Opinions, Column

VRoom VRoom: Oh Listen It’s the Sound of the Simulation Taking Over

Virtual reality makes me nauseous. But not like the nauseous I get after challenging my stomach to another night of Boston College dining—it’s more like the nauseous I get when I feel impending doom. There is a quintessential “VR photo” that I am sure you are familiar with. It is of a boy sitting on the beach, wearing a VR headset despite it being a beautiful sunny day. I can only hope that everyone else was as pained by this photo as I was, to the point that we all acknowledge that it should not be our future.

I want my abhorrence to be rational, though. It is possible that my opinion is not actually backed by reason, but rather just my gut reaction and emotional response to seeing such a blatant disrespect of the beauty of the outdoors. After research, my disdain was kind of validated, but it also kind of wasn’t. 

My opinion surely stems from my own experiences with nature. I am not sure if many people share a similar experience, but based on my childhood I firmly believe that there is more to being outside than the visual and auditory aspects. I personally spent a sizable amount of time eating dirt, sand, and leaves (not fully encouraged).

In all seriousness, nature is filled with smells, other organisms, and tactile encounters that are integral to the full outdoor experience. If I were to ask you to think about what rain on pavement smells like or what a pine tree in winter smells like, I’m sure you could indeed conjure up not only the exact smell but also some memories you associate with it. Just think about chasing butterflies or trying to get close enough to a bunny to pet it. Think of the sensation of dirt under your fingernails or even the tickle of grass on the soles of your feet. 

My point is that these things cannot be replicated with a VR screen, no matter how high-quality the definition is. 

Yet, virtual reality does indeed have its redeeming qualities, kind of. I am willing to concede a few points on behalf of virtual reality on the grounds that it can be beneficial to not only human health, but also environmental health. 

Nature is known to convey many health benefits to humans just by being outside. Not only is it beautiful, it is restorative. This restorative aspect has many health implications, including reduced cognitive fatigue, decreased stress, and increased focus. More studies have found that nature causes reduced mortality rates, improved mental health, and even higher fertility.

These benefits are compounded for individuals who are experiencing exorbitant amounts of stress and emotional strain in their everyday lives. This is great news and provides an incentive for people to venture outdoors and also take care of natural spaces. But what about people who don’t have access to natural spaces or have impaired mobility

This is where I see an apt space for VR to fill. Importantly, some of the benefits of the outdoors are indeed conveyed through natural VR displays, and I guess you could eat some grass and dirt on the side to make up for where VR falls short. VR technology displaying natural scenes, if coupled with other therapeutics such as meditation, has proven to have long-term health benefits similar to those of actual nature. Further, chemotherapy patients have reported decreased pain and anxiety when viewing natural scenery via VR during treatment. Although real-world nature remains superior in its benefits, VR provides an avenue for connections with nature despite, for whatever reason, people not being able to access the outdoors. 

Ecological health can also be promoted through these nature VR displays indirectly through psychology. By offering up beautiful outdoor scenery that most people don’t interact with on a day-to-day basis, VR can provoke environmentally conscious behaviors by nurturing a relationship between humanity and nature. One study even found that nature VR can be as effective as real nature in fostering “green” behaviors. 

Further, Ando Shah—co-founder of Ballast VR, a company producing VR technology—contends that VR should serve as a stepping stone into actual nature experiences. For instance, people who experience Yellowstone National Park via virtual reality are more likely to want to go visit the real one. To Shah, forming these neural connections with nature through VR will lead to more empathy for nature and eventually incite action to combat climate change. 

Shah’s intentions behind VR are completely in line with my hopes for it. Stirring up excitement about the outdoors and encouraging real exploration are both noble goals for VR. I can only hope that these will be its true implementations. 

In the meantime I will not personally partake in VR technology, but that is more of a result of my personal fears of degenerating into a dystopian society rather than my ignorance of its combined ecological and health benefits. And these ecological and health benefits are apparent, as seen in this literature-review of sorts I conducted with the original goal of rationalizing my disdain. I kind of unraveled my fear in discovering that there are uses for VR that won’t cause the downfall of our society but will actually, perhaps, contribute to its success in terms of battling our current ecological crisis. 

But, because I am currently mobile and have access to outdoor spaces, I will continue to opt for real nature over virtual nature. Most of my remaining skepticism is with human tendencies to corrupt technological advances in a way that is in opposition to our well-being (social media comes to mind) rather than my disbelief in the technology itself. All that being said, if in the near future you happen to see me on a beach wearing a VR headset, I give you full permission to throw me in the ocean and force-feed me sand.

September 18, 2022