Take the human mind’s imagination and stretch it to its farthest limits. Write a computer program to breathe life into the conceived idea. Hook up the whole contraption to the latest cutting edge technological equipment and the end result is guaranteed to overload our perception of reality, the reality as we know it. Yes, folks, virtual reality is taking our society by storm, invading almost every aspect of our lives. With some special equipment such as helmets and gloves, the average person can immerse himself in a virtual world where he can travel to Africa or learn how to drive.
Due to the great leaps made in today’s technological arena, nothing is impossible with virtual reality; it is only limited to the imagination of a person. All the hype and excitement about virtual reality rests upon its multiple and flexible applications. The medical field, the industrial world, and even educational systems can utilize this technology and produce efficient products and satisfactory results. But within the computer and technology-crazed world, virtual reality proves to be a major player in cutting down human interaction and contributing to this “impersonal world.
With the loss of human interaction, human morals and ideals get lost within the jungle of fiber optics and cyberspace. Although virtual reality offers our society many advantages in the areas of medicine, industry, education, and sexuality, the shortcomings of the technology limit its success; more importantly, the technology itself has a detrimental effect on human interaction and human morals. In today’s quest to find the easiest and most efficient way to execute procedures and train doctors, virtual reality has surfaced as one of the medical field’s most popular mediums.
Exploding into the medical arena this past year, revolutionary software, Immersive Workbench, allows a doctor to virtually enter a patient’s body. The doctor wears special gloves and shutter glasses to interact with the patient “virtually” through images generated by cat scans, magnetic resonance imagery, and ultrasound (Hodges 17). This technology allows the doctor to plan the best possible way to execute the medical procedure for the patient. Using virtual reality, the doctor can practice the procedures until he or she is confident enough to actually perform the procedure (18).
Due to this feature, the software is making its way into medical schools to train soon-to-be-doctors. Immersive Workbench is a stand-alone software where an instructor is not required to be present in the training and simulations (19). Virtual reality allows doctors to have hands-on experience without actually performing the medical procedures. This cuts down on expenses and reduces the time of training. The doctor also gains from virtual reality practice through lowering the stress levels and reducing tense situations because the doctor can have all the practice he or she requires without a life-threatening situation.
Like all good things in life, there is, however, a hefty price tag that society must pay for this technology. With virtual reality taking over as “teachers” in the medical schools, instructors and seasoned doctors become obsolete. This “lack of instructor-to-student contact is detrimental to our society” (Grantham and Vaske 82). However, by practicing through simulations alone, the doctor does not learn the essential social skills, for example bedside manners, required in the medical field.
Along with social skills, doctors miss out on hearing advice and experiences from seasoned doctors because “conversations between humans go beyond the task of giving and receiving information; they also involve socials goals of making an impression and influencing others” (Grantham and Vaske 84). If there is a human being teaching the course instead of virtual reality on its own, the doctors and professors would be able to learn from each other’s input. Also, virtual reality simulations lack the nonverbal behaviors such as a smile or a head nod from the professor.
The absence of these cues in the teacherless environment restricts the ability to achieve the same level of understanding between the student and instructor (86). In the simulated environment, the student is not able to ask questions or to clarify instructions or techniques. The lack of human interaction within the virtual reality training limits a doctor’s understanding of the whole medical procedure when applied to humans, for human beings react in ways that a computer can not simulate (86).
The “people skills” that doctors possess aid in reassuring their patients, but without social skills, doctors do not know how to act with patients, which leads patients to become uncomfortable and anxious about their medical situation (Granthan 83). In addition to the medical field, the potential of virtual reality has not entered our society without catching the eyes of the educational system. In this area, virtual reality is used for a basic function: innovative teaching. In pilot programs across America, virtual reality in the classrooms strives to “promote human creativity and [to] decentralize power” (Zhai 124).
The educational system, includes a type of hierarchy of power: the teachers are at the top, then comes the favorite students, and finally at the bottom, the average students trying to get by. Since few teachers are trained in the use of virtual reality, many find themselves learning alongside the students, and this results in the breakdown of the power structure which benefits the students because now their education becomes “student-centered learning” (Shroeder 76). Students can explore their interests and creativity using the technology. Mathematics and sciences become visual and almost tangible lessons.
