Will virtual reality make our lives better?

by on December 19, 2017 at 12:45 pm in Current Affairs, Science, Web/Tech | Permalink

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Virtual reality technology can create vivid multiprojected environments, designed to feel real in some ways. In essence, with virtual reality we will be able to manage our empathetic and emotional reactions in a manner currently beyond us. The technology may make our medical treatments seem less painful by providing distractions. It could help alleviate post-traumatic stress disorder, by allowing sufferers relive the bad experience in a way that helps them get over it. Athletes and test-takers might use simulations to get over “choking” and other performance problems. There are plenty of other uses we probably haven’t much thought of — I was struck by a recent report of a virtual reality “death simulation machine,” to help prepare people for their passing.

In this future, we will be able to steer and manage our emotional reactions to a greater degree. Do you think you don’t care enough about starving babies around the globe? There probably will be a virtual reality program to fix that, at least temporarily. You will be able to enter their world and experience their suffering in a manner that will seem almost real, perhaps in preparation for writing a check to your favorite charity.

One key question is which emotions we will decide to have more of. It would be nice to think we will use virtual reality to make ourselves more caring and more empathetic, but I’m not convinced. Just as gossip magazines and celebrity-based reality TV have long been popular, we might use virtual reality to vicariously sample the lifestyles of the rich and famous. That could make us more callous rather than more caring, or at least less involved in the suffering of others, as competing experiences will seem so much more exciting.

There is much more at the link, interesting throughout, Smith’s TMS lurks throughout.

1 Jeff R December 19, 2017 at 12:57 pm

Are the vivid experiences improving us morally, or do the gains come simply because our emotions are drained away from the sphere of everyday life?

My suspicion is neither. There will be neither “gains” nor “improvements” in the human condition, as people use virtual reality as means simply to entertain themselves and they’ll quickly adapt to it and consider it “just another thing.”

2 Potato December 19, 2017 at 4:53 pm

Increased prevalence of porn decreased the rape rate.

I’m hopeful that this particular form of horrendous violent crime will decrease in accordance with what we’ve seen with other alternatives.

3 Picador December 20, 2017 at 1:33 pm

Yeah, reading your column I didn’t see any sentiment that didn’t apply with equal force to television, film, video games, and so on. You have a theory that VR is going to be a more extreme version of one or more of those; I’m not convinced, and I haven’t seen any data suggesting this to be the case. VR may have less of an impact on any of the social trends you suggest than, say, the prevalence of wide-screen TVs or the availability of online streaming video or any of another two dozen minor technological/market changes in the last 30 years.

4 Per Kurowski December 19, 2017 at 1:01 pm

Would there be a virtual reality programmer out there interested in helping me make bank regulators understand that the real reality in banking is that what is perceived as risky is not dangerous to the banking system; it is what’s perceived as safe that poses all dangers.


5 msgkings December 19, 2017 at 4:43 pm

That’s some high level thread hijacking right there…

6 JWatts December 19, 2017 at 6:34 pm


7 FYI December 19, 2017 at 1:01 pm

Just watch Westworld. Their take on tech is totally flawed (we would never be able to fix all those androids over night) but if you imagine that as a VR world I think it is pretty accurate. Basically, we will be playing FPS video games that are more and more realistic and include sex.

8 OldCurmudgeon December 19, 2017 at 1:06 pm

Decent VR means we could finally ban one of the greatest remaining climate-destroying acts: international air travel.

9 JWatts December 19, 2017 at 1:25 pm

“Will virtual reality make our lives better?”

Yes, almost certainly. Will it be a significant improvement, I think so, but it’s debatable.

10 Baphomet December 19, 2017 at 1:28 pm

That “death simulator” is presented in a bizarrely uncritical way at the link, as if everybody agrees that death involves some kind of out-of-the-body experience.

11 JWatts December 19, 2017 at 1:57 pm

Contrast and compare with a fetus abortion simulator.

12 Potato December 19, 2017 at 4:56 pm

Feti are neither self aware nor feel anything. So this is absurd.

An alive fetus and a dead fetus would have the same simulator.


13 JWatts December 19, 2017 at 6:40 pm

Do you really think a 38 week old fetus does not feel anything?

14 msgkings December 19, 2017 at 11:22 pm

How many fetuses get aborted at 38 weeks unless the mother’s life is in danger?

15 Robert McGregor December 20, 2017 at 6:16 pm

@JWatts, I’m Pro-Choice, but complement you on the best “Abortion Satire” I’ve ever read.

16 Nick_L December 19, 2017 at 1:31 pm

Buying other peoples experiences will become attractive, too. Put yourself in the eyes of the surgeon who operated on you, or stand on a stage facing a crowd of thousands. Juries can witness virtual crime scenes. Virtual reality stars may be bigger than Youtube stars.

