I have something to admit—to this day, I’m in awe of Wikipedia. Humanity has created a massive repository of our knowledge available for free to anyone with an Internet connection. All of our presidents and kings, theories and discoveries, just waiting to be read about and discovered. About once a month I’ll lose an afternoon to some obscure topic.
It’s not just Wikipedia, though. The Internet has liberated information from the constraints of the physical world and essentially made the sharing of information free and unlimited for everyone. From communicating with friends on free Skype calls to taking university-level classes on Coursera and Udacity, our current access and connectivity dwarfs anything we’ve seen before.
Sometimes it’s hard to remember what an astounding leap we’ve made in our ability to share information. Reading books used to be the domain of only the privileged elite, while long-distance communication was either impossible or prohibitively expensive. Now both are cheap, convenient, and nearly instantaneous.
By democratizing the availability of information, the Internet has massively evened the playing field around the world by allowing anyone to contribute and learn from the global community.
The problem with the Internet is that while it is a fantastic tool for spreading information, sometimes information without experience can lose its impact. Massive open online courses have fantastic content, yet a very low percentage of students end up finishing them. It’s great to see my friend’s posts on Instagram and Snapchat, but nothing beats being together in person. And no matter how many times I’ve read about the Apollo 11 mission, I’ve never taken a step on the moon.
But that’s all going to change. Just as the Internet and smartphones have enabled the rapid and cheap sharing of information, virtual reality will be able to provide the same for experiences. That means that just as we can read, listen to, and watch videos of anything we want today, soon we’ll be able to experience stunning lifelike simulations in virtual reality.
And just as the democratization of information reshaped society, this is going to have a massive impact on the way we work, live, and play.
The Teleportation Device
By now, you’ve probably heard about the virtual reality resurgence led by Oculus. Virtual reality is an extremely hot field, with hundreds of millions of dollars of investment and basically every big name technology or media company getting in on the VR gold rush.
And if you’ve met VR true believers, you know the near fanatical interest they have in VR.
But why? What is it about these goofy ski goggles that has so thoroughly captured the hearts and minds of technologists across the globe?
It all boils down to one word: presence. Presence is the phenomenon that occurs when your brain is convinced, on a fundamental and subconscious level, that the VR simulation you are experiencing is real.
This doesn’t mean that you forget you’re in a simulation. But it does mean that when you ride a VR roller coaster, you feel it.
The Internet made the world smaller. VR is about to make it exhilarating.
Want to watch the Super Bowl from the fifty-yard line? Be on stage at your favorite concert? Or just visit and explore a faraway country? Well, that’s exactly what Mark Zuckerberg wants you to be able to do on the Oculus Rift.
Welcome to virtual reality in 2016. You can do all of this today, and it’s only going to get better. Lifelike, immersive, and available to anyone with a VR headset. Using 360-degree video and light field technology, we can now capture real-life events and distribute them to anyone, anywhere.
Soon you’ll be able to explore every city, watch every sports game, and explore the universe in VR. Content plus presence is an extremely potent combination.
But everything is more fun with a friend. Luckily, you’ll never have to be alone in VR.
The Magic Mirror
Part of the great sadness of the modern world is being able to text, call, and video chat with friends and family from all over the planet but never truly feel like you’re with them. Sometimes this ghost of a connection can paradoxically be worse than nothing, being just realistic enough to make you miss your loved ones without feeling the true warmth of their presence.
We now know that the very magic of virtual reality comes from presence. Multi-user virtual reality can enable a specific kind of phenomenon—social presence.
Just as presence in virtual reality occurs when your brain believes on a fundamental level that the scene you are experiencing is real, social presence can convince your brain to believe that the other people in the VR experience are really there with you.
That means that all of those experiences we’re excited about in VR, we’ll be able to experience with anyone we choose as if we’re all really there. An average Tuesday night in the VR future could include dropping into a professional conference with a coworker of yours, watching a football game with your father on the other side of the country, then hopping into a VR concert with your best friend from high school—all without leaving the house.
Now, nothing is going to replace spending quality time with the people around you, but technology at its best expands the opportunities for human creativity and communication to flourish—and VR is a massive step forward for this.
The Next Revolution
The rise of the Internet was one of the most profound developments of the past century. The Internet famously allowed the futurist Ray Kurzweil to conclude that “A kid in Africa has access to more information than the president of the United States did 15 years ago.” Well, pretty soon, that kid is going to have more opportunity for experiences too.
Pretty soon, we’ll be learning in virtual-reality classrooms, shopping at virtual-reality stores, and even working in virtual-reality offices.
We can only begin to speculate on the long-term consequences of this. How are cities affected when the VR office becomes the standard? How will the entertainment industry respond to live-streamed VR sports and concerts? Can we finally create a digital university that surpasses the quality of our oldest and grandest learning institutions?
Sometimes this all seems hard to fathom. Could we really see these massive changes coming in just a few short years?
When I consider the nearness of these changes, I keep returning to the Internet, to Wikipedia—one of the greatest creations of the Internet and the democratization of information.
After that, it doesn’t seem so unlikely after all.
Image Credit: Sony Project Morpheus/Marco Verch; xkcd