Unfortunately, these benefits are not likely to reach a typical high school in a typical town any time soon. One of the downfalls of the virtual reality technology is the price tag that comes attached with it. The price of implementing virtual reality in one classroom can easily reach up to one million dollars or more (Derra 46). In today’s society, funding to improve schools, let alone install the latest technology in every classroom is hard to obtain. Due to its efficiency and technological appeal, virtual reality has also become a hot ticket in the industrial world.
Where the educational system lacks the funding to utilize virtual reality, the industrial world does not think twice about allocating money into the research and implementation of the technology. General Motors and Ford Motor Company funnel money into research along the lines of product prototypes to view their products before a scrap of machinery has been moved. Today, virtual simulations have been integrated into mainstream industry in the areas of product design and development, sales and marketing, and manufacturing and training (Ravenhill 65).
One of the front runners advocating the use of the technology is the automobile industry. Ford and General Motors utilize this technology to aid in the design, the engineering, and the production of cars. Before a car is produced, Ford has to hire engineers to design the cars and technicians to test the cars for safety. Here, virtual reality lends a helping hand. Using virtual reality to test car designs for safety cuts down on the costs and time to design a car (Johnson 32).
Once the car is designed, the issue of marketing and sales ventures into virtual reality’s realm as well. The automobile industry utilizes virtual reality in the form of 3-D visualization to “convince sponsors and business executives the worth of the product” (Johnson 32). After the design is given the green light, the manufacturing of the car is required. In the automobile industry, machine operators go through training that lasts from nine months to five years. The operating jobs in the factory are performed in a high risk and high stress environment.
Through the use of the virtual technology known as Interactive Product Simulation (IPS), Ford Motor Company trains their operators in a “safer environment with more comprehensive trainingwithout decreasing plant production and quality” (Ravenhill 65). The advantages of using virtual reality training can be seen in the reduction of the error rates of the operators from twenty-five percent with traditional training to two percent using IPS. Virtual training allows trainees to be taught the same way each time without the fear factor involved to intimidate the employees (Greengard 32).
The absence of fear in the job training of an employee results in more confident and competent workers. The virtual training environment provides an effective and practical solution to industrial challenges while cutting down time and costs of productions. Also, unlike in the educational system, money is not the issue that sets the technology back. Although training using virtual reality has proven to be an advantage to the industrial companies, virtual training is not sufficient enough in respects to “it lack[ing] the elements of touch to make it effective in industrial training” (Ravenhill 66).
The IPS recreates the environment in the factory splendidly, but its shortcoming is the awkwardness of the equipment. The trainee is trained to know what to do, but he or she does not gain the “feel” for the machinery. Jeff Grimes, a Ford manufacturing development engineer, claims that the virtual training environment still needs to provide the feel of the real situation (qtd. in Ravenhill 65). Another problem with training using the IPS is the fact that the trainees do not benefit from learning from experienced operators.
As in medical training, the lack of communication with seasoned operators harms the trainee to some extent. A veteran can provide the trainee with advice when something goes wrong; he or she can demonstrate what to do. Whereas, with the IPS training, the trainee learns without this expertise (66). The limitations of virtual reality are also attributed to the lack of a standard interface. In essence, “too many people are reinventing the wheel” (Derra 49). Developers implement different methods of interacting within the virtual reality environment.
With the many different approaches to solving the same problem, streamlining the technology into one standard method is quite difficult. Virtual reality is not limited to industrial and technological applications; it could also make an impact on human morals and virtues, especially in the areas regarding sex and communication. Cybersex is a phenomena that is increasing among Internet users. Virtual reality technology dresses up cybersex; in fact, it brings cybersex to a whole new level.
Although there is no actual virtual reality cybersex protocol as of today, extensive research has already begun to investigate possible hardware and methods to bring cybersex into virtual reality. According to Philip Zhai, a professor of philosophy at Muhelnberg College with an engineering degree, virtual sex could be enacted by having a “combination of a manmade apparatus with an interactive virtual reality process to allow two people to finish the physiological process on the actual level and be sensually and emotionally fulfilled on the virtual level” (44).
