For decades tech companies have been striving to craft an all immersive, virtual reality utopia that promises to transform the way we play, work and interact. But with this future fast-approaching, it’s time to ask whether we are heading toward a beneficial shift in daily life or a Matrix-style simulation. And much of that question is predicated on who we allow to own and run this new version of reality.

Defining Reality

Virtual, augmented and mixed reality are seemingly interchangeable buzz words, so let’s begin by defining them in their more commonly known use cases.

  • Virtual Reality: Immerses the user in a 100% artificial reality, known as VR.
  • Augmented Reality: A graphical overlay of virtual objects within the real-world, known as AR.
  • Mixed Reality: A combination of VR and AR, known as MR.

Now that we have a firm grasp of, ahem, reality, let’s get up to speed with the origins and recent history of virtual worlds.

The State Of The Game

Virtual reality is far from a new technology, with term coined all the way back in 1938 by French playwright Anton Artaud to describe the conception of illusory objects in real space. For many, VR brings to mind images of a goofy headset strapped to the front of a gamer’s face, allowing them to ‘plug in’ and experience the latest games up close and personal. And for the most part you’d be right – VR has been a growing subsector within the games industry going back decades, with Nintendo’s ill-fated Virtual Boy promising to render 32-bit Game Boy in semi-VR using parallax and stereoscopic technology. Unfortunately, it was consigned to a monochrome (black and red) display, caused severe eyestrain, and unsurprisingly holds the title of its lowest-selling console of all time – clocking in at under 1 million units sold. It was discontinued within a year.

Modern VR headsets such as Sony’s PlayStation 4 VR feature high resolution displays, motion tracking and spatial 3D-audio. Image: Sony

Technology has come a long way since 1995. Gamers are now treated to a plethora of options, with industry heavyweights Sony, Valve and HTC offering cutting edge headsets which feature HD graphics and 3D-audio. Modern headsets also interact with controllers that are motion tracked, often represented as the player’s hands in-game.

Outside of the gaming world, many other big-tech companies have thrown their hats into the ‘mixed reality’ ring. Either via virtual or augmented reality (a computer-generated layer of graphics layered on top of the real world, thus augmenting the user’s vision). Microsoft offers both the Hololens (an augmented reality headset used in enterprises) and a Mixed Reality platform (for more traditional VR with external cameras to track controllers and allow a portal to the ‘real world’ to be piped in to the headset). Even Nintendo is back in the game with the smash hit Pokémon Go, an AR game available on mobile platforms, with a record 150million concurrent players and has been downloaded over a billion times.

With all the buzz around VR and AR it should be no surprise that HTC, Samsung, Google, Dell, HP and Valve have all produced headsets, each to varying levels of success. Of these, Sony, Valve and Oculus are the market leaders for consumer VR tech, with the later edging ahead as a clear favourite due to lower price points and hardware advancements such as self-contained units (no additional wires or battery packs, AKA true standalone devices not requiring a PC for use) leading to greater accessibility for users.

Enter The Matrix

At this point it’s important to acknowledge the 800-pound gorilla in the room, Facebook, or more accurately its newly christened parent company, Meta. In late October 2021, Mark Zuckerberg announced to the world a re-organisation of the infamous blue brand, with Facebook now a child company of Meta, and Oculus serving as its VR sub-division, though the Oculus name is set to be discontinued by 2022, replaced by Horizon for all associated hardware and services.

During the livestream, Zuckerberg detailed and demonstrated what he called The Metaverse – a VR platform where he imagines we will all connect in via our headsets to work, play and interact with other users. In The Metaverse, our bodies will be digitally represented by avatars and we will be able to engage in commerce, play games, watch movies and collaborate in real-time with connected users around the world.

This is all fine and dandy, until you recall which company is behind this initiative.

This picture, taken during a Facebook event at Mobile World Congress in 2016, was criticised as reflecting an unsettling scene reminiscent of The Matrix. Zuckerberg pushed back, stating that the users were having a shared, movie-like experience. Image: Facebook

Remember Facebook Meta, the company that is currently embroiled in legal and regulatory disputes around the globe? These battles include anti-trust violations, data-collection scandals, anti-competitive practices and a role in destabilising governments. In case you require a refresher, here are a few of the latest issues facing the company:

Also, do we really want a company who is aware of their product’s negative impact on the mental health of children, yet is unwilling to address this incredibly concerning issue, to be in charge of a virtual reality space where young people will undoubtedly make up a significant portion of its userbase?

