The See Change: How Virtual Reality is Blurring Realism

Huge advances in virtual reality are challenging the nature of experience.


| Summer 2016



virtual reality

Virtual reality — VR, to the initiated — is so realistic, so immersive, that it feels something like an actual experience.

Photo by maurizio PEsCE / www.fliCkr.Com/Photos/PEstovErdE

If there’s any comfort in the death drop gaping at my feet, it’s in the reminder that I’m just the latest in a long line of people to stifle a whimper in Jeremy Bailenson’s lab.

For years, Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab — where Bailenson is founding director — has initiated visitors from around the world into the power of virtual reality, often with the simple task now before me: walking across a rickety plank spanning a 30-foot-deep pit.

Of course, there is no plank, and there is no pit. The scene is a digital mirage delivered by a high-tech stereoscopic headset. But those facts don’t seem to mean much to the large, primordial part of my brain that can’t quite disbelieve what my eyes are telling it.

Eventually, I heed the quieter voice of reason and shuffle forward — which is more than many in this position manage to do — but my relief at putting the ordeal behind me only reinforces Bailenson’s point. Virtual reality — VR, to the initiated — is so realistic, so immersive, that it feels something like an actual experience. “We like to say the brain isn’t evolved yet to know that a virtual experience is not real,” says Bailenson, a professor in the communication department whose doctorate is in cognitive psychology and who has been studying VR’s effects for two decades.

A few years ago such an assertion would have meant little outside a small circle of academics: VR was a futuristic notion rarely seen except in labs and large institutions. But that’s all set to change in 2016. 

Fueled by the march of Moore’s law, advances borrowed from the smartphone industry and vast investment, a bevy of competing high-end consumer headsets will begin landing in living rooms — along with a new universe of content.