Ollie's Modern Life

This month, Ollie channels his inner Lawnmower Man, and embraces the weirdly retro-futuristic world of virtual reality


 I am sitting at my desk in my apartment. It’s evening and the sky outside from my 15th floor pad is stunning. The sun is setting behind the buildings casting the whole city in an orange hue. Hundreds of cars are going about their business, rushing home I assume. My massive flat screen TV is casting another stunning vista, this time of mountains at sunset while the rest of my apartment is soothed in a calming low light purple glow. 

It’s the perfect work environment. There are no distractions. It’s just me and my thoughts. The only thing I would change is the coffee. It looks perfectly pleasant but I can’t drink it. Not because it tastes bad or is too hot. No. Because it’s not real. 

In fact nothing in here is real. The keyboard I am typing this on, is not real. The artwork on the wall, is not real. The sofa, the telly, the speakers, even my hands, none of it is real. The view? It’s a video loop from a 15th floor apartment superimposed behind a fake window. I don’t even know what city it is.

Right now strapped to my face I have an Oculus Quest 2, a relatively new headset from Facebook owned Oculus and I am using it with an app called VR Desktop, which takes your computer screen and casts it into virtual environments. I don’t have to be in this apartment. I could switch to an auditorium, a home cinema or actual fucking space.

After just a couple of weeks experiencing this new level of consumer VR, I am convinced more than ever, this technology will fundamentally change our future. 

‘Yeah, whatever’ - I know what you’re thinking. But I’m serious. Think about it. Let’s start with work. Imagine building your company’s office completely in VR and your employees being able to ‘come’ to work, from anywhere in the world. This isn’t Zoom. Zoom is a structured, scheduled meeting to discuss pre-approved details. This is an office, with all the watercooler natter and impromptu over the desk questions that help get a lot of work done quickly. In fact, this is better than an office.

Once it’s set up, you don’t need to maintain it, pay rent, light it, heat it or clean it. If you need some quiet time at your desk, you can just hide yourself from your office pals and as a company, you could pay people a better wage with all the money you saved. Better still, it’s environmentally superb. None of the colossal fossil fuel wastage that goes on hours of commuting would exist. International meetings can be face to face without having to fly, saving the planet from millions of tonnes of CO2 each year.

It’s not just work where VR has the potential to change the world. VR has the potential, more so than any other medium, for you to live life in another person’s shoes. The best way we have of doing this at the moment is through compelling storytelling in books, newspapers or on television. But unlike these very linear platforms, with VR you can be there. With VR cameras getting better and better, you could experience the middle of a protest, life as a nomad or experience a refugee camp. 

We will no longer have to take someone’s word for it, we can experience it for ourselves

VR opens the door to empathy. It allows us to understand parts of our world, societies and cultures in a way that puts us in them, rather than us being told about them. That’s a powerful tool, especially in today’s divisive world. We will no longer have to take someone’s word for it, we can experience it for ourselves and make up our own minds.

Perhaps the most powerful example I have had of this so far, is a very simple 360 video in the middle of a refugee camp. You’re standing in the middle of something horrifying, with children who are living there staring at you, from every angle. Everywhere you turn, there is a soul whose life has been torn apart by war and famine. It makes it so, so much more real. You can’t just look away, distract yourself with your phone and pretend it’s not happening. It’s there, in front of you.

The shoes you fill in VR can be real, like a doctor remotely operating on someone from the other side of the world, or they could be from a completely different species, organism or even time. You could see what it would be like to be a dog, spend the day as a blood cell or travel back in time to see what life was like in Victorian Britain. 

This may sound like the back of an Encarta CDrom from 1994 but I’m telling you right now, it is a million miles away from that, and it is only going to get better, and better, and better, to the point where the difference between what we see in reality and virtual reality will be difficult to distinguish.

Already while writing this, I have reached over to my nonexistent coffee, tried to grab my nonexistent mouse and put something on my nonexistent desk. I already find it difficult to know what is real, and what is not. In the future I’ll have no chance.

One thing in VR that is real, is the experience. And that, perhaps more than anything is what sets it apart from our current media consumption. Your phone, TV, radio or newspaper is just an experience of watching, listening or reading. And in that sense, VR is the most real of them all. 

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