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A glimpse of reality in the unreal world

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Graham Phillips

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The line between fact and fiction is increasingly being distorted.

Surreal experience ... researchers are rapidly uncovering the tricks required to fool our brains into semi-believing a virtual world is real.

Surreal experience ... researchers are rapidly uncovering the tricks required to fool our brains into semi-believing a virtual world is real.

I've glimpsed the future - and it's disturbing. My insight came while giving a lecture to a group of students. I had their full attention for 100 per cent of the time. Indeed these eager young people never broke eye contact with me; they were hanging on my every word. It felt good. It felt very good.

The catch was, the students weren't real. I was in one of the most advanced virtual reality laboratories in the world, at Stanford University in California. In this virtual classroom, everything and everyone I could see and hear had been created by a powerful computer, and sent as a stream of zeros and ones to my head-mounted virtual reality display.

The simulation was realistic because virtual reality seems to have reached a watershed over the past few years. Raw computer power has been steadily doubling every couple of years since the 1950s and it has reached the point where realistic moving images can be generated in real time.

"Virtual reality experiences have the potential to overwhelm our self-control" ... Graham Phillips.

"Virtual reality experiences have the potential to overwhelm our self-control" ... Graham Phillips.

Also pushing the realism is the fact that, in labs like the one in Stanford, researchers are rapidly uncovering the tricks required to fool our brains into semi-believing a virtual world is real. This involves taking advantage of our thoughts at a subconscious level.

For example, in another simulation I was standing on the edge of a chasm. The instruction was to leap off. The rational part of my brain knew there was nothing to fear: this was a fake world after all. But my subconscious had been duped into giving the chasm some level of reality, and I actually found it very difficult to jump.

Being able to go on dangerous adventures and survive them unscathed was, well, unreal. But it was that virtual student experience that was troubling. I could have the adoring class listen to me waffle on all day, if I cared to. I could talk about me, myself and I. Ad infinitum. They would never get bored. They would never make demands. They would just stare wide-eyed, transfixed by my stories.

Virtual reality experiences have the potential to overwhelm our self-control and become highly addictive and as the technology steadily improves, computer-generated worlds of all varieties will become intoxicatingly attractive to be in. In fact they could become so alluring, people won't want to unplug.

It reminds me of the response artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky gave a few years ago when asked about the coming age of sophisticated personal robots. Couldn't they be programmed to be so appealing they would devalue human interactions?

"I don't see anything wrong with human life being devalued if we have something better," Minsky snapped back. He then said robot friends could be programmed to be delightful. If they had all the virtues of a person and were smarter and more understanding, why would the elderly bother talking to other grumpy old people? (He was getting on in years at the time.)

While lickspittle robot pals won't be something we have to worry about for some years, the age of captivating virtual reality characters probably is upon us. The man in charge of the Stanford lab, Professor Jeremy Bailenson, believes virtual reality will be in living rooms soon.

Developing an addiction to your vivacious virtual mates is only part of the problem. After spending a lot of time in these make-believe worlds there will be a carry-over effect when you return to the reality of the boring physical world.

Bailenson showed this by getting the programming team to create a realistic underwater world, where visitors could swim with whales. A study group of children was brought into the lab, and the kids spent a few hours frolicking with these engaging computer-generated giants of the sea.

The surprise came a few months later when the children were brought back to the lab. They were asked if they had ever been to Sea World and swum with whales. Half of them said they ''remembered'' having swum with ''real'' whales.

The research is no doubt relevant to repressed memory syndrome but, the point here is, in a future where we spend more and more time in virtual reality, it's going to become increasingly difficult to distinguish fantasy from fact.

Will this technology lead humanity to a good or bad place? I guess it depends on your philosophy. People already spend a lot of time escaping actual reality through television, films and books.

One thing seems certain though, judging by computer advances in the past: it's going to be impossible to stop the swell of this technology. We'll find out soon enough just how unreal the future will be.

Graham Phillips is a scientist and the presenter of Catalyst on ABC TV.