It’s midnight in Times Square, and I can’t believe I’m here. Well, I do believe it. Taxis and black cars whiz by, dodging pedestrians.
My pulse races as I merge into the nightlife of this city I love. Even though I’m due at my Yale lab in 30 minutes, I feel a kind of subversive relief amid the late-night revelers as they shuffle past, some holding hands, others clutching shopping bags from luxury stores. The flashes of tourists’ cameras blur into neon advertisements illuminating the block.
Suddenly, I’m jolted by a pedestrian’s iPhone ring. But that’s impossible: this virtual reality (VR) is designed to be soundless. I take off my headset.
Back at Yale’s Center for Collaborative Arts and Media, known as the CCAM, Justin Berry scrambles to switch off an alarm on his phone.
It’s a Saturday in late July, and Berry, a critic at the Yale School of Art, has nonetheless come into the office to talk with me about his work on VR and his pet project, the Blended Reality Collective. Launched at Yale during the summer of 2016 with a grant from software company Hewlett- Packard (HP), this project aims to facilitate students’ explorations of immersive technology. This includes both augmented reality (AR), which digitally alters or enhances the real world—like Pokémon Go; and VR, a computer-generated auditory and visual experience—like mine in Times Square—that makes a user feel present in an environment other than his or her actual one. Although we experience VR through an electronic headset, our bodies respond as if the simulations are real. In stressful ones, our hearts race. We feel afraid. Our brains can’t tell the difference.
Members of Blended Reality consider Berry among immersive technology royalty. But when I sat with him in his office at the CCAM, I was relieved to find he wasn’t godly or intimidating. He wore a black baseball cap that he flipped backwards when putting on a VR headset. He had just stepped off a plane but didn’t seem jet-lagged; throughout our interview, he jumped to his feet to act out a point or shifted into a theatrical voice to emphasize an idea.
Although it’s his second year leading Blended Reality, Berry doesn’t have a background in coding. “My master’s is actually in painting— that’s how non-technical it goes,” he laughed. As we talked about his work at the intersection of art and technology, I commented on the beautiful photograph of a waterfall hanging on his wall, and he informed me that it was a still he’d taken from the background of a war game. “One of the things I’m really interested in is: what does it mean to look at something the way you aren’t supposed to look at it? What do you see when you look at a virtual world the same way you look at the real world—with the same critical lens?”
When I asked Berry for a tour of the facilities, I didn’t expect to end up in Times Square. The spell of my disembodied experience in New York quickly subsided, though, and I wasn’t too disappointed to be brought back to reality. The wood-paneled, recently-remodeled CCAM is stacked with a large motion capture studio, VR suites that anyone can reserve, and cubbies with cameras and headsets spilling out of them.
Although we experience VR through an electronic headset, our bodies respond as if the simulations are real. In stressful ones, our hearts race. We feel afraid. Our brains can’t tell the difference.
Any Yale student can walk into Berry’s office at the CCAM and use this technology to make projects, like nursing school student Travis McCann’s medical training simulation or junior Noah Shapiro’s fantastical zoo—home to dancing bears and flying horses. Undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty, from fields as diverse as Nursing and Near Eastern Studies, have participated since the collective’s beginning. Teams receive an HP laptop, attend sporadic meetings and workshops, and present at two campus-wide showcases throughout the year. Groups also travel to HP’s headquarters in Palo Alto to present their creations.
This level of undergraduate involvement is unprecedented. For example, at Stanford, the premier VR developer, experts work on the technology behind closed doors. VR equipment rarely touches student hands.
Yet, for all its democratic aspirations, Berry’s collective remains a relatively untapped resource here at Yale. Berry hopes more students will walk in, pitch projects, and join the program. His mission is to popularize immersive media technology like VR and to move it beyond geeks and gamers. Shapiro, the director of the Blended Reality collective’s undergraduate contingent, known as Yale Students in Immersive Media, first heard about the CCAM and its open doors when a close friend recommended that he check out the space last year.
“I’m one of the luckiest people,” Shapiro gushed. “Like I think anyone else would, I just fell in love with it. It’s one of the coolest things.” The excitement in his voice made me feel as if he was letting me in on one of Yale’s biggest secrets.
