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The Rise of VR: Pushing Humanity Forward? Or Pulling Us Apart?

December 09, 2016

  • Two possible virtual reality futures
  • How this may compare with current advance in technology
  • And how you can invest in VR
10 min read

In a world where everyday science sounds more and more like science fiction, we here at Stash find ourselves preoccupied with how technology is becoming more and more integrated into our daily lives. From How Robots Will Push the Human Race Forward, to the Emerging Morality of Robots, we have technological advancement on the brain. And a topic that comes up time and again is virtual reality. VR.

The future of VR has always seemed to be just that, a future — but with the recent rapid proliferation of virtual reality technologies, it appears a VR future could become the VR present sooner than we may realize, or be entirely comfortable with.

But before we dive into the future, a bit of history:

The term virtual reality predates much of the technology we associate with it. The term originates, as so many do, in the theatre. Alas, no, Shakespeare didn’t coin ‘virtual reality’ — though he is responsible for some pretty amazing parts of the English language, like ‘critic’, ‘elbow’, and ‘lonely.’ Which leads me to wonder, “Were people lonely before Shakespeare gave us a word to describe our loneliness?”

But since we can’t blame this linguistic innovation on the Bard, who is the culprit?

We can trace the term virtual reality back to 1938, and French playwright Antonin Artaud’s collection of essays, The Theatre and Its Double. Artaud described, “the purely fictitious and illusory world” of the theatre, and called this reality “la réalité virtuelle,” or virtual reality.

Virtual reality is already being used for entertainment, engineering, urban design, education, heritage preservation, and so much more.

Mix in some sci-fi authors adopting this term and dictionary references in the 1980s, and you’ve got an etymological recipe for this crazy new technology dominating tech blogs everywhere.

And now that the future is nigh, how will virtual reality change your life?

We imagine two possible futures where virtual reality is integrated into our daily lives.

A Possible Virtual Reality Future: Jonathan

The year is 2247.

Jonathan lives his life mostly in virtual reality. He has very little need to leave his home, and, for all intents and purposes, he has lost the ability to do so. There are few people who still venture out into what remains of the outside world. With such extreme temperatures, rampant violence, and the challenges presented by interacting with other humans offline, it makes much more sense to wear his VR suit, and recline in his environmentally generative chair, experiencing everything through haptic technology.

Side effects and concerns that plagued previous generations of VR users are now a thing of the past. The historical prevalence of Virtual Reality Sickness which dominated integration in the middle of the 21st century is now a complete non-issue, as most people spend the majority of their waking hours integrated in virtual and augmented realities. In fact, for Jonathan, finding an equilibrium when he’s too active outside of virtual reality is the challenge. The nausea, vomiting, headache, and loss of balance that humans used to experience when they spent too long in VR are now experienced when people try to spend too much time in the real world.

“These violent delights have violent ends.” – Romeo and Juliet, Act II scene vi.

It’s probably a good thing that Jonathan doesn’t leave his living quarters much. Spending so much time in virtual realities has made available many of the violent tendencies we humans are so prone to, and people spend a great deal of time in war games, acting out their brutal impulses. This all started in the early 2100s, when violent VR was used as therapy for patients suffering from issues with anger and violence. However, as these games and therapies became more mainstream, and people spent more and more time inside virtual realities, interacting less and less with people in real time and space, the lines began to blur, and the more ‘base’ human instincts began to be explored with more and more regularity in the “safe space” of VR.  

Telepresence became a huge fad in the early 22nd century, as virtual and augmented realities improved and became more and more integrated into humans’ daily lives. Telepresence allowed people to interact with realities in other places, using haptic technology to feel the weight of objects, and sense changes in air temperature and pressure, even when thousands of miles away. However, as the environment became less and less hospitable, engaging with other real places became less and less needed, and now the places Jonathan spends his time are entirely virtual.

Jonathan’s bones aren’t terribly dense, as standing and walking aren’t needed more than a couple times a day. His romantic partner is an algorithm, and he’s never actually interacted with a real woman before, though he hears the differences between the sexes are becoming more and more difficult to discern, so maybe he just hasn’t realized it.

Jonathan doesn’t have a life offline, and relies on his VR suit and its haptic technology to allow him to experience the visceral violent games he spends most of his time within. He also works as a programmer for a few hours a day, writing code to expand the virtual realities in which he spends his time.

Jonathan lives a sedentary, solitary, violently inclined life — with immediate gratification of desires having robbed him of all impulse control and his isolation depriving him of any interpersonal skills. But let’s face it, does he even need them?

Does this have you feeling a bit down?

More of an optimist?

Then try this one on for size:

A Possible Virtual Reality Future: Maria

The year is 2247.

Maria lives in the United States, but regularly attends classes all over the world. She speaks seven languages fluently, and has friends of all ages all around the globe. At 21 years old, she has been introduced to various cultures, experiences, and peoples through virtual and augmented realities. And not only does she explore these cultures through VR, but she’s visited a few of them as well, with cultural exchange programs for middle and high school age students becoming the norm in the early 22nd century as crime rates dropped to almost zero.

