Virtual reality can’t replace what’s real

As virtual reality technology rises, consumers should think before they escape into fantasy.

Keelia Moeller

The availability of virtual reality devices is on the rise in the Twin Cities, and marketers are beginning to think about how to use the technology to connect with people.
Proponents say virtual reality has applications in gaming, entertainment or even education. They also argue that businesses could use virtual reality in order to improve training or medical care protocols in the workplace. 
At a Minnesota High Tech Association event last week, experts speculated that virtual reality will become fully mobile within the next five years.
Already we can see that more and more companies are developing their own virtual reality experiences. For example, Knock, a Minnesota advertising agency, is experimenting with 360-degree videos.
And it’s undeniable that virtual reality technology can be useful in simulating realistic experiences for new employees or medical trainees to handle during their training. The experience’s immersive nature can also allow people to explore worlds that would otherwise be out of reach. 
However, as more marketing companies start utilizing virtual reality technology, I worry that many people may end up using it more often than they should. 
We need to be careful about how accessible virtual reality becomes in the future. In particular, we must avoid using virtual reality experiences in our everyday lives. If we don’t, the artificial world could begin to replace what’s real. Once we open that door, it will become difficult to close. 
According to scientists, traditional video games typically trigger only dopamine, a motivator that keeps gamers coming back with the expectation of rewards. 
But virtual reality’s immersion could one day trigger endorphins, dopamine, anandamide, serotonin and more. Gamers’ brains would produce these chemicals as they adapt to the virtual world — and even now, designers are coming to understand more and more about how to make that world compelling.
Dopamine itself is strong enough to bring gamers back for more, but all of these neurochemicals combined result in a potential recipe for disaster. I worry that virtual reality could leave people with the desire to repeatedly experience certain neurochemical reactions in a process similar to drug addiction. 
This could prove especially harmful if some people prove more vulnerable to virtual reality addiction than others. For example, I’m afraid someone extremely unhappy with the world around them might become more obsessed than others with these alternate realities.
As of right now, consumers can purchase Oculus technology — a brand of virtual reality sets — for $99 at any local Best Buy. Although it’s pricey, the technology’s availability to anyone is an imminent threat. 
As time passes, I fear virtual reality will become even more accessible to users who are susceptible to addiction. 
Keelia Moeller welcomes comments at [email protected].