How will VR affect our memories?

(Image by Saad Faruque via Flickr.)

(Image by Saad Faruque via Flickr.)

You only know what you can remember, as the saying goes, but virtual reality technology holds the potential to reorganize and adulterate a person’s memory, blurring the lines between what is real and what is virtual.

Our strongest memories are deeply ingrained based on events and experiences that activate the maximum amount of neural connections in our brains, especially when an event is highly charged emotionally. That’s why most parents can never forget the joy of their child’s birth, and some soldiers can never fully recover from their traumatic experiences in war.

Virtual reality headsets are not just about cool new gaming environments and 360-degree movies. Virtual reality is destined to permeate all facets of society, including business, government, the arts, education, and leisure. The fast-emerging VR industry is already forecast to top $30 billion in revenue by 2020, according to tech advisory firm Digi-Capital.

Most people experience motion sickness and discomfort from the extended use of current virtual reality headsets. But once this communications technology is perfected, it has the potential to transform the world in ways similar to the printing press or the Internet, and that is no marketing exaggeration. We should recognize that virtual reality headsets are built to literally take over people’s sensory controls by covering their eyes and ears, and tricking the brain into perceiving a completely fabricated, displaced “virtual” reality.

In this way, virtual reality technology has the ability to create powerful new connections in the brain that generate long-term memories. By simultaneously activating new neural pathways in the conscious and subconscious brain, virtual reality content creators will wield the power to possibly trigger profound emotional responses in users – from the pleasant to the ecstatic, and from the troubling to the horrific.

IMMY headset prototype. (Image courtesy IMMY.)

IMMY headset prototype. (Image courtesy IMMY.)

Virtual reality is a completely new form of sensory communication that bypasses the physical world to directly activate the human memory. In fact, virtual reality with a 60 degree or higher field of view is much more than an audio-visual experience – instead of feeling that you are watching and listening to something, it feels like you are actually there. This is the holy grail of virtual reality which the industry describes as “presence” or “immersion.”

The potential positive applications for virtual reality are both exciting and unlimited. For instance, virtual reality simulations are already being developed in controlled environments to help people conquer their fear of flying, or of heights, or of crowded places. Virtual worlds will also allow the elderly and bedridden to escape from their rooms for virtual trips to any place in the world, or even to past historic events or future sci-fi scenarios. The possibilities are truly breathtaking.

Yet virtual reality is a neutral technology, and like all technologies, it can be used for good or evil. In a VideoInk interview, Mike Rothenberg of Rothenberg Ventures suggests that terrorist groups might adopt virtual reality to unleash monstrous scenarios of torture and brutality.

In effect, a virtual warzone would recreate the actual agony and bloodshed of war. And the lasting traumatic effects on the human memory could very well be similar to the real-life experience. We do not yet understand how these terrifying effects would be manifested, and that is why we should proceed with the utmost caution and foresight.

The normal defensive mechanisms we have as human beings in dealing with real life are mostly bypassed in a virtual reality or immersive experience, and therefore content creators should err on the side of caution and consider ALL virtual reality content creation to be made at a level of acceptability as if it was to be viewed by a 3- or 4-year-old child.

I have conducted immersive trainings using head-mounted displays for U.S. military agencies since 2002. I’ve also worked with many industrial and commercial clients, so I’m very familiar with the technical and physical challenges facing the virtual reality industry. I remain extremely enthusiastic about the potential for virtual reality to broaden our field of knowledge and improve the human condition.

Done properly, virtual reality headsets have the potential to positively transform how we learn, work, play and entertain ourselves. But this innovation must be developed carefully with sensible oversights, before the virtual genie escapes from the proverbial bottle.

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Doug Magyari

Serial entrepreneur and inventor Doug Magyari, CEO of Immy, has spent the past 20 years conducting immersive and augmented reality training simulations for US military agencies and aerospace firms. He has also spent the past decade developing proprietary augmented and virtual headsets that incorporate a new set of comfort and safety features.