In Zhai’s scenario, two people thousands of miles away from each other can meet in a virtual world, consent to have intercourse, and actually go through the process of intercourse using female-like and male-like apparatuses that contain microsensors to input data (44). Of course, the whole objective to cybersex is to have the intercourse in “real time”“. Research in biotechnology indicate that microsensors gathering data can create an almost seamless transfer of information to make real time virtual sex a possibility (Maxwell 30).
Supporters of virtual sex claim that the availability of virtual sex will “eliminate prostitution and will allow safe sex” (31). With virtual sex, human interaction would not be necessary; thus, the threat of sexually transmitted disease will decline dramatically. The appearance of virtual sex will “open [a] new frankness in society about sexual matters” where “physicians would be less conservative about sex” (29). Due to the impersonal nature of virtual sex, instructions in sex and sexual problems and their treatment will be addressed more openly.
This area of virtual sex brings two opposing moral ideas to clash: the traditional and the liberal. The openness about a “taboo” topic violates the conservist views of keeping sexual matters personal, but with virtual sex, intercourse becomes impersonal-again modeling the problems encountered in both the medical and industrial applications. Returning to Zhai’s scenario of virtual sex, he speculates that procreation via virtual reality would be possible. This seemingly impossible task can be achieved by the real time dynamic process of virtual sex and the physical hardware apparatus used in correlation with the virtual software.
The sperm can be packaged, put on ice, and sent to the woman. The woman then places the sperm into the male-like apparatus and can be impregnated the next time intercourse is performed (Zhai 46). Assuming that procreation is possible in virtual sex, all sorts of human morals and ethics would be violated in similar ways as the issues of surrogate mothers or sperm banks. Conceiving a child “virtually” without a partner brings an impersonal light upon the issues of relationships and marriage, adding further chaos in a topic that is already surrounded by controversy.
With no moral or ethical obligations, “for the crowd, sex will be out of context of a relationship and in the context of meeting needs and using people” (McRary M1). The more impersonal the world gets, the more moral values and ideals decline. Virtual sex does not have to follow Zhai’s projection for it to be detrimental to human interaction and morals. The outrage and confusion that virtual sex would inevitably generate further reinforces virtual reality’s many flaws. In everyday life, we face discrimination of some sort; whether it be race discrimination, or social status discrimination, the world as we know it enables others to judge us.
In virtual reality, according to Jaron Lanier, who all refer to as the Father of Virtual Reality, “Virtual reality is the ultimate lack of class or race distinctions or any other forms of pretense since all form is variable” (email to the author 5 April 1999). Virtual reality transcends cultural barriers, international lines, and gender differences; it breaks down discrimination due to its impersonal nature. To Lanier, “if the technology has a tendency to increase human communication, human sharing, then I think it’s a good one overall” (email to the author 5 April 1999).
Virtual reality allows the users to meet in a virtual world where forms and appearance do not matter as much. More importantly, virtual reality can effect human interaction in a negative way. The technology rests solely on computer-simulated images and computer codes to dictate the outcomes. In actuality, we have moved into an era where we are more machine dependent. Human interaction becomes less and less frequent once virtual reality applications become readily available (Reynolds 121).
Virtual reality carries with it all the promises of quicker and less expensive meetings, conferences, and get-togethers because of its networking capabilities. For this very reason, people will find themselves immersed in virtual reality without any actual human contact and as “we become more machine dependent, we’re going to struggle with loving things” (McRary M1). The loss of human contact brings with it an impersonal world where relationships and socializing could potentially dwindle to the point of near extinction.
The applications and potential for virtual reality are endless. It is a “world without limitation, a world unlimited as dreams,” it is a “technology that uses computerized clothing to synthesize shared reality” (Lanier). Virtual reality has taken the medical world and industrial scene by storm; offering the technology to make the impossible possible, the hard to become easy. But despite all the many pros of the technology, “the cons are more detrimental to society” (Reynolds 121). In implementing virtual reality into our society, extreme caution should be considered.
The benefits of virtual reality can be reaped without stripping our world of its morals and ideals. It is true that virtual reality, with all its advantages and disadvantages, has put a new look into our society. The devaluation of human interaction due to the heavy onslaught of technological advances and the possible threat of virtual reality have made us aware of the potential dangers of living in a too high tech of a world. Once virtual reality enters our lifestyles, and once we take a look at the virtual world, we have gone past the point of no return.