At the Precipice

New York

12 July 2016

You look down beyond the edge of a building’s ledge to an illuminated stretch of street below, lined with stores, and dotted with people and cars. You’re asked to step off the ledge and, even though you are aware this is just a simulation, somehow you can’t move. This reaction is not unusual; many people become paralysed when faced with the dilemma.

Earlier this year, Oculus VR will release Rift, an immersive virtual reality headset that promises “you’ll feel like you’re really there.” When in 2013, Palmer Luckey, Oculus’s founder, took his homegrown Oculus Rift from his Long Beach, California garage to Kickstarter, his crowdfunding campaign generated $2.4m for “The first truly immersive virtual reality headset for video games.” In 2014, Facebook purchased Oculus VR for $2bn.

As virtual reality goes mainstream, a host of visions and fascinations, doubts and fears rush in. From Silicon Valley comes word that we will soon attend virtual classes with avatars all over the world or take virtual vacations to far-flung locations. The technology is already being trialled as a therapy for war veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. Nasa uses it to recreate the environment of Mars to test its habitability. The New York Times took a step into virtual reality by creating rich, immersive, in-depth reporting as part of its NYT VR app. And, of course, video games have been a major part of the equation since the beginning. The Facebook-era Oculus wants virtual reality to “be the social platform of the future”.

In all of this, there is a nagging question: what are the implications? This is a time of curiosity about the nature of these virtual experiences, but the harder work is figuring out what their place is. What do we do in these virtual worlds and will we want to inhabit them? Weaving together past intrigues and present emotions – for now at least – the release of a viable consumer virtual-reality headset keeps us guessing as to what will be.