The merit of VR is clear: it enables responsible users to see perspectives that would otherwise be inaccessible to them. The technology was famously called “the empathy machine” in a TED Talk by artist Chris Milk. In other words, even digitally-inspired human emotions and sensations affect the real world.
A VR experience on the Syrian refugee crisis, “Clouds Over Sidra,” helped accrue over a billion dollars in donations to the cause. After a pro-life lawmaker experienced Planned Parenthood’s VR simulation “Across the Line,” which simulates wading through a raucous crowd of anti-abortion activists outside an abortion clinic, he expressed anger over the struggles of women attempting to visit the reproductive health care provider in hostile territory. Following her immersion in a virtual solitary confinement experience, CNN producer Cathy Hackl said the “humanity switch” in her was flipped on. “I felt like I was actually walking in someone else’s shoes,” she said in a recent article by the online publication Narratively.
But if VR ends up in the wrong hands, it can be exploited to a harmful end. A violent VR experience can cause real trauma in the user, studies show. Technological philosophers Michael Madary and Thomas K. Metzinger wrote in a 2016 paper in Robotics and A.I. journal, “Torture in a virtual environment is still torture. The fact that one’s suffering occurs while one is immersed in a virtual environment does not mitigate the suffering itself.” VR impacts one’s psychology and behavior, and its effects can be felt even after the goggles are off.
Critics of VR worry, too, about how this immersive technology will transform our understanding of what is “real” and change our relationship with the world around us. If someone uses VR long enough, can it replace real life? This idea was recently tested in an experiment described by Jeremy Bailenson, the founding director of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, in his book Experience on Demand. Bailenson writes of how a German psychologist conducted a study on himself in which he spent a full day and night in a virtual reality experience. Over the course of those twenty-four hours, he began to confuse the virtual reality experience for his actual reality.
Even so, Bailenson is not deeply concerned that computer-generated experiences will replace reality. He writes, “The most amazing moment in VR is the moment when you take the [head- mounted display] off and are flooded with the full gamut of subtle sensory inputs that VR can’t capture—fine gradations of light, smells, the sensation of air moving on your skin…These are all sensations that are incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to effectively simulate in a virtual world. In a strange way, VR helps you to appreciate the real world more.”
Still, many critics worry about the long-term social, mental, and physical effects of futuristic and dizzying head-trips to the Great Wall of China or the moons of Mars. In December 2017, the first VR-related death occurred. In Russia, a user was so immersed in VR that he forgot the physical layout of his room, fell through a glass table, and bled to death, according to Balienson’s research.
If someone uses VR long enough, can it replace real life?
“There is no doubt that the concerns are real— distraction, addiction, simulator sickness, privacy concerns, and unethical use cases,” Bailenson told me. The key, though, is “to be transparent about these concerns now, and to design VR platforms, hardware, and policy norms to ensure the medium thrives while minimizing the downsides.”
When I put on the headset at CCAM, the white- walled computer classroom transformed into New York City’s bright and colorful midnight in Times Square. I am not surprised that VR users say they become so immersed in the experience they forget their body remains in the physical world.
VR’s immense and still evolving power, many experts warn, demands that users and creators wield the technology carefully.
The creation of socially responsible VR content depends on who rules the virtual realm. This fundamental concern, says Berry, is at the root of his collective’s philosophy. Tech companies such as Facebook and Google are racing to develop the virtual field and reap its financial rewards, perhaps leaving social and ethical obligations behind.
“If we leave it up to industry, no one cares,” Berry said. “I think the goal is to get the people that care about this stuff to ask difficult questions, to consider it a moral issue, a social issue, a cultural issue.”
While acknowledging the ambiguous ethical questions of virtual reality—and its potential dangers—Berry defended his lab’s democratic approach. He said the collective creates a low-stakes environment for experimentation with emerging media and opens the otherwise exclusive field of blended reality to a diversity of perspectives.
“The most powerful piece of technology we actually have is just our open doors,” he added, letting out a burst of laughter as he scanned the lab’s expensive, state-of-the-art equipment.
A blended reality utopia? Perhaps. It remains to be seen whether this technology has the power to withstand the worst of us. Meanwhile, I’m open to immersing myself in our collective imagination.