As rapid improvements in virtual reality technology make it possible to create and live in worlds perfectly tailored to our needs, are humans nearing utopia?

The idea of a VR utopia was introduced to the public consciousness by the movie The Matrix, but in the film, humans were too imperfect to live in such a world and instead were relegated to a more true-to-life virtual reality. But if it were possible, would it be wise to retreat from this imperfect world into a perfect virtual one?

The psychological impacts of being able to create or choose your own reality are poorly understood, but there are already concerns about the addictive nature of computer games, particularly online virtual worlds like World of Warcraft (WoW). Stanford psychiatrist Elias Aboujaoude notes that those who reported greater fulfillment in virtual scenarios often have underlying psychological conditions.

As VR technology becomes increasingly accessible and virtual worlds become increasingly realistic, people may start to spend less time in the real world. Jim Blascovich, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “Who is to say that a virtual life that is better than one’s physical life is a bad thing?” he told The Atlantic.

It’s unclear whether these virtual worlds will be shared like the online games of today or if the ability to customize VR experiences will see users become increasingly disconnected as they each head down their own personal rabbit hole.

But what if instead, VR technology held the potential to turn the real world into utopia? Virtual worlds like those found in Minecraft, Sim City and WoW are already becoming popular for teaching the collaborative systems thinking that will be required to deal with 21st-century challenges like climate change, population growth and pandemics.

VR could put this virtual teaching on steroids by fully immersing students in solving challenges. At New York University, Winslow Burleson leads the NYU-X lab, which is developing an immersive cyber-learning environment dubbed “The Holodeck” in homage to the virtual reality environment featured in the Star Trek series. The machine will incorporate VR, artificial intelligence, robotics and rapid prototyping to recreate immersive virtual environments for teaching or self-guided learning.

He has just received a $2.9M grant from the National Science Foundation to build the first Holodeck. But in an essay published earlier this year Burleson imagines a future world where a global network of "Holodecks" gives millions of people access to learning environments so flexible that almost any technical or societal problem can be explored.

Whether through role playing social dilemmas or visualizing scientific problems in innovative ways, issues too complex for even the most capable experts could be crowdsourced and tackled over and over again by groups of collaborators from across the world. Rather than retreating into personal utopias, he argues VR offers the possibility of iteratively refining virtual mirrors of our world to help society evolve towards a shared utopia.

This is clearly blue sky thinking, but Burleson is not the only one who believes virtual worlds can make the real world a better place. Game designer Jane McGonigal is chief cheerleader for gaming's ability to pool collective intelligence to solve social ills and improve quality of life. She says multiplayer online games like WoW provide players with important missions, surround them with collaborators, give them regular positive feedback in terms of leveling up and constantly challenging them at the edges of their ability.

At the time of her Ted talk in 2010, WoW players had spent 5.93 million years solving the virtual problems of the fictional world of Azeroth. Imagine if we could channel that experience into solving real world problems, she says.

Elsewhere, director and audio-visual artist Chris Milk has set up a storytelling company that uses VR to explore new forms of communication that let people directly experience each other’s subjective realities, which he believes will break down both physical and societal barriers. There is already some tentative evidence from Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab that VR can make people more empathetic towards others.

Danish firm Labster is providing virtual access to state-of-the-art laboratories that would cost millions of dollars to build in real life. And companies like Unimersiv are using VR to provide immersive learning experiences on everything from anatomy to outer space that would be impossible in the real world.

As with all utopian dreams, though, it’s a short slide into dystopia. Is it more likely that these virtual worlds will be arenas of peaceful collaboration or plagued by online trolls? Donning a VR headset is unlikely to prevent the messy realities of humanity from leaching into our virtual lives, and the impact of online vitriol could be far more damaging when delivered across all five senses. Google’s Daydream Labs is already developing technology to tackle VR harassment.

And what about those entrusted with building our virtual realities? Much is made of the media’s ability to shape people’s world view, but what if you could literally build their entire world? Experiments by Nick Yee, a research scientist at the Palo Alto Research Center in California, have already demonstrated the ability to use subtle tweaks to VR algorithms to make computer agents more likable or persuasive.

Whether the spirit of collaboration, empathy and understanding will win out over humans’ less attractive instincts is hard to call. The advance of VR technology seems inevitable though, and we will most likely have to rely on those developing the technology to build in the required oversight. And putting any barriers in their way may not be in our interests in the long term.

As the world’s least reticent futurist Ray Kurzweil has pointed out, we’re all going to need something to stave off the boredom of living forever once technology cures disease.

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I am a freelance science and technology writer based in Bangalore, India. My main areas of interest are engineering, computing and biology, with a particular focus on the intersections between the three.