioral change by appealing to the emotions of people around the world. Once you’ve experienced a situation in VR, you no longer see casualty figures from war or climate change refugees as just numbers in the news but as real human beings with the same right to life as the people around you.
The best part about virtual reality is that it can drive actual behavioral changes far more effectively than previous media sources. In a Stanford study, researchers placed subjects in two groups—one experienced a VR simulation of chopping a tree down and another only read an account of it. Later, a researcher would “accidentally” knock over a glass of water. Participants who had experienced the VR simulation used an average of 20% less paper to sop up the water than those who had simply read the account.
As one of the researchers explained,
"We showed that just three minutes of an embodied experience could produce a behavioral result."
The implications of this are enormous. If we create VR experiences that properly show people the challenges and opportunities in the world, there is strong evidence to show that these experiences could be the best way to get them to take action.
Of course, we’ve got to then give them the tools to affect the world. The best way to do that? Education.
The inspiration to solve the world’s grand challenges is just the first step. We need a generation of highly skilled innovators, entrepreneurs and thinkers to band together and get to work. In order to do this, these people will have to be highly educated. That’s where virtual reality comes in again. Virtual reality has the power to reshape how we learn.
VR can augment (not replace!) traditional education through simulations and virtual experiences. The potential use cases for VR in classrooms are endless. A history teacher could lead his or her class on a tour of ancient Rome, providing a visceral connection to the past which was never before possible. Science teachers can take their students to another galaxy or shrink them down and show them chemical reactions from the molecular scale.
All of these are exciting and potentially useful applications for virtual reality. But the idea of VR education truly becomes useful when you combine VR with another disruptive technology—project-based learning (PBL). PBL is a teaching methodology which focuses students on large, long-term projects to solve real world problems.
Imagine a PBL-based learning class where students are tasked with designing a sustainable building. They would be graded on their architectural design prowess, the engineering feasibility and sustainability of the project. Students are assigned to design the building in VR and the simulation program automatically calculates the energy usage of the building.
This would be a great assignment in a classroom today. The only problem is that it might seem abstract to the students if they can only see their building in drawings and computer screens. By designing the building in VR, the process becomes infinitely more immersive and interesting—the kind of project that could generate some serious flow states.
The combination of PBL and VR could help solve one of the biggest problems in schools today: the fact that students aren’t being adequately prepared for the jobs that exist in the modern, information economy. In fact, students are being prepared for a world that “doesn’t exist anymore.” By creating a culture of education that allows students to work together to foster innovation, we will actively be creating citizens who are prepared for the challenges of the modern world.
And they’ll be learning what is arguably the most important skill in the modern world: the ability to be natural collaborators.
The Virtual Equalizer
Of course, the issue with technology-based education is often funding, especially in rural and urban areas. Schools in these areas often lack the financial resources to buy textbooks for every student, let alone a virtual reality headset. With the advent of immersive education programs, students in impoverished areas could fall even further behind their technologically trained counterparts.
In the short term, the solution seems to be mobile VR, or a virtual reality headset that works with an ordinary smartphone. Nearly three out of every four people in the United States own a smartphone with that number potentially increasing to four out of five by the end of the year.
Google has been pioneering a program called Expeditions with a host of mobile VR educational experiences. Right now the program is just a roadshow with Google employees sharing a day of virtual field trips with students at select schools. But this program has the potential to allow any teacher with a smartphone to access a wealth of educational virtual reality experiences for their students.
The long-term potential is even more exciting. Virtual classrooms could finally ensure that the quality of a person’s education is not dictated by their personal circumstances. Any student anywhere in the world could have access to the same teachers, the same resources, and the same immersive virtual simulations as students in the wealthiest school districts.
All they would need to attend is a virtual reality headset.
So, we’ve inspired a generation of passionate creatives. We’ve enabled them with the tools to thrive in the information economy. The next question is what do they do next? Where do they meet up and what do they work on?
The obvious answer is that we must create collaborative virtual reality communities which connect people from around the world and allow them to work together on real world problems. Because once we’ve inspired and educated students in virtual reality, having them work together in VR is the logical next step.
Social virtual reality is going to be an absolute game changer for collaboration. Because social VR will do what no other has been able to do—actually make you feel like you are in the same room with another person. Very soon, we’ll start to see virtual reality seminars, meetup groups and hackerspaces.
It’s tough to explain just how impactful social VR can be.
The first time I was in a social VR space, I was floored at how real it felt. I spoke to a group of VR enthusiasts around the world, swapping stories of our VR projects, and it honestly felt nearly as natural as being there. If you haven’t tried social VR, it’s hard to get across just how impressive of an experience it can be. Even compared with the best video telepresence tools we have available, there still is nothing like the feeling of actually working together in the same room. That is the feeling that virtual reality provides.
Virtual reality collaboration spaces will combine the power of social VR and digital creation tools. An early example of this is Oculus Medium, a VR sculpting tool that allows people from around the world to connect and create stunning works of art.
It won’t just be sculpting though.
We’ll see VR tools for all sorts of music, film and art. We’ll see VR hackathons where groups meet up in social VR to compete to create the greatest project. We’ll see open source groups holding weekly town halls and meetups where contributors get together to improve the project.
And innovators of all sorts will use the tech to congregate and help solve the world’s problems.
The Virtual Reality Renaissance
Here’s the twist. The three separate benefits we just walked through aren’t actually separate at all. Because the inspiration, education and collaborative aspects of virtual reality can and will be combined.
In the virtual classrooms of the future, the path from inspiration to education to creation won’t happen over the course of years. It can happen in the span of an hour. Lessons will rely far less on rote memorization and rather on inspiring students with challenges, giving them the information and tools to address them, and then allowing them to craft solutions.
Imagine a history class where students experience firsthand the horrors of the slave trade, learn the history of slavery from ancient to modern times, and then craft a resolution at a mock UN to eliminate human bondage. Or an art class where students are exposed to the work and lives of Monet, Renoir and Degas, learn the basics of Impressionist painting, and finally, create an Impressionist work themselves. Or a physics class where students take a trip to Mars, learn the physics of launching a rocket to orbit and then work with a group to plan out a rocket launch.
While these are all lesson plans that could conceivably exist today, the fundamental issue for many students is the disconnect between the books they read in school and the world around them. Virtual reality bridges that gap by making these experiences visceral and real. A simulation also prevents variations in educational quality. While teachers in poor school districts might not have access to all the tools necessary to pull off one of these lessons, any student with a virtual reality headset can participate.
And that’s the whole point.
In the same way that the internet democratized information, virtual reality democratizes experiences—including the educational experience. We can finally provide every student with the inspiration and tools to better their life and the world around them. And if we have every student in the world actively working on solving the world’s hardest challenges, they might not be so hard to manage after all.