Time for a reality check

VirtualThe word escape is a fickle and deceitful concept, much like Iago in Shakespeare’s play Othello, who plots and manipulates by trapping others in a tangled web of lies and playing on their weaknesses. The first image that comes to mind when thinking of the word escape is usually the structure of a massive and heavily guarded prison, where mean, rugged crooks and gangsters pay their debt to society. The second image that comes to mind is that of personal avoidance, even flight, from something we fear or dread dealing with. Both times, the word escape brings us to consider elements exterior to us. Yet we all try to break free within, on a daily basis, and no hooligans nor specific trembling matters at hand are to blame. We instinctively attempt to escape our own lives.The long for evasion is such that we’ve heedlessly established levels, according to the desired degree of immersed state.

The least hypnotic status is the “passive escape”, reached when watching a popcorn movie. The next level is the “active escape”, attained with intense daydreaming. The last and most effective mesmerizing state is the “passively active escape”, aka “virtual reality”.

The digital realm has denatured the real world into virtual reality. Our undeniable dependency on technology has now reached an unprecedented level. Most of us become aware of this modern and socially accepted addiction when one of our devices fails to complete its task. We’ve become tech-junkies, both in our professional and personal lives. We cut deals, make friends and have long-distance relationships through screens, without ever doubting their legitimacy. And why should we? They feel real don’t they?

Ah, but you see, there’s the catch. Just because something “feels real” doesn’t mean it is. Think about it. Dreams are powerful enough for real emotions to surface. Who has never woken up gasping for air, in shock of what they had just witnessed? Or disoriented, and stricken by sudden sorrow? No one. We’ve all had the experience at least once. Yet dreams are a product of our imagination; they have the essence and effect of reality but not the tangibility, they are virtual. And thanks to high-tech and an inner calling to challenge the natural order of things, dreams can now be experienced during waking hours. All you need is a VR headset. This cool-looking head gear was first used in the gaming world. However, ecommerce retailers have recognized a grand opportunity in immersive multimedia. Even though this technology is still overpriced, it is only a matter of time before it is available to the masses. Google Cardboard is proof: it’s a cheap and easy to use fold out cardboard that turns your smartphone into a VR headset.

Virtual reality could redefine the shopping experience, and has already begun to do so.

In their 2014 catalogue, IKEA uncovered their augmented reality feature for their app which enabled customers to view and place 3D virtual products in their homes. Clients no longer had to imagine but could envision what their home would look like with close to great certainty.

Designer lifestyle brand Tommy Hilfiger added virtual reality to its store on Fifth Avenue by giving shoppers a front-row view of the Fall fashion show through a Samsung GearVR headset. This entertaining chance to view the season’s runway collection will soon be extended to all their shops throughout the USA and Europe.

Avenue Imperial redefined the concept of inbound marketing by allowing iconic brands, such as Harvey Nichols, Karen Millen and Jimmy Choo, to give virtual grand tours of their stores. Customers visit and shop in the store from the comfort of their own home.

But is there a market for VR?

According to the WalkerSands 2015 report, 35% of consumers say they would increase their online shopping if they could try on a product virtually and 63% predict VR will impact their shopping experience.

Furthermore, given recent events, it’s hard not to see a general enthrallment with VR. The Pokemon Go phenomenon put forward a prominent hunger for virtual reality on a large scale. The hunt for the ghostly creatures is at a crossroad between reality and virtual reality. The want-to-be tamers wander in the real world seeking for Pokemons on the loose in a virtual dimension. It won’t be long before true Pokemon huntsmen plea for a total immersive experience.

That being said, our curiosity regarding virtual reality has been brewing for a while. Countless movies have been produced on the subject such as The Matrix series, Total Recall, Inception, Tron, The Thirteenth Floor, etc.

As mentioned earlier, we are naturally drawn to evasions. So why not snuggle up to it?

Is virtual reality to be embraced or feared?

VR could create a stream of endless opportunities, both in our private and professional spheres. We would reach a god-like status even greater than the one we already hold (see my previous article “A divine digital era”). We would be able to test new ideas without bearing the consequences if they were to fail. This risk-free environment would eventually bring us to reexamine our own life and perhaps to be more prone to venture out of our comfort zone and try to make it better.

Vcommerce would also make online shopping even more instantaneous than ecommerce. At the moment, products are often placed in the Internet user’s online cart for reflection. Most of the time, they are forgotten or casted aside. But with vcommerce, the customer tries out the product immediately, annihilating the uncertainty and guess work of its compatibility with the buyer’s desires.

However, there are risks. Virtual reality could end up radically changing our social and emotional needs over time. In A Theory of Human Motivation, Abraham Maslow reveals his hierarchy of needs shaped as a pyramid. According to the American psychologist, love and belonging are the third inner need common to all, subsequent to physiological and safety needs. Belonging to a virtual social group or falling in love with a virtual person can’t fulfill us completely.  Even if utterly immersed in the virtual realm, three of our five senses will be left in the dugout: smell, touch and taste. Yet those senses induce our delight for relationships. A sweet perfume scent, the feel of soft skin, the taste of luscious lips…

The second risk is no longer being able to distinguish what’s real and what isn’t. The pleasure felt from the complete immersion can become too delectable to leave. In a virtual world, it’s easier to overcome a struggle. It’s possible to change an unchangeable past affair. It’s possible to tell your schmuck of a boss off. Imagine your deepest desires at your fingertips. The temptation to stay in such a world is understandable. We might wind up unable to escape from our escape. The danger is real as it has already happened in the gaming realm. In 2004, Zhang Xiaoyi, a 13-year-old young boy from China, committed suicide after playing World of Warcraft for 36 consecutive hours. He wanted to be a part of the heroes of the game he worshipped. In 2009, a three-year-old girl from New Mexico passed away from malnutrition and dehydration. On the day of her death, her mother had spent 15 hours playing World of Warcraft. These are extreme cases, but they show what can happen.

How to overcome these liabilities?

Back in 1641, René Descartes found the answer in his Meditations on First Philosophy: the Cartesian doubt. The French mathematician, physicist and philosopher suggests we doubt everything as we are certain of nothing, which led to his famous Cogito ergo sum. By doubting his own existence, Descartes proves he exists, as if he didn’t exist, he would not be able to doubt his existence. Therefore, in order to stay grounded and not lose yourself in a virtual world, doubt and keep doubting.

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