Now that lockdown regulations have been relaxed in many countries, and life is slowly starting to resemble some form of “normalcy” (whatever that is — we don’t really know anymore), we, as a collective, are carefully coming up for air, taking our goggles off, and surveying our surroundings. COVID has impacted just about every sphere of life, whether economic, social, educational, health — you name it. Our world, as we know it, has changed. To what extent, we don’t know yet.
Arguably the most salient impact COVID has had, globally, is a rethinking of how we choose to organise ourselves as a society. Social-distancing measures throughout the world have forced people to conduct much of their lives remotely. Whereas there were about 10 million users who participated in daily Zoom meetings in December 2019, this number shot up to 300 million a day by March 2020. Just a few months ago, many of us struggled to find the Zoom mute function, or answered a colleague’s question in great detail, only to realise nobody had heard a word. Now we are Zoom pros who don exciting virtual backgrounds and boast immaculate online etiquette. It’s amazing how quickly the new becomes the norm.
So, will remote communication become the norm? Although it’s early days and the dust is still settling, it’s very clear that things will not go back to the way they were. While some, or even most workers may return to a physical office space, many will continue to work remotely — and this number will steadily increase. Apart from the fact that remote workers cost companies much less in overheads, many employees prefer working from the comforts of their homes. Who doesn’t like to attend a meeting in their pyjamas while drinking coffee (or beer) from their favourite mug? There are, of course, also drawbacks to remote work, such as missing the office banter. This is where virtual reality comes in.
Because much or our lives is set to increasingly take place within a digital environment, developments in the 3D space are enjoying renewed attention. What COVID has made abundantly clear, is that our surroundings have a strong effect on our emotional well-being. 3D technology, which is used to create virtual-reality spaces, allows for the simulation of digital work environments that are conducive to productivity and worker satisfaction. Imagine being able to work in a green forest that features tropical birds, a massive waterfall, and Bambi chasing a butterfly in the background. Although this may sound far-fetched, such virtual workspaces may not be that far away.
The company VirBela, for instance, has been offering game-like virtual workspaces for some time now. They provide several kinds of virtual environments where users can interact with one another, such as virtual team suites, campuses, and meeting spaces. Their developers are currently working on exciting innovations, including avatars that mimic the facial expressions of users.
Another exciting innovation is Argodesign’s artificial window concept, called the Square. Although only in the concept stage, the Square is based on existing technology, so it’s entirely viable. It’s basically a large LCD screen with a retractable shade, which will be mounted on a wall next to your desk. When the shade is lifted, a simulation of a real work environment will make it seem like you’re working next to a colleague or two. You’ll be able to chat, exchange ideas, and hold meetings, just like you did in the good old days of real offices.
Research in the field of immersive technologies has shown that the human brain doesn’t know how to discriminate between “real” reality and virtual reality. This has far-reaching implications. As virtual reality enables us to create synthetic environments that evoke certain physiological and emotional responses, this technology could potentially be used alongside more traditional methods to treat a range of disorders, including anxiety, depression, phobias, strokes, and much more.
The fact that the brain cannot distinguish between “real” reality and virtual reality, however, may have a plausible explanation: perhaps we already do, and always have lived in a virtual reality. The Hindu belief system, for instance, espouses that the realm of the senses and the material is nothing but an illusion — a veil, as such, that covers the truly real and the ground of all existence, called Brahman.
Over the aeons, philosophers, academics, and scientists have been pondering and debating the nature of “reality.” Plato, for instance, believed in an underlying, objective reality. He argued that our physical realm is a mere shadow, an imperfect imitation of the true reality, which he called the Realm of Forms. On the other hand, the school of thought labelled as Subjectivism — which has its roots in the philosophy of Descartes — is founded on the notion that reality is dependent on, and necessarily delimited by, subjective consciousness.
In his work “Mental Modes,” published in 1983, psychologist Philip Johnson-Laird states that what we call “reality” is actually just a mental model, or a representation of the world, rather than the world itself. This is reminiscent of the ground-breaking philosophical ideas of Jean Baudrillard in his work, “Simulacra and Simulation.” According to him “there is no real: the third dimension is only the imaginary of a two-dimensional world, the fourth that of a three-dimensional universe,” and so forth.
Recent research in the virtual-reality space supports and expands on Johnson-Laird’s ideas regarding mental models. During his research, Swiss neuroscientist, Olaf Blanke, was able to induce out-of-body experiences in fully awake subjects by applying electrical currents to a particular area of the brain. Stimulating one area of the brain, for instance, caused an experience in a patient of floating upwards and looking down on their own body. When the current was applied to another area, a patient would see a doppelgänger standing across the room. What Blanke’s work demonstrates is that we don’t only create models of the external world, but also models of our own bodies, minds, and selves.
By using a virtual-reality system that facilitated out-of-body experiences, Blanke, together with philosopher Thomas Metzinger, was able to show how easily the self-model can be manipulated. During an experiment that took place in 2005, for instance, Metzinger put on a virtual-reality, head-mounted display and entered a virtual space in which he saw his own body standing across from him in a room. While watching one of the team’s scientists stroking the back of his doppelgänger, he was shocked to feel the sensation of stroking on his own body. These experiments led to a new area of research in the virtual-reality field, namely virtual embodiment.
Along with two other virtual-reality researchers, Blanke and Metzinger started a virtual-embodiment project called Virtual Embodiment and Robotic Re-Embodiment. During this project, they were able to successfully manipulate the body-models of subjects to the extent that they thought the bodies they possessed in virtual-reality environments were actually their own. Virtual embodiment works through tracking hardware that allows the virtual body to accurately mirror the movements of a real body. Through this simulation, the brain is tricked into thinking that the virtual body is its own.
As is the case with virtual-reality environments, virtual embodiment has the potential to completely change our lives. Inhabiting a virtual body, for instance, can cause positive psychological shifts. In a study where white participants spent time in the bodies of virtual black subjects, they demonstrated an unconscious, yet significant shift in their racial bias by the end of the experiment.
In Amitav Ghosh’s “The Calcutta Chromosome,” the author envisions a not-so-distant futuristic world in which the malarial parasite, and later on technology, are used to affect interpersonal transfer; this is, where a person is able to inhabit a body other than their own. As this “counter-science” is developed by marginalised subjects that are ultimately empowered in a new reality where subjectivity and hierarchy lose all meaning, the malarial parasite, in this context, becomes a benevolent agent. Just like malaria, COVID has not discriminated between race or class, and has, in this way, levelled the playing field. Let’s hope that the technological advancements that may follow in this pandemic’s wake will engender better and kinder realities than those we have been able to construct for ourselves up to now.