In the mid 21st century there had been a push for VR helping people to “literally walk in another person’s shoes.” Transporting Americans to international refugee camps, and other experiences aimed to help people understand experiences outside their own and “amplify their empathy” more rapidly than books, movies, and news reports had been able to in the 20th and early 21st centuries. As VR technology accelerated in the 2050s it became the norm for children to spend some time “walking in another’s shoes,” which led to their curiosity in visiting the places themselves, and exchange programs started multiplying rapidly.

This acceleration of cross cultural empathy and understanding had a few unexpected side effects: crime rates plummeted and racism was eradicated in just over two decades. Maria and her friends even have a hard time understanding that people once discriminated based on the color of someone’s skin.

Her grandparents have stories of such discrimination passed down to them from their grandparents, but Maria’s generation sees difference as opportunity for further understanding and growth of knowledge. She’s had educational VR experiences of the United States in the 20th century and before, aimed to foster her understanding of the divisive history of her country. But Maria lives in a world where these are stories, and they seem as absurd as people typing into their phones with their thumbs to send messages to one another.

Lifespans have increased to around 120 years, due to advances in training of medical professionals and the accelerated sharing of knowledge and research provided by VR based training environments for doctors, nurses, and medical researchers.

Maria and her friends can connect through VR almost any time, no matter where they are in the world. She’s learned to dance Flamenco from her friend in Spain, visited the now flourishing polar bear population in Canada with her first boyfriend (who happened to be living in China at the time), and wandered the Louvre while studying Art History before deciding to actually take a trip there for her 19th birthday to see the Mona Lisa in person.

Maria has a great VR system with an interactive haptic technology suit. A room of her house has an omnidirectional floor (a much more advanced version of the early 21st century omnidirectional treadmills). This allows her to dance, play, run, and otherwise interact with the virtual realities she enters with her entire body. Keeping her active and healthy. These floors have also become commonplace at schools, event centers, and gyms.

Maria and her friends feel connected with one another, have an amazing level of education, live in a world where preservation and conservation are top priorities, and are empathetic young people who know how to interact with tact in a variety of realities from a remarkably early age. VR and other technologies have been engineered into her world in thoughtful and elegant ways, fostering connection, education, and acceptance.

Not buying it?

Is this picture a little too rosy?

Those two examples are pretty extreme, and may seem unlikely as a fate for the human race as we further integrate with this new technology. So what might the future actually look like? We will have to wait and see.

Virtual reality technology

VR technologies are advancing incredibly quickly. There are many virtual reality systems already available to consumers, from Google Cardboard, available for the cost of lunch (less if you happen to live in NYC or San Fran), to the HTC Vive, which retails for almost $800.

Virtual reality is already being used for entertainment, engineering, urban design, education, heritage preservation, and so much more. If you live in a major city, chances are you can go play in VR, as more and more dedicated spaces and temporary events are popping up that give the general public access to this interactive technology.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg jumped on the VR bandwagon when he acquired Oculus (makers of the Oculus Rift) for a reported $2 Billion. And according to this Bloomberg article, Zuckerberg, “doesn’t flinch at the thought of building a NASA-like research park for VR.”

But multi-billion dollar acquisitions aside, VR is now pretty readily available to the average city-dweller or human with a tech-minded friend. Like me, a resident of NYC and lover of my startup tech nerd friends.

My intro to realities of the virtual variety

I was introduced to VR through Jason Kende, founder of Asterisk VR. He invited me to the former Met MediaLab, a digital research and development hub that was housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I had my first spin with a Vive headset.

I was skeptical, as I’m usually a late adapter of technologies, and thought VR was yet another way for us to disconnect from our fellow humans and interact with technology.

But then I wandered around Athena’s drawing. She had used the Tilt Brush to create a sparkly little cafe. It included flowers, cobblestones, twinkle lights, trees, a table and chairs, complete with a full glass of wine. A delightful detail was a series of footsteps on the cobblestones that created a dance if you followed them with your feet. It was a whole new way to interact with someone else’s creation. I was inside her art.

And then I made it snow. Yes, I made it snow in my own virtual reality. In space. And my mind was opened to the possibilities of increasing empathy and describing personal experience by creating environments for one another.

Founders of Median (@hellomedian) Alex Todaro and Athena Diaconis creating and playing in VR

If you’re still a skeptic, check out Glen Keane, Disney animator, draw in virtual reality. I dare you not to be inspired.

Now that you’re sufficiently inspired, here are a few ways that companies with commitments to virtual reality technology are represented in Stash investments:

Stash investments that include VR technology

Facebook (FB) has the Oculus Rift, and is a top holding in Social Media Mania.
Microsoft (MSFT) has the HoloLens, and is a top holding in American Innovators.
And of course, Google (GOOG) has a hand in the VR game, with both Google Cardboard and Google Daydream, which you can find as a top holding in Internet Titans.


By Clare Edgerton

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