17 ricardo December 19, 2017 at 2:41 pm

If the experiences we buy include their physiological response (think Simstim in Neuromancer) then maybe the stars won’t be the Mick Jaggers of the world; Mick’s heartbeat probably barely rises when onstage nowadays. Instead we’ll buy those of the high-SPS people engaged in mundane but pleasant activities.


At last the introverts will rule.

18 JWatts December 19, 2017 at 1:56 pm

It doesn’t seem like Tyler didn’t address the most obvious first use case that will have a fairly large economic impact. Namely telecommuting and virtual meetings. Myself and another engineer spent 17 billable man hours last week traveling to and from a distant city, to get a 40 hour work week in with the local team. The billable time and travel expenses were probably $9K. All of this to spend 40 hours in a conference room with 4 other engineers.

The current model of teleconferencing is deficient for anything other than a short meeting or a presentation. Virtual reality has huge potential savings here. Granted a whole lot of business travelers, really like the perks that come with traveling, so there will be a lot of inherent resistance. But travel for short trips is extremely expensive.

Also, the same type of technology would make online learning far more effective.

19 Mike December 19, 2017 at 5:05 pm

I would say the most obvious first use case that will have a large economic impact will be porn.

In fact, Tyler dances around it, but he clearly believes that the most likely use for virtual reality is as an escape, a compliment to and substitute for sex and drugs.

20 Bob December 19, 2017 at 5:43 pm

Nah, Virtual reality is not a major change there. It’s a matter of cultures refusing to use our current best telework tools. Between Zoom and slack screen sharing there are very few things you can’t do well remotely today. The differences in effectiveness between places that do huge, ceremonial conference calls and anyone doing things right here is astounding.

As far as why there’s no bigger push here, I blame it on many companies being very bad at comparing invisible costs with visible costs. You will find companies that waste hundreds of thousands of expensive professionals, just because their internal cost accounting prices are such that the size of the waste is invisible to anyone high enough, but the bad practice that caused it saves $500k/yr in a single department, and that department head got a big bonus out of it.

21 JWatts December 19, 2017 at 6:44 pm

“Between Zoom and slack screen sharing there are very few things you can’t do well remotely today.”

I’m doubtful that this is true. Though I haven’t used that particular combination of software. Most of the solutions I’ve been involved with are clunky and don’t live up to their hype. If VR can truly simulate a small group meeting with multiple independent interactions where non-verbal communication is easily discerned then it will be an effective travel replacement.

22 msgkings December 19, 2017 at 11:26 pm

The thing is, (most) humans are social creatures. They really do respond to actual physical proximity to other humans. It’s why people go the movies instead of just watching at home, or go see concerts instead of listening to much higher fidelity music at home, or go to the football game instead of watching the far superior product on TV, or go out to eat instead of eating at home. And it’s why meeting someone face to face, shaking their hand, and looking them in the eye is generally how deals get done. Until VR is indistinguishable from that, people will still fly across the country for meetings.

23 Chip December 19, 2017 at 5:44 pm

The most obvious impact – as virtual reality becomes almost indistinguishable from real life – is that people will withdraw from real life.

We’re seeing the beginning of this societal shift in Japan, where marriage is disappearing and many young people are choosing not to interact with other people in the physical world.

Life sucks for many if not most people. Given a choice between constant struggle and stress, or living in a fantasy while their bodies are propped up in a basement suite on UBI, I’m not sure the decision will even be close.

24 Todd K December 19, 2017 at 9:20 pm

The percent married in Japan is 60% and in the U.S. is 50%.

The marriage rate is only a little lower in Japan than in the U.S.

Interaction among young Japanese isn’t that different than in the U.S. either. It declines in the late 20s, but they don’t even have an opiod dealer to say hello to.

25 Chip December 19, 2017 at 9:38 pm

The decline in American marriages is mostly explained by an increase in unmarried couples who live together.

In Japan, just 1.6% of couples are unmarried and cohabiting, so when they’re not marrying, they’re mostly alone. About 70% of Japanese millennials aren’t in a relationship. Almost half are virgins. A recent study found Japanese millennials to the world’s gloomiest. The population will decline by 20 million in the next 30 years.

26 Pshrnk December 19, 2017 at 2:15 pm

Why simulate death in this simulation of life?

Robin, Robin, are you there Robin?

27 Borjigid December 19, 2017 at 2:33 pm

Sounds underwhelming.

28 DF December 19, 2017 at 2:44 pm

In other words, VR will commoditize the utility dreaming has provided.

29 Robert McGregor December 20, 2017 at 6:38 pm

> “In other words, VR will commoditize the utility dreaming has provided”

Don’t forget “Privatize!” A libertarian’s gotta charge Rent.

30 mobile December 19, 2017 at 3:00 pm

Good VR might require 1000x the network bandwidth of streaming video. Would net neutrality help promote this technology or delay it?

