The Next Big Thing appears to be virtual reality. Suddenly, VR headsets are being written up everywhere.
I was sufficiently intrigued to spend $15 on Google Cardboard, a VR viewer made of — yes — cardboard, which holds your smartphone in a snug little Velcro-tabbed flap and allows you to watch VR videos through two built-in lenses. The quality is not great (and why would it be for fifteen bucks?), but Cardboard does give you a taste of the VR experience. I watched a short documentary video via the free Vrse app; called "The Source," it concerned an Ethiopian village desperate for clean water. The image quality is not first-rate and the 3D effects are rather crude; figures in the foreground appear somewhat pasted on, like the images in an old stereopticon (or the ViewMaster toy from my childhood). But you do have a 360 degree view of the scene; turn your head and the point of view shifts appropriately. The experience was convincing enough to make me a little dizzy at times, and I was genuinely startled when someone abruptly appeared right "next to" me.
Even now, far more sophisticated VR gizmos are available, and naturally the technology will only get more realistic and affordable. It's not much of a stretch to assume that within ten years, and maybe much sooner, nearly everyone will be spending a certain part of his day plugged into an uncannily real virtual world.
All this has led my Facebook friend Ian, who occasionally comments here, to suggest that this trend represents, in part, an attempt to recreate the Summerland experience. I think he just might be right.
Image from a promotional video for the Oculus Rift VR headset
Summerland was a term coined by 19th century Spiritualists to designate the earthlike plane of spiritual reality to which most people gravitate shortly after they have died. Created out of the collective memories of the deceased, it feels as solid and real as physical reality does to the living. But unlike the earth plane, the Summerland environment is more directly under the control of consciousness, and some of its features can be creatively altered by an effort of imagination and will.
Because people at a similar level of spiritual development tend to flock together, Summerland is largely free of the conflicts and frictions that plague us on earth. And because it is a product of consciousness, it is an idealized environment - butterflies, but no mosquitoes; flowers, but no weeds.
If those of us who are currently alive retain any memory of a pre-birth existence, we may find ourselves unconsciously yearning for Summerland. This gnawing homesickness could be the basis of the persistent theme of paradise lost that resonates throughout world mythology. It may be why children, especially, are drawn to stories about magical kingdoms and happy endings. It may also be why some people become sad, even tearful, at the sight of a beautiful sunset or a scenic vista.
And it may help explain our urge to lose ourselves in a wondrous world of color and light, where nothing bad can happen to us no matter what adventures we embark on. For over a century, movies and television have exerted a hypnotic influence on millions of people (there's a reason Hollywood has been styled the Dream Factory); more recently, the entertainment experience has become interactive in the form of increasingly realistic first-person video games; and now VR is poised to take us to a whole new level of immersion in an unreal reality.
Some fans of the movie Avatar claimed to actually find it difficult to readjust to the real world after being immersed in the 3D (and sometimes Imax) world of Pandora. They said they felt sad and lost in mundane reality, and longed to return to the more colorful and exotic environment of the movie. Since Avatar arguably represents the highest technical and artistic level of 3D/CG imagery yet achieved, it's not too surprising that some people would get hooked on it. But VR technology will give us a vastly more immersive experience, one that makes even Avatar seem primitive by comparison. I will not be at all surprised if VR addiction (with its corollary: difficulty functioning in physical reality) becomes a leading issue in the next decade.
Imagine a fully immersive VR experience that is shared with thousands of other people via an online platform. Players interact with each other via avatars in a completely convincing 3D world. The environment has been meticulously designed to offer otherworldly beauty, dazzling variety, and total realism. The disagreeable features of real life are omitted, while the enjoyable aspects are abundantly available with no downside. In this world you can explore, study, party, fall in love, or just sit quietly on the bank of a babbling brook.
It sounds a lot like Summerland — the "heaven" that we may indistinctly remember. Maybe we are exerting our efforts as a society toward recreating that lost paradise so we can escape the travails of physical life and return to the place we came from.
But as Ian also observed in his Facebook post, Summerland is understood by Spiritualists to be a temporary place of rest and recuperation, a way station that prepares us for further challenges — either on higher planes or in a new earthly incarnation. If we should find a way to escape those challenges, are we missing out on the lessons that earthly life is intended to teach? Are we playing hooky when we should be in school, or going AWOL when we're meant to be in combat?
Or will VR serve, instead, to heighten our spiritual sense by reinforcing the idea that physical life is simply another drama played out for the ebenfit of consciousness — a "cosmic game," as Stanislav Grof described it? Will VR allows us to undergo shamanic vision quests without the need for ayahuasca, DMT, or peyote? Will it enable us to live a variety of alternate lives and have even more experiences (with concomitant opportunities for learning) than we can have now?
Perhaps the outcome will be mixed. Historical VR worlds may open us up to past-life memories, but also plant false memories of past lives. VR encounters with deceased loved ones may make some of us more accepting of a postmortem existence, while leading others to conclude that an afterlife is unnecessary. The convergence of physical and virtual reality may be liberating to some people and destabilizing to others.
I don't know. But I suspect that VR will be the next frontier in the expansion of consciousness and that it will take us in wildly unexpected directions. It may even take us home.