Unless you’re living under a rock, you’ve witnessed first-hand the infatuation the world has had with virtual reality headset Oculus Rift since it was officially released in March. The first round of pre-orders sold out immediately and now the estimated ship date if you order one today is August. That’s three months from now.
Amidst all the speculation and critiques, I wanted to get to the heart of what Oculus Rift – and virtual reality as a whole – is really all about by running it through media theory legend Marshall McLuhan’s tetrad of media effects. You may be surprised – and even a little disturbed – by what I discovered.
McLuhan theorized that any kind of “media” – whether that be a smart phone, a tire gauge, an iPad, or a pen – can be examined by asking four simple questions:
What does it enhance? McLuhan’s theory says that every form of technology amplifies or intensifies a sense or capability. The cell phone enhances connectivity between people who are far apart. Social media intensifies our sense of community. In the same vein, Oculus Rift enhances our ability to experience situations. We can be transported to places we’ve never physically been to before, and even places that don’t actually exist, by simply placing an Oculus Rift headset over our eyes.
What does it retrieve? The second question in the tetrad asks what the Oculus Rift recovers that was previously lost. By allowing us to experience places we’ve never physically been to before – from running with dinosaurs to floating in space as an astronaut – Oculus Rift retrieves the ancient practice of storytelling. Sitting around the fire and being transported to a world you’ve never experienced via word of mouth. Only with Oculus Rift, the world you’ve never experienced is brought to you through sight, all around you.
What does it obsolesce? According to McLuhan, every form of technology drives out or makes obsolete another kind of technology. Makes sense, right? As soon as you get a new iPhone, a newer version is released. So just as cell phones all but wiped out landlines, Oculus Rift could obsolesce the everyday screens we see today – in movie theaters, on our TVs, and so on. Why watch something happen in front of you when you can be completely immersed in it?
What does it reverse? This is where things get interesting. McLuhan argues that when pushed to its limit, every form of technology actually does the opposite of what it was meant to achieve. Think of all the people you see standing in line at the deli with their noses in their phones rather than striking up conversation. Cell phones were meant to connect people but in reality, we’re more isolated than ever. In the same vein, Oculus Rift could turn against what it was meant to do, the very reason it was created.
We determined earlier that Oculus is meant to enhance our experiences. But when pushed to its limits, it could actually do the opposite of that, just as all technology does according to McLuhan. Having our experiences live in a headset, accessible at all times, Oculus Rift could in turn stifle our ability to experience things in real life. It could instead isolate us from the experiences right in front of us. How can we truly experience reality when we have effortless access to the much more exciting world of virtual reality?
If you’ve seen the movie Inception, this may sound eerily familiar to you. Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Dominic Cobb, was so deeply embedded in the dream world that he was completely detached from reality. I won’t spoil the movie but you never really know when his character is present in the real world or deep in a dream. It may sound dramatic but virtual reality does in fact have the potential to do the same and distort one’s sense of reality. If you spend too much time in virtual reality, those experiences Oculus was meant to enhance are now diminished. Or at least cheapened. Since Oculus experiences are created to be exciting and captivating, how will our ordinary (aka boring) everyday lives be challenged by the reality we could obtain in our goggles?
Ironically, the term “mindfulness” is suddenly popping up everywhere – it’s referenced in fitness, it’s being used to combat depression, and is often referred to as the next big trend in office culture. Psychology Today defines mindfulness as “a state of active, open attention on the present.” The theory is that when you focus on being mindful, you are able to actively live in the moment.
If McLuhan’s theory is accurate and a mass scale adoption of VR will ultimately put us at odds with the reality right in front of us, the mindfulness trend – and the industry built around it – could be in serious jeopardy. Or is Oculus the one in jeopardy?
While it’s true that there’s no telling where virtual reality will go next, McLuhan’s tetrad theory certainly gets us a little bit closer to predicting it. And maybe, just maybe, if we can get ahead of the reversal and are aware of its potentially destructive consequences, we can do everything in our power to keep a tight grasp on reality.
Brace for impact.