5 Responses

  1. I had a demo of the Vive headset a couple of weeks back. It was completely immersive, and I have a memory of myself standing on the deck of a sunken ship, watching a whale swim by. And another memory of trying to repair a robot in a Portal demo.

    Obviously, I know that these memories are from the Vive demo — because I’m not a crazy person — but they do feel as real as actual real memories. Probably more so, because they’re more recent, and interesting than, say, of having breakfast yesterday.

    The funny thing is, I also have similar memories of sailboarding and attending meetings — even though those were in virtual worlds on a computer screen, not in a VR headset. Maybe when you really focus your attention on something, to the exclusion of everything else, your mind interprets it as if it was your reality at the time?

    • Of course, you remember these things. They happened. Makes no difference if they happen in your first life solid world or in a virtual world or in a meeting on skype. And, of course, these memories feel real. They *are* real. And, of course, we develop real feelings in association with real memories of real events, no matter how we experience those events. I think, via a virtual simulation, a person could develop an appreciation for someone else’s solid world experience of a terrifying event (a bloody battle, for instance). I think we could all be taught some solid world skills by trying them first in very accurate virtual world simulations. What I don’t believe is that it will be difficult to remember which of these memories are of solid world events and which ones were formed in simulations. On the other hand, I have memories from my very early childhood I suspect are not memories of events but of photographs of the events. Maybe young children participating in simulations would later be unable to recall which events were which. I imagine there are some health conditions and some drugs that could result in the same blurring of lines between reality and virtual reality.

      • I remember reading a bunch of studies about this when the whole thing about false memories was coming out a few years ago surrounding child abuse allegations…

        Turns out, sometimes all it takes to convince a person that they actually experienced something was to tell them, or to show them a doctored picture. Our brains fill in all the details.

        I bet that virtual reality would make that a lot easier. Not by duping people that the virtual reality was the real thing, but by inspiring them to create a set of new memories to go with it.

        For example, someone can say: “We took the photoalbum from your wedding, and constructed this virtual reality scene from it. Can you walk through it and tell us what is happening there?”

        And then they could plant stuff that didn’t happen into the scene — but you might believe them, because they SAID it was from your own photo album and they’re SCIENTISTS — so your brain would come up with explanations and memories of how, say, you punched out your mother and why Madonna dropped by.

        I can definitely see this being used for evil.

        But then again, photos and words can also be used for evil. Really, there probably isn’t anything that can’t be used for evil if you try hard enough. Bwa ha ha ha.

        • Yes, I do recall a bunch of those cases. I had not even thought of the possibility of someone using the technology to alter people’s perceptions of reality. Yeah, I am convinced that could be done. In fact, I know of at least one therapist who uses virtual worlds as a setting for folks with past trauma to replace horrifying memories with better ones. And, yes, anything can be used for evil if that is what is intended. Now, there’s a pleasant thought, eh?

  2.' Virt Ual says:

    It seems that our technology is mirroring our own evoltive dreams as well as darkest fears or our human race.

    VR will not “adulterate” a mind anymore than a pharmaceutica governed, mass media fed, culture already is.
    A world of collaboration between science and what most consider the pseudoscience of metaphysics is on the horizon.
    Technology is a tool, only as useful, helpful or destructive as the hand that wields it.
    It seems oh so ironic to use the highest of our technological creations to emulate the lowest point of our human potential (war).
    Am I the only one who finds that completely bizarre? and not in the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not way either!

    There seems to be a lot of apprehension,fear, short sighted-bull in a china shop excitement, as well as some sincere and progressive lateral application possibilities for AR/VR.
    ATM I see a somewhat crazed mix of big $ w/o vision or foresight & their entourage of blind industry coattailers trying to colonize the virtual property of the future with the past.
    This next leg of our journey into the inner workings of our mind/consciousness exploration through technology is truly just the tip of the ice burg.
    All I have to say is What the Bleep.
    Let’s leave our baggage at the door & let our highest hopes, love & gratitude guide our thoughts and exploration into the next world.