31 JWatts December 19, 2017 at 6:46 pm

“Good VR might require 1000x the network bandwidth of streaming video”

That doesn’t seem very likely. I would assume that you could have pretty good VR for no more than 9X 4K streams. So call it 36X of standard HD.

32 AnonFrogger December 19, 2017 at 4:16 pm

VR will let people do things they can’t do in the real world. Fight in a war with no chance of having your dick blown off. Have “sex” without dealing without women’s nonsense. I’m sure there will be a virtual reality riot simulator, antifa vs alt-right. In other words: better porn and vidya.

But travel? You can do that for real. Work? Just go down to the office. A “death simulation machine?” Take a nap! Basically this technology is just a better tv.

33 Robert McGregor December 20, 2017 at 6:57 pm

> ” . . . Have “sex” without dealing with women’s nonsense.”

I don’t know this, but suspect that most MR commenters have more “Women Challenges” than most educated, accomplished people–with the exception of Ray Lopez of course. I don’t know if this is because men interested in Economics are inherently nerdy, or because “mood affinity” leads from “the top”–or both!

34 Axa December 19, 2017 at 4:25 pm

As a long time fiction reader, theater fan and video game player……I think the virtual reality definition in Wikipedia is a marketing one. We have powerful imaginations, does a controller with haptic feedback makes fiction more immersive and entertaining than a well crafted script or an archetypal myth? We may have been hanging out in virtual reality for a long time, even if we did not have VR sets.

35 Nikhil Srivastava December 19, 2017 at 6:14 pm

Here’s another high-value use case. Enable (require?) judges, police officers, everyday citizens to systematically de-bias: interact with female bosses and male secretaries, black law-abiders and white criminals, name your own prejudice.

With high-fidelity VR we’ll be able to steer and manage not only our emotional reactions, but our implicit associations and learning.

36 Hopaulius December 19, 2017 at 6:32 pm

“One key question is which emotions we will decide to have more of. It would be nice to think we will use virtual reality to make ourselves more caring and more empathetic, but I’m not convinced.” This was recently tried by an activist film crew that located and filmed a solitary sick and starving polar bear. This triggered emotions in viewers I know personally, who in my view were tricked into generalizing that one bear into the entire polar bear population, and to blame it on human-caused climate change. I’m not convinced what we need is more emotion. We need more facts and reason.

37 chuck martel December 19, 2017 at 7:25 pm

” You will be able to enter their world and experience their suffering”

The obvious first application will be in the “humane” interrogation of “terrorists”.

38 jorod December 19, 2017 at 9:35 pm

Will it help the Jews or people in Castro’s prisons?

39 Ray Lopez December 19, 2017 at 10:43 pm

One word y’all: cyber-sex.

And how many of you would pay to see the world as I do, a First Worlder living in the Third World, here in the PH, with my hot PH gf half my age, in VR style? This is how I roll, animal print, pants out control… like the movie “Being John Malkovich”, but different.

40 msgkings December 20, 2017 at 1:59 am

Oh man you made it all the way over that shark!

41 A B December 19, 2017 at 11:03 pm

Why not just do drugs?
Same thing— maybe a little safer, but I hear nothing can match crystal meth in terms of raw pleasure. Six hour orgasms apparently— that’s a lifetimes worth, right?

As a matter of fact, you can get a lifetime of happiness with just a hit of crystal as long as you hire a hit man to shoot you while you are high.

42 PERFECT LOAN December 20, 2017 at 1:18 am

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43 ChrisA December 20, 2017 at 5:18 am

Interesting that Tyler considers that lowering of empathy is a negative thing rather than a natural response when people are better off (his concern that when poorer people have access to cheap VR rich people might feel less sorry for them). This would seem to suggest that feeling sorry for someone is a good thing in its self, but that of course would suggest improving the lot of others in any way is actually a bad thing! It is understandable when so much public discourse nowadays is on the level of a kindergarten, where not sharing or being mean to someone is the worst sin of all, and of course everyone wants to be in the position of the kindergarten teacher setting the rules. But kindergartens are not good models for society, especially in terms of access to scarce resources.

A different point – I wonder what the new form of art will be developed as a result of good VR? Nowadays movies can be seen as works of art, could a computer game be seen in the same way? Could a new imaginary landscape capable of being explored in VR be a work of art, sort of like landscape gardening?

44 Edward Burke December 20, 2017 at 12:26 pm

By all means let us submit our affective responses to “rational guidance”.

Why not skip a step and simply abolish affectivity? (poetry, too, while we’re at it)

45 yo December 21, 2017 at 10:25 am

It’s great for engineers and designers. They can change designs quickly without physical prototyping, simulating e.g. aerodynamics on the go after design changes. They can learn how to repair vulnerable machinery without damaging real objects. They can sell new designs better if they can show a walkable, customizable 3d plot of the bridge, house or plane.

46 Edward Burke December 21, 2017 at 4:29 pm

–and who needs a VR “death simulation machine” so long as the therapeutic properties of LSD are not being exploited?


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