RIGHT NOW, WE’RE INSIDE A COMPUTER PROGRAM?” With that monotone query, a very confused Neo, played by Keanu Reeves in the blockbuster film The Matrix, convinces hundreds of millions of viewers that virtual reality could be so real that people have no idea they are actually living in a simulation. Of course, the Matrix is just a movie, but brain science supports many of the ideas of the Wachowski brothers, who wrote, directed, and produced the film.
The brain often fails to differentiate between virtual experiences and real ones. The patterns of neurons that fire when one watches a three-dimensional digital re-creation of a supermodel, such as Giselle or Fabio, are very similar—if not identical—to those that fire in the actual presence of the models. Walking a tightrope over a chasm in virtual reality can be a terrifying ordeal even if the walker knows it’s virtual rather than physical. People interact via digital stimuli more and more.
According to a recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, kids spend eight hours per day on average outside of the classroom using digital media. This translates to billions of hours per week. People interact with virtual representations in just about every facet of life—business transactions, learning, dating, entertainment, even sexual relationships. Online dating, which used to be somewhat stigmatizing, is now normative.
Young adults consider their Facebook friends just as important as the people who live close enough to meet physically. In the world of online games and virtual worlds, millions of players spend over twenty hours each week “wearing” avatars, digital representations of themselves. Strikingly, the average age of these players is not fifteen but twenty-six. Household “console” video arenas, especially games, in which people control and occupy avatars, consume more hours per day for kids than movies and print media combined.
To borrow a term from the new vernacular, virtual experiences are spreading virally. Technological developments powering virtual worlds are accelerating, ensuring that virtual experiences will become more immersive by providing sensory information that makes people feel they are “inside” virtual worlds. In the United States, Nintendo’s Wii, often coupled with a huge high-definition television and populates many living rooms.
The players’ physical actions are transformed into virtual body movements in the game. By the time you read this, Nintendo’s Wii, Microsoft’s Kinect, and Sony’s PlayStation Move may incorporate 3-D displays. Virtual experiences are no longer embodied just by hunting and pecking on a keyboard or using a joystick: digital characters now move in tandem with players as they jump around, point guns, and swing racquets, golf clubs, and baseball bats.
Stereo, 3-D visual media technology — which not that long ago was only available to scientists and people using View-Masters—promises to change the film, television, and game industry. Movie theaters entice audiences willing to pay a few extra dollars for 3-D glasses to watch blockbuster films. The game and television industry are promoting 3-D monitors to every household.
The popular sports network ESPN even broadcasts in 3-D. Although we aren’t yet “jacking in” to the virtual world via a plug in the back of our head, as Neo did in The Matrix, digital media are providing more realistic experiences and not just for humans. Ten years ago, most household pets ignored television. Today, high-definition television transfixes, thrills, and sometimes enrages dogs and cats as they watch the fare on the Animal Planet network. They simply do not differentiate the digital image from reality.
This leads to an interesting proposition—the brain doesn’t much care if an experience is real or virtual. In fact, many people prefer the digital aspects of their lives to physical ones.