Internal reports highlighted the negative mental health consequences of Instagram; teens felt addicted to the app, alongside increased suicidal ideation, feelings of anxiety and depression across its userbase.

For context, as recent as late 2021 a whistleblower report uncovered documented evidence of Facebook’s own research into Instagram. Internal reports highlighted the negative mental health consequences of Instagram; teens felt addicted to the app, alongside increased suicidal ideation, feelings of anxiety and depression across its userbase.

Armed with this knowledge, the company did… nothing. In fact they downplayed the claims, leading to Product Manager Frances Haugen leaking the research to the media and eventually testifying in front of US Congress that the company knew its products are damaging yet took no action to rectify this.

I Don’t Want To Leave

And how will we deal with the dysphoria and cognitive issues that are bound to arise from living in a digital world where everything is perfect? What will users feel when they disconnect from a world in which their digital avatar looks a movie star, athlete or celebrity, yet their real-world visage is not as muscle-bound, slim or ‘beautiful’? Will users care about real-world issues if they are not represented in the virtual world, an environment that, like other Meta products before, are potentially addictive?

Modern media has attempted many times to answer these and related questions. Take the 1990 Red Dwarf novel Better Than Life, in which a user becomes addicted to a VR world where every day resembles the holiday film It’s a Wonderful Life. The character eventually realises he is in a simulation after mysterious cuts appear on his arm – abrasions inflicted in the real world by a friend to signal that his physical body is withering away. Or the plots of The Matrix and Ready Player One, in which characters battle the evil proponents of a simulated world that threatens our wellbeing.

Sure, these are works of fiction, but the message should still be taken seriously. If you design an environment to be impossibly perfect, engineering it to steal your attention, why would you ever want to leave? What are we willing to give up in order to live in a fantasy?

Addressing The Inevitable

Look, technology is inevitable. If Meta doesn’t make the Metaverse, someone else will. Though critiques of the platform are right to call out the possible dystopian nature of an always connected virtual reality environment, the sentiment is only amplified when considering the company’s recent history. Lest we forget an early demonstration of the VR product, then known as Facebook Workspaces, when Zuckerberg and head of social VR Rachel Franklin toured the hurricane-stricken Puerto Rico. Amongst the backdrop of a real-world city that was battling floods and property damage, the pair high-fived whilst grinning and proclaimed how “cool” it was to be visiting the city virtually, and that they felt they were “really” there.

In the future, will the devastating impact of climate change have any impact if we spend all out time in VR?
Image: Facebook

Can we trust a company like Facebook Meta, which is engineered to pray on our attention, monetises our data and positions its users as products to be sold to advertisers, to be the torchbearer for the next leap in computing technology? History and common sense say no.

Technology is going to continue to move forward, and governments are often too slow to enact regulation and policy that ensures it doesn’t all go off the rails. Only now is the US Government (via the US Federal Trade Commission) realising the 2012 & 2014 Facebook Meta’s purchase of Instagram and WhatsApp was anti-competitive and left it as monopoly in the social-networking space. As detailed in the fantastic book No Filter, Sarah Frier documented the rise of Instagram and how it was consumed by the blue brand, who saw it as a massive threat to their ‘growth at all costs’ gameplan. Fool me once… hell, let’s not be fooled again. The stakes (our time, attention, mental health, geo-political stability, wellbeing…) are too high to let this play out the same way over the next 5 years.

So, what is our alternative? Instead of jacking into the Matrix Metaverse, perhaps the platform could be open-sourced, divested from a company with such a blatant disregard for its own consumers. Whilst we wait for regulators to catchup, why not build a council of stakeholders to oversee the development of the open-source VR platform, such as mental health organisations, tech companies, consumer rights institutions and others who will advocate for the rights of the user.

Misinformation, as bad as it is now, would be almost impossible to stop (or spot) in a virtual environment where all of our senses are potentially compromised at all times. We’ve seen how damaging the ‘post-fact’ era can be, especially during these unprecedented times. If we want to avoid making the same mistakes as the past and begin to right the wrongs brought on by fast adoption of unregulated technologies, then we need to get ahead of it now.

They say the ethos of the tech industry is to “move fast and break things“. Perhaps that’s okay for low-stakes endeavours, but it is no longer 1990. We have history, and thus foresight, that a slap dash approach to unproven tech without sound regulation and policy can be one of the most destructive forces on earth. The question then becomes, are you okay with having your reality broken?